Nikita Sanches' Rock City Eatery finally has the space and freedom to break out of his confines. Formerly located in a mostly working-class Hamtramck that — despite its decent dining scene of old-school Polish, Middle Eastern, and Bangladeshi spots — felt to the experimental chef like a fish bowl, now Sanches and Co. are in the midst of Detroit's boom. With a larger space to stretch his creativity, the question is whether the chef and restaurant have all the ingredients needed to compete on the bigger city's playing field.
Situated inside a 3,600-square-foot space on Woodward, a space that previously housed Bangkok Cuisine Express II, the location is smack in the middle of Detroit's cultural district, a point that could prove to be profitable for Sanches and partner/wife Jessica Imbronone Sanches.
Inside, the new Rock City location does an impeccable job of staying true to the name and vibe of its original Hamtown location. The same vintage-looking punk rock posters are affixed to plywood-panel walls, the playlist is set to Michigan rock gods like Jack White, the Stooges, and MC5, and a black accent wall adds to the place's subtle edginess. Sleek metal chairs and benches are saddled up to thick, dark wood table tops, adding a touch of elegance to the space. Those table tops are adorned with stemmed glassware, inviting guests to indulge from the spot's impressive wine list. To the left of the dining area is an expansive bar headed by Elizabeth Cosby, a transplant from Ann Arbor's Last Word, who's designed an impressive cocktail list.
The larger kitchen gives Sanches and his back-of-the-house crew space to work on a menu that's unlike others in Detroit. On top of classic comforts like the robust and creamy mac 'n' cheese, deliciously charred, semi-spicy Brussels sprouts, and its homage to the venerable poutine — oh, and lest we forget the devilishly decadent pies that put Sanches on the map — are a number of entrees that embody Sanches' persistent rebelliousness.
For starters (all starters are featured on the upper left side of the menu), there are the "Pork and Beans," which, despite the name, are a polar opposite of the canned navy bean in tomato sauce variety. Instead, they're roasted green beans, with crispy pork bits, cashews, hoisin sauce, scallions, and cilantro, giving them a slightly Vietnamese sensibility. Then there's also the "Grilled Steaks," which are not steaks at all but cauliflowers with scallions, salbitxada (a Catalan sauce), pickled strawberries, almonds, tarragon sphere, dark chocolate, and raw rhubarb. Both are examples of the self-taught chef's talents in transforming otherwise ho-hum veggies into complex and flavorful appetizers.
In keeping with his love for Asian-inspired noodle soups (at Rock City Eatery's beginnings, there was a whole "slurping" menu), there's the surprisingly filling Korean hot pot. Set inside a miniature stock pot, a spicy beef broth is loaded with slow-roasted pork, shrimp, house-made kimchi, noodles, and rice cakes. The hot pot is also on the starters side, but makes for a hearty stew — perfect for the colder months ahead of us.
On to main courses: The lobster roll is a unique take on the classic New England sandwich. It's a delicate and gorgeously plated dish that, in lieu of a steamed bun, employs rice paper to meld a symphony of lobster, celery, nasturtium flowers, annatto and galangal aioli, yeast and kelp foam, mustard seeds, lotus root, and crunchy cucamelons (which are like tiny, sour watermelons).
A nice and juicy duck confit entree cooked in its own fat is plenty large enough for sharing. Its legs have a decent crunch to the skins, though other pieces of the meat are a little chewy. For balance, there's sweet purple yam puree, fermented and acidic pear, peanut dust, and fennel fronds.
Then there's the visually pleasing "High Steaks," which is in fact a steak meal — smoked tri-tip with herbs, smoking leek, and a side of "Willie Nelson" tater salad. The protein is served on a dainty miniature replica of a Weber barbecue grill.
Fortifying the comfort foods offerings are Rock City's 10 "Zza" pizza selections. We tried slices from four of them: the Indian, Italian, Green Egg and Ham (green from a verde salsa), sausage and peppers, and our favorite, the Middle Eastern. It's topped with harissa, dates, lamb sausage, onions, goat cheese, parsley, and caramelized fennel, and punctuated with a zesty Za'atar spice, creating a pizza that expertly pulls from our region's Arab-American influence.
The thing about Rock City that will always remain, for better or worse, is its rebellious nature, which by extension is a reflection of Sanches' constant experimentation. It's a trait that finds him trotting out these daring cuisines, damn the danger.
During a spring preview of the menu to media, Sanches introduced his "Ants on a Log," which riffs off the classic children's snack of celery and peanut butter, topped with black raisins. In the Rock City Eatery version, Sanches used caramelized celery, house-made peanut butter, roasted grapes, and — a Detroit first — real ants imported from Thailand that are rehydrated in vinegar. The dish was plated with moss, giving it a rustic, foraged look. While no doubt an innovative approach to introducing Detroiters to the idea of eating insects, it quickly fell off the menu in the first weeks that the new location opened
In its place, somehow unsurprisingly given the popularity of Sanches' other longtime staples, is a nachos plate with chorizo gravy, queso fresco, poblano peppers, jalapenos, corn and bean salsa, pico de gallo, a fried egg, and garlicky tortilla chips.
Sanches' fearlessness is admirable, and in many ways is succeeding. It also serves as a standard by which other promising new restaurants should aspire to achieve. Though he sometimes misses, his relentless push against the mundane is refreshing in a city that needs it and wants it.