Grand fare

Matt Prentice better watch out. Over the past three years, another restaurant empire, the Southern Hospitality Restaurant Group, has been developing in the metroplex. The group, run by Frank Taylor, Robert Porcher III (yes, that Robert Porcher) and Executive Chef Jerry Nottage, owns or manages five unique downtown dining spots — Seldom Blues, Sweet Georgia Brown, the Woodward (MT, April 26), the Detroit Breakfast House & Grill and, under review here, the Grand City Grille.

Like Seldom Blues in the RenCen and the Woodward in the Compuware Building, the Grand City Grille is located in one of Detroit's architectural gems, the Fisher Building. Occupying the handsome space on the corner of Grand Boulevard and Second that once housed Al Green's, the Pegasus, and, most recently, the Motor City Grill, the Grand City Grille has loftier culinary ambitions than its predecessors.

Ideally situated for lunch for New Center workers and for dinner before and after the shows at the Fisher Theatre, the restaurant can seat more than 200 diners.

Except for the exquisite, original, lofty art deco ceiling, the Motor City Grille has been completely redecorated in mink-brown tones, with dramatic, gauzy, ceiling-to-floor curtains separating the main room from the lounge. An added attraction are the large picture windows that provide views of the New Center's impressive buildings. And check out the stylishly designed art-deco menu.

John Smit runs the open kitchen and James Brandon, late of Iridescence in the Motor City Casino, is the executive manager. Despite the relative elegance of the setting, the fare is moderately priced with most of the eclectic main courses running less than $20 (add $3 for soup or a salad). The sophisticated wine list, however, befits a somewhat more expensive venue.

Appetizers range from the classic oysters Rockefeller ($10) to homemade tater tots ($5), with Smit's take on ubiquitous chicken wings, chicken pops and paddles ($7), well worth a try considering that his sweet and spicy barbecue sauce is spiked with Faygo Rock 'n' Rye.

When the Grande City Grille first opened in January, visitors reported problems with the service. Whatever they were, they have been addressed. As I was making my usual mess with the sticky barbecue sauce, Eric, our experienced waiter, appeared silently with a plate containing a warm linen napkin and a lemon wedge. Perhaps overdoing the attempt to demonstrate efficient service, three different employees asked us several times how things were going during dinner.

Of the add-on soups for dinner, a tangy Cuban black bean with sour cream, rice and cilantro and a silky tomato bisque were preferable to a bland clam chowder. Although the ample house green salad, which goes well beyond lettuce, is fresh and crisp, one can opt for fried spinach salad or the more familiar cobb, Caesar and romaine wedge salads at an additional cost.

The entrées might include confit of duck, two crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on the-inside legs, served with asparagus, cannelloni bean gratin and a savory linguisa Portuguese sausage. This unusual combination is characteristic of the flair with which the main dishes are constructed. Seafood fettuccini, one of the most requested dishes, is laden with really jumbo shrimp and comparably large scallops, along with crabmeat, in a creamy, sort-of-Alfredo sauce with just a hint of garlic.

A playful side of Smit's bustling open kitchen is evidenced by shrimp corn dogs that bear little relation to the corn dogs kids nibble on at the State Fair. At the other end of the cute-staid continuum, one finds several steaks, bronzed Canadian salmon, and, a rarity these days, old-fashioned lobster Newburg on toast points.

Vegetarians will have to make do with a salad or Shanghai noodles, with snow peas, bean sprouts and Asian vegetables in a ginger-sesame sauce.

On weekends when there is a play at the Fisher, the Grand City Grille offers a large buffet ($35), anchored by carved roast beef and turkey, and highlighted by more of those jumbo shrimp and king crab legs. A mere additional $7 will buy all the house wine one cares to drink. Management must be betting that most theatergoers will take it easy on the wine for fear that they will nod off while watching a play.

Because of limited space, there is no bakery on the premises. The Grille relies on different contractors for bread — we had a pleasant warm and crusty onion rye on one occasion — and pastry, making only ice cream-based desserts in-house.

So far so good. The Grand City Grille, like the Southern Restaurant Hospitality Group's other operations, earns points for its gracious setting, its highly professional staff and a kitchen that offers a healthy mix of old standards and more fanciful dishes. The key question, which has been faced by all of its predecessors, is what happens on evenings and weekends when the Fisher is dark? From my perspective, the Grand City Grille deserves to be considered as a destination in its own right, and not merely a convenient place to dine while awaiting the big event.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].