Red-hot Wings

Business at Mike Ilitch’s brand-new Hockeytown Cafe is jumping: Our waiter said his income on a Sunday is 10 times greater now than when the space was called Risata. Fans turn out in droves to admire the Stanley Cup reproductions, the old photos, the statues of Gordie and Stevie, the jerseys from 1938 and 1965.

On Saturday nights, the young crowd, entering Second City in the same building, waits by a white Zamboni.

If you like computers with your imbibing, you can visit the Wings’ Web site and see highlights of their 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cup wins. In addition to the many screens inside, Ilitch has installed a giant one on the outside of the building and broadcasts hockey information very loudly to the world.

"Not very neighborly," I commented.

"Well, he owns the neighborhood," returned my companion.

I wondered if Ilitch lowers the volume during Sunday morning services at St. John’s across the street, just about the only piece of local real estate not yet added to his portfolio. The nighttime view of the lit-up church out the fourth-floor windows is divine, contrasting forcefully with the commercial atmosphere within.

The museum/booster features of Hockeytown Cafe are fun if you’re a Red Wings fan. The food is a bit less successful.

Ilitch is pretty chintzy, particularly considering the long waits on busy nights: No bread is dispensed, no salad accompanies your entrée, but instead must be ordered separately for five or six bucks.

Portion sizes are not chintzy at all, however. My huge house salad, with tiny peas and an excellent and unusual basil vinaigrette, could have served four.

The sandwiches — both turkey club and Cajun chicken BLT were good — are hard to get your mouth around (give up and deconstruct). The turkey club was slightly smoky and served on toasted Wonder Bread.

Hockeytown serves eight pastas and about the same number of meat entrées, such as ribs, chicken, New York strip, salmon and sirloin.

Our spinach-and-brioche-encrusted whitefish was exquisite in a pale yellow wine sauce. Pork chops with a mango/cilantro sauce were tough and tasted merely of barbecue sauce, not pork. Sawing away, it dawned on me that you rarely find your meat hard to cut in a restaurant.

Fettuccine in pesto cream sauce was tasty, if perhaps a little mild for the true garlic-basil fan.

"Red Hot Wings" are Buffalo wings done right, if a tad mild, served with celery sticks and blue cheese (diluted with mayo).

Crab cakes are fairly spicy but not terribly crabby (unlike your reviewer). The two soups, chili and French onion, are OK but again not strongly flavored.

Hockeytown’s desserts are fine, at $5-$6.25. The chocolate toffee torte has an excellent pecan crust, a rich chocolate layer in the middle and a mocha buttercream on top. The almond cherry tart is light on cherries (not "topped generously," as the menu asserts), but pleasant nonetheless.

Hockeytown has a full bar on the first floor, and the cocktails are, of course, named "Hat Trick" and "Power Play" and "5 Hole." My non-alcohol Wild Berry Breeze, advertised as raspberries and strawberries, tasted as artificial as its bright pink color looked.