11 sumptuous seasonal Detroit dishes

Warming up with the area's most comforting dishes for fall and winter

What do we mean when we say "seasonal dining"? Well, this time of year, it means instead of leaner cuts of meat grilled for an instant, we can dig into heartier, fattier cuts that are cooked long and slow. We trade the lighter breasts of chicken for a crackling cut of duck. And not only do we anticipate fall menus, but our mouths begin to water for seasonal beers, including spiced pumpkin ales and other liquid delights.

But it's not just for beer drinkers and meat eaters: Research suggests that even vegans can benefit from switching things up in the colder months, cooking their veggies and wilting their salads to avoid straining the digestive system. These dishes also use produce that is at its peak in the cooler months, ensuring that the ingredients are fresh and, since they're in tune with Michigan's seasons, local.

With all this in mind, we put together a list of places that pay attention to what time of year it is, and some of the signature dishes they serve, with tips and recipes so you can keep your kitchen in tune with the changing seasons.

Rock City Eatery

11411 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck


In a town where a steady diet of pierogis, shawarmas, and curries is the norm, Rock City is the first in Hamtramck to roll out a fresh menu with each season's change. The lettuces, peas, and asparagus parts of owner Nikita Sanches's summer dishes give way in fall to heartier root veggies, squash, and fennel. As Sanches eloquently puts it: "The shit you have in the summer isn't going to be there in the winter because it's cold. Staying somewhat seasonal helps with serving fresher ingredients, which just taste better. It's kind of cool to taste something fresh — what it's supposed to taste like."

Heartier meats like short rib appear on the new menu, and as autumn is canning season and Sanches is among Hamtramck's top picklers, he offers the dish with pickled carrots, celery, and cucumber. Rotating into the season's specials is the "Stir-Fried Pumpkin," in which Sanches swaps out pumpkin's usual sugary and sweet accompaniments for savory spices. Sizzling it in a wok with sesame oil, powdered Chinese five-spice (cinnamon, clove, star anise, fennel, and peppercorns) prevents the pumpkin from turning to total mush while "still keeping that holiday flavor." Says Sanches of the flip: "It's fun to use things normally not used in a savory way, and vice-versa in a sweet way. I feel like fall is kind of the time to do that."


Rock City Eatery's

Stir-Fried Pumpkin

2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon crushed peppercorns

2 cups diced pumpkin

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon cooking oil

3/4 cup water

1/4 cup Chinese vinegar

Heat up the wok on high heat. Add oil and garlic and pepper.

Stir fry until garlic starts to brown. Add the squash. Stir to coat the pumpkin with the garlic and pepper mixture. Add water and stir. It should take about five minutes or so for the water to reduce and pumpkin to cook.

If you are using delicata, it will cook in no time, so add less water. But if you still find the squash hard, add more water.

Add fish sauce and sugar while there is still water in the wok. The seasoning will penetrate the pumpkin to give a consistent flavor throughout the pieces. It should be a little bit mushy when done.

Café Ollie

42 E. Cross St., Ypsilanti


Ypsilanti's Depot Town continues to attract more visitors each summer with its dozens of festivals, and Café Ollie is a beloved local spot for a double scoop, Boston coolers, and light sandwiches. But when Ollie co-owner Danielle Teachout took over the café several years ago, she noticed it needed something more to pull in customers as the festival action died and the leaves began to turn. Among the limited selection of entrées that continued moving was her mac and cheese, which is arguably the quintessential fall comfort food.

"Fall and winter tends to be a slower season, and the mac and cheese is our best dish and the perfect comfort food for the colder months," Teachout says. "So we took a basic mac and chees and created a whole menu. It took off, and now we're known for it."

She expanded the mac-and-cheese menu, and not just by a little bit. Ollie now offers 16 varieties. Gearing up for a long day on the way to work? Try the breakfast mac and cheese, topped with roasted peppers and two fried eggs. But the menu's star is the "Nacho Mama," made with a cheese sauce that includes cheddar, American, Parmesan, Asiago, and Romano. Mixed in with the noodles are taco-seasoned ground beef and chopped-up tomatoes, and the bowl is topped with crushed tortilla chips, lettuce, sour cream, and, of course, more cheddar.

Other options include "Yardbirds on Fire," topped with buffalo chicken and blue cheese, or the "Iggy Pop," topped with hot dog bits and Parmesan. Teachout explains that no matter what the mac and cheese includes, the secret lies in the base. "That's your main ingredient," she says. "As long as you have a good cheese sauce, everything that you have with it is going to be good. It gives it the texture and some complexity and depth — there's not just one base of cheese."


Café Ollie's

Vegan Meatball Sandwich

1 cup TVP

2 cups cooked rice

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1/2 onion grilled

2 garlic cloves

salt, pepper, oregano, parsley to taste

Heat everything together on the stove and form the meatballs while it's all warm.

Put 1 tablespoon olive oil on the pan and fry the balls. Place the meatballs on toasted ciabatta and cover with marinara sauce.

Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery

207 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor


Like many restaurants offering seasonal dining options, Ann Arbor's Blue Tractor rolls out an autumn menu featuring the heartier vegetables like squash and pumpkin. There's an uptick in pickling, smoking, and curing, and popular dishes include pork-belly sliders and blue-cheese fondue. But chef Neal Diebold says his tables are for more than just the fall fare — the colder months are all about bringing together families and communities. "With the menu, we're not trying to re-create the wheel," he says, "but we are trying to re-create the home. We're trying to create more of a family atmosphere, community and conversation ... because to me, comfort food is really about sitting around and having good conversation while you're eating."

On his way to work each morning, Diebold passes six farms from which the Blue Tractor purchases produce at the biweekly Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Aside from the vegetables, Diebold also buys his meat local, including whole hogs and piglets, to create dazzlers like "The Three Little Pigs." The plate includes three piglets prepared three ways: braised in duck fat, smoked, and roasted. That morning's farmers market dictates the sides, which might be local greens or a Parmesan pumpkin flan. "We try to riff on it," he says. "On Wednesday and Saturday, we shoot down to the farmers market, grab what we can, and play with it."


Blue Tractor's

Pumpkin-Parmesan Flan

1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 cups of béchamel, made with 1 1⁄4 cups milk and 3⁄4 cup heavy cream, warm

1⁄4 cup of pumpkin purée

1 pinch kosher salt

1 pinch white pepper

2 large eggs, plus 2 yolks

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-by-12-inch glass dish with nonstick.

Add Parmesan and cayenne to the béchamel and blend. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and yolks until well combined. Gradually add the dairy mixture.

Pour into the glass dish, cover with foil. Place in a water bath inside a roasting pan. (If you do not have a roasting pan pour mixture into individual bowls and place on a deep sheet tray with water.)

Bake for about 45-60 minutes (the mixture will jiggle slightly when moved).

Cool down and cut out with a cookie cutter or you can spoon it up gently.

Note: This goes great as a finish to top a steak or accompany a pasta.

The Bird & the Bread

210 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham


For the Bird & the Bread executive chef Adam Galloway, there's almost nothing in autumn that beats the whiffs of aroma emanating from the downtown Birmingham eatery's kitchen.

"I love the braising," he says. "Just getting those aromas filling up the kitchen, especially in the fall, coming off nice, hearty braised meats and braised cabbages." Thus, among his top picks from the fall menu is the smoked duck breast, served with braised red cabbage, herb spaetzle, roasted Brussels sprouts, and seasonal huckleberries from the Pacific Northwest. Galloway explains the cabbage is braised in Michigan cider along with a little orange juice and red wine, which is cooked down and mixed in with onions sautéed in duck fat.

Other Galloway recommendations include the halibut fish and chips, fried with a floral Belgian beer batter that's bumped up with fennel pollen and lemon zest, and a seasonal celery root remoulade standing in for the summer tartar sauce. The harvest polenta and mushrooms that Galloway describes as "Thanksgiving dinner without the turkey" includes the pumpkins, root veggies, broccoli, and other produce that the Bird & the Bread buys from the Geddes Farm outside Saginaw. "We have so much great produce from them in the fall season, it just makes sense to be able to utilize that and really showcase it all," Galloway says. "The way people are eating changes when it gets cold. They're eating heartier vegetables and braised meats."


The Bird & the Bread's

Harvest Polenta Cake

1 pound corn meal

25 ounces vegetable stock

25 ounces of milk

6 ounces heavy cream

13 ounces pumpkin puree

1 tablespoons minced garlic

1/3 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground clove

1/2 cup of maple syrup

salt to taste

Combine all liquid into a large pot and bring to a simmer.

Add spices and garlic to liquid.

Once liquid is simmering, slowly whisk in corn meal and reduce heat to medium.

Continue to whisk for about 20 minutes until the corn meal loses its graininess.

Once corn meal is cooked, fold in pumpkin puree and maple syrup and season to taste with kosher salt.

Pour liquid on to oiled sheet trays and allow to cool.

Once cakes are cooled, use a round cutter or slice into squares.

To serve, heat a sauté pan on medium-high heat with a small amount of oil, place polenta cakes in pan, sear each side, and finish in oven.

Forest Grill

735 Forest Ave., Birmingham


A half hour before speaking with Metro Times, Forest Grill chef Nick Janutol served the first two orders of what he considers among the best of the restaurant's deep seasonal menu — rabbit fettuccine in mustard cream sauce. Janutol marinates the rabbit for 24 hours with aromatics to cut the gaminess. After braising the rabbit in wine and chicken stock, the meat is removed from the bone. To make the mustard cream sauce, Janutol reduces Guernsey cream by two-thirds and adds mustard and a little lemon to finish.

For game lovers, Forest also offers boneless quail stuffed with a whole fresh fig and garlic sausage, wrapped in prosciutto. Also try the short-rib cannelloni or roasted breast of Otto's chicken basted in bone marrow.

Vegetarian? Well, Janutol says he's tired of offering the "obligatory risotto" for herbivores and is instead trying something new in the vegetarian wheatberry ragout made with braised Michigan wheatberries. It's served with Michigan sweet corn, shiitake mushrooms, and carrots.

"I spent 10 years making risotto and wanted to try something different," says the Michigan native, who spent his "culinary youth" studying and training New York City's kitchens before returning home to work in the stylish Birmingham bistro with chef-owner Brian Polcyn.


110 S. Main St., Ann Arbor


At Vinology, fresh, quality ingredients drive the menu's design, and that means the seasonal produce available at the local farmers markets determines what's available on the menu. Chef Dave Barrington explains that Vinology likes to perfect a cut of meat, for example, but coax the seasonal flavors by perhaps changing preparation or its accompaniments. "We latch on to something we really like," he says. "Those are stars of the dish, and we like to perfect those stars and change the cast around it. For instance, we'll have some version of duck, but it's what's around that centerpiece that changes."

The duck breast butchered in-house is cured in a brown-sugar based cure, then stuffed with a duck sausage made with Michigan cherries. The supporting cast includes a fall squash purée, port cherry gastrique, kale sprouts, and mushroom ragout. The spatchcock game hen that might have shared the spotlight with an asparagus in the summer now comes with lobster macaroni, Chardonnay-braised leeks, roasted Vidalia onion, and roasted pumpkin-garlic balsamic. Rotating the big flavors in fresh ingredients, Barrington says, is what sets a meal apart.

"It harks back to cooking with integrity, and typically people who are driven by ingredients are driven by season," he says. "The food market is such now you can order and buy anything anytime of the year, but it won't taste good. Managing true seasonal quality ingredients dictates what the menu becomes."



Autumn Sweet Potato Tart

Graham Cracker Date Crust

1-1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup powdered sugar

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons maple syrup

2-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 tablespoons molasses

2 to 4 tablespoons water

1/4 cup dates, puréed

Gather two mixing bowls.

Measure and add all dry ingredients together in first bowl. Mix thoroughly.

In the second bowl, measure and add all wet ingredients together. Mix thoroughly.

Add the wet ingredients to dry and knead into a ball. Add more water if needed.

On a clean surface, roll out dough with flour and a rolling pin. Portion into tart shells or pie shells and bake at 325 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Sweet Potato Filling

4 cups puréed sweet potato (about two large sweet potatoes)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup coconut milk

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Blend all ingredients in food processor.

Transfer to medium saucepan. Cook on low heat until consistency thickens.

Cool. Fill tart or pie shells. Serve and enjoy.

Avalon International Breads

422 W. Willis St., Detroit


A pioneer in the locavore movement, Avalon is now its 18th year and something of an institution at its small Willis Street storefront in the Cass Corridor. The bakery's policy of partnering with local farmers ensures fresh, seasonal breads and goodies. The chill in the air means the return of the pumpkin bar or Chene Ferry double chocolate cookie made with Michigan cherries. With the holidays just a calendar page away, the bakers' attention also turns to popular breads like the German stollen, which chef George Slaeter describes as "kind of a like a fruitcake but much, much better — a lot more moist," or the cranberry-orange bread that's light but still has an open crumb and fits right in next to the turkey and cranberry sauce.

"For sweets and breads, fall is a lot of fun because we get to play with different ingredients that we wouldn't normally play with," Slaeter says. "There's just not a demand for fruit breads all year long. People are looking for sandwich bread or breakfast bread, but now we get to push things that people buy more on special occasions and it's fun for us to try."

But it's lunch, it's chilly out, and you need something to stick to your bones? Slaeter and the kitchen bring in plenty of root vegetables during fall, and the "Root of It All" vegetable pot pie would be a good place to start, or the "Ham and Cheese Hottie" served on farmers' bread, panini-style, also warms the day.

Woodbridge Pub

5169 Trumbull Ave., Detroit


While the root veggies and hearty cuts of meat garner the most attention as the days shorten, fish, especially the Great Lakes' halibut and whitefish, shouldn't be overlooked. Detroit's Woodbridge Pub has it covered. They offer a seared Michigan whitefish plate served with smoked whitefish risotto. Chef Tim Garrow explains the risotto is cooked with cream and parmesan, but the pub's local fish supplier smoked the season's abundance of whitefish, which Garrow added to the risotto's sauce. "That gets it really nice and rich, gives it a bright flavor," he says.

But Woodbridge doesn't skip the heartier vegetables. The whitefish is served with zucchini, kale, and lemon. Produce grown in Detroit at the Food Field helps steer Woodbridge's fall menu. Their fields yielded an especially strong crop of zucchini this year, Garrow says, which helped lead to the vegan and gluten-free "three sisters" — beans, corn, and squash — composed of crispy tofu, zucchini, creamed corn, and kale with a tamarind sauce. But the tasteful neighborhood pub, which brought new life to a stretch of Trumbull once devoid of dining options, is known for its burgers, and Garrow is grateful for the opportunity to experiment in the fall.

"We do a lot of burgers," he says, "so a fall menu makes it fun for the cooks to do new things, try new things. I've worked at restaurants where they've had the same menus for 20 years, and it's not fun. I'm already asking cooks for new ideas for the winter menu."

Wolfgang Puck Steak and Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina

MGM Grand Casino, Detroit


Chef Jacob Williamson, of Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria and Cucina and Wolfgang Steak in MGM Grand Detroit casino, isn't a Michigan native, but already he sees the impact the Wolverine State's climate on crafting his menus. "Just for quality purposes I'm big on seasonality," he says. "I'm not from Michigan and there are definitely four solid seasons here, so you have stay within those parameters as far as what's available."

The flavorful summer tomatoes, peas, corn, peaches, and rhubarb are replaced in the new fall menu with a variety of beets, kale, Brussels sprouts, and new types of mushrooms. As always, the Wolfgang menu will feature its big proteins, but the autumn version brings in braised meats with the thicker, tougher cuts that are cooked longer. That's what Williamson looks forward to this time of year, thus his leg of lamb braised in a red wine demi is high among his recommendations. Another flavorful, heartier cut is found in the braised short ribs made from wagyu or American-style Kobe beef. Jacobson prefers it because of its "larger fat content that marbles a lot better. That fat melts and permeates into the rest of the cut, and that creates a nice, tender, flavorful dish." Jacobson also highlighted the dessert menu that swapped out the summer peaches for the fall Michigan apple crop and pumpkin cheesecake. "[The menus] are very approachable," he says. "[They're] very fall-like, and, as in any good restaurant, it's always evolving and changing."


Wolfgang Puck Steak's

Braised Lamb Shanks

1 cup each carrots, onions, and celery, chopped

4 garlic cloves each, smashed

1 rosemary sprig each

3 oregano sprigs each

6 thyme sprigs each

2 cups port wine

2 cups red wine

1/2 cup tomato paste

2 quarts chicken stock or low-sodium broth

1 quart demi-glace

1 tablespoon black peppercorn

2 bay leaves each

4 ounces button mushrooms, smashed

Season and flour lamb shanks. Shake off any excess flour.

Sear the lamb on all sides and set aside.

In the same pan that the lamb was seared in, caramelize onion, carrots, and celery.

Add tomato paste and cook for another 45 seconds.

Add wine and port. Reduce by 3⁄4.

Add chicken stock and demi-glace. Bring to a slow simmer.

Add lamb shanks and adjust seasoning. Cook until tender.

Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer and reduce to desired consistency and use as sauce for the dish.

Inn Season Café

500 E. Fourth St., Royal Oak


Royal Oak's Inn Season needs no introduction to those who gravitate toward fresh, seasonal plates. No other restaurant in the area has made such a name from building fresh vegan and vegetarian dishes, which are satisfyingly hearty as the fall chill starts to bite. As with every autumn, there's a new menu to look forward to; this season, chef Thomas Lasher is keen on working with squash, which he'll chop up and throw on a pizza or in a quesadilla, or puree to add a nice body to the in the butternut squash risotto.

Swedish pancakes packed together with blanched rutabaga, parsnip, and carrot is another of Inn Season's heartier vegan standouts this fall. "It's a nice dish that definitely gets the earthiness with the rutabaga, and the carrots add a counter point with sweetness," Lasher says. "The toasted caraway seeds add a nice underlying flavor to it all."

Inn Season has supported local farmers for the last 35 years, and Lasher is pleased to see those the restaurant has worked with succeed as the local food movement picks up momentum. "These people have been farming for years, and they're finally getting a chance to really succeed with markets doing way better than times in the past. It's really fun to work with the farmers."


Inn Season Café's

Swedish Vegetable Cakes

2 cups each blanched then grated: rutabaga, carrot, parsnip

1-1/2 cup diced onion

2 tablespoons caraway seed, toasted and ground

3/4 cup bean flour (chickpea flour)

1/2 cup dried parsley

1/2 cup diced scallion

1-2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

salt and white pepper to taste

Blanch rutabaga, carrot, and parsnip in boiling water until just soft. Do not overcook. Place in an ice water bath to cool, then grate. Sauté onion in olive oil until well done, 5-10 minutes. Mix all ingredients. Form into patties and cook in olive oil on a flat top grill or in cast-iron pan. Serve with steamed kale and mustard sauce.

Mustard Sauce

2 cups Vegenaise (non-dairy mayonnaise)

1/2 cup whole grain mustard

1/4 cup maple syrup

salt to taste

Whisk all ingredients together. Serve with Swedish Vegetable Cakes.

Assagi Bistro

330 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale


Like many of Detroit's chefs working the seasonal crops this year, Assaggi co-owner Josie Rotondo-Knapp is particularly thrilled with the beet bounty, and she highlighted the downtown Ferndale restaurant's beet salad. Mixed in are candy-striped, gold-and-red beets, which she cooks down before adding arugula and buratta cheese, a creamier cousin to mozzarella imported from Italy. It's topped with toasted hazelnut, served with a champagne vinaigrette.

Also back are the perennial favorites like Rotondo-Knapp's lentil pancakes served with a sherry forest mushroom sauce and root vegetable chips, and her hearty Bolognese sauce.

"People love it," she says. "They can't wail till fall to get it back on the menu. That's the thing you learn — that your customers rule you whatever you make." But the season also plays its role in crafting the fall menu, Rotondo-Knapp says, and this year's autumn offerings also include the creamy polenta, short rib, butternut squash, and several thick cuts of braised meat.

"I love finding new and great ingredients," Rotondo-Knapp says, "so I make it my business to hunt down really good things that I feel would show the season."

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