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Mel Small

  • Dinner and show

    Birmingham's Zazios mixes theater and cooking at its chef's table
  • Protein power

    Lockhart's adds slow-style barbecue to Royal Oak's menu
      Lockhart’s, named after a town reputed to be the barbecue capital of Texas, is in Royal Oak opposite City Hall. Handsomely retrofitted on the high-ceilinged first floor of an old bank building, with distressed brick framing huge picture windows that look out at the street traffic at the corner of Third and Williams, it can handle as many as 150 at its bare wooden tables. Diners are greeted with a complimentary mason jar full of spicy pickled vegetables, which is among the most incendiary preparations on the thin paper menu. In his stainless-steel open kitchen, Bubba turns out reasonably priced, hefty portions, with appetizers averaging around $8, sandwiches with one side around $9 and barbecue plates with two sides around $13. Among those appetizers, it is difficult to resist burnt ends, little brisket cubes that have been double-rubbed and double-smoked. The mains, served authentically on paper in metal trays and with a white bread sopper, involve brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sausage, chicken and ham, and combinations thereof, all smoked ever so slowly over local white oak and hickory. One can sample most of the meats in the “special” combo of brisket, half-rack of ribs, sausage and pulled pork. The thin slices of brisket are well-trimmed and tender, as are the ribs. Barbecue is best washed down with beer. All 15 beers on tap ($6.50 a pint) are from Michigan.
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  • Aged to perfection

    Spanning generations, Vivio's is an Eastern Market crowd-pleaser
      For more than 40 years, the Vivio family has been pouring suds and dishing out thick burgers to an unusually wide variety of neighborhood characters, tailgaters (shuttles provided) and produce shoppers from their venerable building in the heart of Eastern Market. Erected in 1892 to serve as a German community center, it soon became a tavern, placing it among the oldest structures in Detroit to continuously host a watering hole. Virtually all of the familiar items on the long menu are less than $10. Among the appetizers are five mussel choices, the most renowned of which float, along with celery chunks, in Bloody Mary mix, vodka and garlic sauce. Bottles of Vivio’s secret-recipe mix, which certainly perks up the sweet little mollusks, are available for purchase on-site as well as at specialty stores, along with their house-made mustard. The dinner-sized salads run the gamut from Jamaican jerk chicken to a large and crisp taco bowl harboring tangy ground beef tidbits mixed in with green onions, diced tomatoes and cheddar cheese, and accompanied by sour cream and a rather mild salsa. As for heartier fare, the burgers — cheese, bacon, Sante Fe, Cajun, bleu and the healthier salmon, veggie and buffalo — that come with a mound of slightly undercooked fries, rank among the city’s better renditions of that staple. To wash all this down, Vivio’s provides 12 beers on tap and 10 bottles, highlighted by Castello, a new-to-this-country, refreshing, light Italian lager ($3).
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  • High-toned pie

    Pizzeria Biga sports special dough and small plates
      Biga is a pizzeria plus — pizza is the only main course, but Del Signore’s menu includes home-fashioned charcuterie and cheeses from Bacco, six attractive salads and a handful of small-plates palate-teasers. Among the salads ($5.50 to $9.50), navel orange is a keeper, with orange sections floating in oil accompanied by olives, onion, and parsley. The more familiar chop salad with tidbits of hearts of palm, artichokes, egg, tomato, cucumber, onion, gorgonzola and ceci beans bursts with freshness. The crusty house-made Italian bread that comes with is exemplary. All of this is the prelude to the pizza and its fermented starter dough (biga) composed of a carefully calibrated blend (“an ancient method”) of flour, purified water and sea salt, all kept at 68 degrees. The resulting dough serves as the foundation for 12-inch ($9-$14) and 18-inch ($14.50-$22) round, thin pizzas that can be selected from a dozen house creations, as well as a nearly infinite number of self-designed pies, with toppings as exotic as duck prosciutto, lardo (pig fat), rapini and vinegar peppers. Those who are red-sauce-averse will be happy with the white-pie options. The desserts, highlighted by house-made gelati (try the cappuccino) and the more-than-perfunctory cannoli, are another of Biga’s strengths.
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  • Northbound lodge

    Loon River Café lends Up North warmth to Sterling Heights
      The café, which seats 160, creates its own rustic atmosphere with a shingle and stone exterior and a lodge-like interior flaunting the obligatory moose head over a huge stone fireplace, fishing and hunting prints, stuffed animals, a full gun rack, and other outdoorsy paraphernalia. Those looking for a light meal can choose Buffalo chicken salad with slightly assertive pieces of chicken, along with onions and blue cheese, mercifully not drowned in a ranch dressing. Cobb, Caesar and grilled-salmon Dijon Caesar are among the rest of the greenery. Most of the mains range from $11 to $19. The Lake Shore portion of the menu is highlighted by walleye from renowned Red Lake, Minn., and Keewanaw whitefish from Lake Superior. Both can be ordered in a variety of ways, with the moist and nutty-sweet sautéed walleye a winner, while the whitefish is enhanced with bacon. You can sample a mini-sirloin steak, one large pork chop and a half portion of one of the fish specialties in the Midwest mixed grill, which is quite reasonably priced at $16.99. The majority of the bottles on the short but well-selected wine list are less than $30. These can be drunk, along with a nice array of beer and spirits, at the handsome elevated wood-paneled lounge adjacent to the dining space.
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  • Chinese cheer

    Wah-Hoo enlivens downtown Detroit's dining scene
      Wah-Hoo is the latest enterprise of the Gatzaros (Fishbone’s) family. Opening in April as the special project of son Nico, the stylish restaurant features an extensive sushi menu, as well as a full complement of familiar Chinese dishes. It has two noisy dining rooms that seat 75 and the mezzanine that offers privacy to an additional 15 patrons. The small plates and salads, which average around $7, feature crisp and succulent pork-stuffed potstickers lightly spiced with chili-sesame sauce, interesting crab-and-cheese won tons and a pleasantly chewy rendition of seaweed salad awash in sesame oil and rice vinegar. Spring and egg rolls, lettuce wraps, Shanghai calamari, an especially eggy egg-drop soup, wonton, and a hot-and-sour laden with vegetables and krab reflect the attempt to appeal to Western and not Eastern palates. Wah-Hoo offers eight lunches ($7-$9.50). The mains are divided into Garden, Sky, Ocean, and Land, including sesame chicken, scallops in oyster sauce, miso salmon, fried eggplant, Mongolian beef, and shrimp with lobster sauce. Wah-Hoo also boasts a handsome wraparound bar with the requisite colorful island drinks, a handful of reasonably priced bottles of wine, sake and bottled beer.
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  • Southwest breezes

    It's official: Prickly Pear Café is an Ann Arbor classic
      Prickly Pear which has been serving Southwestern grub since 1991. (Southwestern in this case means Tex-Mex plus.) Perpetually crowded, the cafe takes no reservations but will outfit you with a pager so you can stroll along Main Street until your table is ready. Many of the main dishes are familiar Tex-Mex items, such as burritos, fajitas, quesadillas and empanadas, which, as with all the entrées, come on a heaping platter full of tomato rice and baked black and pinto beans and salsa. Vegetarians will again be pleased with the nicely blended spinach and Chihuahua cheese enchilada while the empañada stuffed with chicken is enhanced with a toasted-pumpkin-seed cheese sauce. Nine Mexican beers, along with just as many from other countries, eight tequilas and, of course, regular and “gold” margaritas are what most sots select with their meals. However, the decent wine selections, many of which do not crack the $20 barrier, are another option.
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  • A spirited choice

    Why Birmingham's Tallulah may be the area's best wine bar
      This wine bar in Birmingham may be the best in our area. From its cool cream walls and ceilings, whose main decoration is a large mature grape vine from her vineyard, to the first-rate open kitchen to the knowledgeable and efficient servers, to the exciting collection of 150 varietals, this is all one could ask for in the increasingly competitive genre. Aside from a seasonal vegetarian main and one or two specials, the rest of the entrée roster is brief. The most expensive dish on the menu is $24. While oenophiles most likely will opt for the traditional cheese platter to end their gastronomic adventure at Tallulah, the cheesecake and key lime pie, made in house, are sublime.
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  • A bit of Italy

    Mediterranean flavor at Joe Bologna in Sterling Heights
      Joe Bologna and his wife Adele opened their place in 1985, and ever since have served cuisine scores well on the cost-benefit scale, with none of their substantial main courses costing more than $16, while the appetizers average around $8. Pizza is available in a variety of formats, including often-inventive thin-crusted individual pies, such as Red’s with red clam sauce, red pepper and red onion. Even better, the reasonably priced wine list is buttressed by periodic specials that feature a handful of intriguing varietals from boutique vineyards at $20.
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  • Get your Irish up

    Birmingham's Dick O'Dow's brings a taste of Ireland to town
      For more than a decade, Dick O’Dow’s has been Birmingham’s most popular unpretentious watering hole. The dimly lit pub, graced with simple wooden tables and chairs, faded wall murals from the Book of Kells, agricultural paraphernalia and a wide variety of Irish kitsch, is a surprisingly accurate recreation of a rural local in the Ould Sod. With music, several TVs, and often a large crowd of more than a hundred tipplers, the front room dominated by the bar can get a bit boisterous. Guinness at $5.50 for an imperial (20-ounce) pint is de rigueur, of course, but there are 14 other beers on tap as well. Although Ireland does not produce wine, a handful of varietals from several other countries are available, most of which are less than $30. The menu is expansive with such bar food as pizza, burgers, sliders, wings, ribs, mac ’n’ cheese, ahi tuna and the like appealing to those not interested in sampling the Irish fare. Among the mains, the “Irish Classics” ($11.99-$15.99) are the best place to linger. Here one finds boxty, a unique dish whose foundation consists of two thick, slightly charred potato pancakes, garnished with baby asparagus and topped with beef chunks, onions and leeks, all of which is awash in a brown gravy. Guinness-battered cod and chips with an admirable creamy coleslaw, corned beef with carrots and parsnips (when’s the last time you saw parsnips on a menu?), wild Irish salmon with a Jameson’s glaze, and stuffed chicken round out the Irish entrées. O’Dow’s boasts live music seven nights a week, including traditional Irish on Tuesdays.
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  • Going native

    Once Larco's, now Big Beaver Tavern makes its bid for American fare
      It was another sign of the times when Mark and Sue Larco closed their upscale Italian chophouse after 19 years on Big Beaver, after being involved in Italian restaurants in our area since the ’50s. However, they quickly reopened last July as the Big Beaver Tavern in the same, spacious, brick-and-stone stand-alone building. Now an informal sports bar, they did retain son Peter Larco in the kitchen, where the graduate of the Culinary Institute of America turns out some of their old Italian favorites along with ribs, burgers and sandwiches. Not surprisingly, the tavern’s pastas are not perfunctory, especially the crunchy baked penne palmina, which is Larco’s creamy-marinara-sauced version of the ever-popular mac and cheese. There are also plenty of options among the hamburgers, although most diners may find daunting the signature Big Beaver burger, two half-pound patties with bacon, Swiss and cheddar cheese, sautéed onions, lettuce and tomatoes.
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  • Pour taste

    More than suds, Detroit's Motor City Brewing Works has tasty fare
      The state’s second oldest microbrewery began serving food in their taproom in 2006. Over time, chef Jodi Laney expanded their offerings to make it possible for quaffers to put together a nice little meal along with their Ghettoblaster, the brewery’s most famous product. The tiny kitchen behind the bar precludes elaborate culinary preparations, so the menu of appitezers, soups, salads, pizza and sandwiches is brief, but solid, adhering when possible to a locavore approach. Five appetizers, three soups, two salads, an old-fashioned pot of mac and cheese, a shepherd’s pie, a daily sandwich special, usually a melt, and 10-inch brick-oven-fired pizzas. First-timers might want to wash all of this down with the generous beer-sampler tray. Wine from Michigan’s Bel Lago vinyards is also available.
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  • A west side winner

    Bistro 222's "culinary adventure" in Dearborn
      Bistro 222's reasonable prices and stylishly retrofitted space are complemented by imaginative Californian-Italian cuisine. Starters ($6-$8) are highlighted by “April’s crispy calamari,” a mess of little cephalopod rings accompanied by a marinara sauce enlivened with red peppers, olives and garlic. Much of the fare is assertively spiced, such as the zesty and generous portion of bruschetta topped with tomatoes, onions and peppers, and small scallops sautéed in a tangy lemon-garlic sauce and artfully presented in three scallop shells. Lunchgoers can keep their meals relatively light by choosing among five individual pizzas, a dozen sandwiches with potatoes and salad ($6.95-$8.95) featuring the curious, patented ground shrimp burger on ciabatta, and several entrée-sized salads. As for dinner, if you are going to pass on pasta for a main, you might consider one or two of the six variations ($11.95-$14.95) for your tablemates to share as an intermediate course, or primi piatti. Most of the entrées are $15 or $16, a surprisingly low price considering the quality of the ingredients and the careful thought that has gone into their creation and presentation. All of the desserts, except for the ethereal, ultra-light house-made tiramisu, come from the respectable outside supplier, Sweet Street Desserts.
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  • More than takeout

    Shangri-La expands its dim sum empire into Detroit university area
      Midtown’s Shangri-La has a quirky interior, extremely attentive servers, and excellent dim sum, those small plates that are something like Chinese tapas. Most dim-sum are $2.95 to $3.50, and most offer a bite or so for at least three diners. Teeny pancakes laden with garlic and chives, crisp dumplings, lilliputian spare ribs in a sweet black-bean sauce, stuffed eggplant, and the sweet bun full of barbecued pork are all winners. Although the regular menu is dominated by traditional Chinese cuisine, curries ($9), Singapore noodles ($8) and cilantro-less pho-like noodle soups ($7-8) suggest a pan-Asian influence. If you are looking for more exciting creations, you will have to choose among the chef specials, which are more expensive ($13.95-$16.95), and can include a whole or half roast duck, eggplant with shrimp paste in black-bean sauce, a mélange of succulent fried squid, scallops and shrimp with (not that) spicy salt or more mellow walnut shrimp.
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  • Port of call

    Parrot Cove brings a hint of trade winds to Troy
      The Parrot Cove Yacht Club has huge servings of solid bar food in its raffish but homey clubhouse. The Cove Platter, at $8.50, is a steal. The substantial sampler overflows with deep-fried chunks of crisp and tender chicken fingers, comparably crisp onion rings, breaded mozzarella sticks and, least crisp of the four, somewhat soggy stuffed potato skins. These irresistible artery-cloggers come with three dipping sauces. Parrot Cove flaunts seven burger variations that can also be constructed with ground turkey. The Cove Burger ($5.50), a made-to-order patty topped with provolone cheese, sautéed mushrooms and lettuce and tomatoes, and accompanied by fries and slaw, is an attractive combination.
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  • Middle feast

    Sterling Heights' La Saj is really cooking
      La Saj’s menu covers the usual suspects in the Lebanese kitchen. The appetizer sampler ($23.95), which can easily satisfy four, includes a silky hummus, suitably smoky baba ghanoush, vegetarian or meat-stuffed grape leaves, fried kibbeh stuffed with meat, onions and pine nuts, falafel, labneh (house-made yogurt), a fresh but a bit drippy tabbouleh, and cheese and vegetables. Unlike many of its competitors, La Saj wisely serves the meza on separate small plates instead of a large platter where the ingredients tend to run into one another. With warm puffy pita rounds and their accompanying sharp garlic sauce, the sampler makes for a splendid start to the meal. Mains average around $14, with lamb preparations, such as grilled lamb steak kastalata, at the high end of the price continuum. As with most Middle Eastern spots, La Saj is vegetarian-friendly. One of the best bets is madjara, an earthy mélange of lentils and cracked wheat. The Awadas are also children-friendly, offering gastronomically challenged youngsters all-American chicken tenders and even hamburgers. The small wine list, beginning at $20 for a decent Chateau St. Michelle Riesling, covers most price levels. The fact that the list is disproportionately red (including some from Lebanon) comes as no surprise, since, in general, the assertively seasoned Middle Eastern cuisine can overwhelm whites.
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  • Italian remodel

    A Ferndale classic gets a revamp
      Maria’s anchored Ferndale's restaurant scene for more than a decade. Then, after memorable owner Joan Orlando died in 2004, the restaurant remained open until April of 2008. Its longevity had a lot to do with the fact that little had changed over the years. David Brown reopened the cozy trattoria in October 2008, and even purchased Maria’s old recipes. He did, however, do considerable redecorating. The place does look more sophisticated now, and Brown slashed the previously low prices by about 25 percent so that entrées now average around $14. The food includes old classics and some new lighter fare. Moreover, Brown scored a full liquor license from Ferndale’s city fathers, and now boasts a serviceable list with most bottles under $30.
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