Review: Fort Street Galley's Isla is a winner 

click to enlarge Pancit Palabok.

Tom Perkins

Pancit Palabok.

It's a food hall, it's an incubator, it's a food court, it's an accelerator. Fort Street Galley, open since December, is a pretty cool way for chefs to start a new place and for ADD-infected diners to try out a bunch of new spots at once.

The Galley is an upscale food court in the Federal Reserve Building downtown, with four restaurants sharing the dining area, each with a full menu. The Galley owners supply the space, the utilities, the busers, and a bar — everything but the kitchen labor and the ingredients — in exchange for a 30 percent cut off the top. Chef-owners sign a lease for a year, during which time they work to develop a following — and after their year is up, the goal is to cut the apron strings and fly.

The Galley's Pittsburgh-based owners call it "the food revolution," which it is not, but it's still a good idea for those with great cooking chops but not enough connections to inspire investors.

Unlike the Detroit Shipping Co. food court in Midtown, which despite high-quality food uses plastic forks and where you can't even get a napkin — tear a rag off a restroom-quality roll of brown paper towel — the Galley offers metal silverware, real plates and napkins, bottles of water on the tables, and glass glasses. It's a spread-out, echo-y space that seats 200 both picnic-table style and at tables and chairs, with some areas partly enclosed.

My first foray there was to the only Filipino restaurant in Detroit: Isla (Spanish for island), owned by JP Garcia. Garcia grew up in California and the Philippines and moved here 14 years ago because of his wife's family ties. After classical French training in culinary school, till now he's worked mostly in Japanese kitchens. If the fates are just, with Isla he has a winner on his hands. The novel flavor combinations deserve to make their way into Detroiters' hearts, just as decades ago we embraced Thai and more recently Vietnamese.

Not that Filipino cuisine is so similar to those. For one thing, there's more sweetness than in other Asian cuisines. And it will come as a disappointment to some and a relief to others that no chopsticks are involved.

Thanks to over-the-top encyclopedic 168 Asian Mart in Madison Heights, Garcia is able to source pretty much whatever he needs. He also has someone growing a couple of Filipino trees for him, the calamansi citrus and the moringa, from which to extract herb oil for ceviche. I call that dedication.

My favorite dishes, from a menu that includes six small plates, six entrées, three rices, and a separate brunch menu for weekends 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., were the seafood offerings and anything involving pork belly.

In the latter category is lechon kawali, which is different from lechon as a whole roast pig. Here Garcia preboils pork belly and then air-dries it in the cooler. When he drops it in the deep fryer, it crisps beautifully. It's served with dinuguan, a pungent, vinegary pork blood stew. It includes sweet little bready pillows of puto, steamed fermented rice cakes.

Kinilaw is raw hamachi, sashimi style, "cured" with vinegar just at the last minute before plating and delectably light; it's served with a bit of coconut cream infused with dashi, Japanese fish stock. Milkfish is used to make three small, crunchy croquettes that melt in the mouth, atop a smear of sweet purple yam purée with a vanilla lilt.

In pancit palabok, a noodle dish, Garcia does a good job of mixing shrimp and crab with crisp chicharrones and slices of hard-boiled egg, though I always think rice noodles are too soft (Garcia's are as firm as rice noodles ever are).

On a meatier note, the traditional noodle soup batchoy uses thin slices of pork shoulder and beef shank rather than the usual pork offal and cracklings, which is not a complaint. A beef fermur is roasted and then boiled for 24 hours to make the stock. It's rich and a little sweet. Skinny beef lumpia (spring rolls) are crisp, succulent and appropriately greasy, with peppery sprouts on top. A vegetarian lumpia uses jicama with pistachio garlic sauce.

The national dish adobo is of course on hand, with chicken and pork belly, as well as seafood sinigang, a sour soup with salmon and tamarind broth.

Because it wasn't my money, I ordered a dish that sounded suspicious: pinoy baked spaghetti and wings ("pinoy" means Filipino). It was a cube of compressed chopped up noodles with a sweet tomato-meat sauce, not yummy at all, though the separate chicken wing was crisp and scrumptious. At least it was not topped with wiener slices, as I'm told can happen. This is Garcia's take on a favorite from the fast-food chain Jollibee and perhaps best left to ex-pats nostalgic for their youth.

To drink, we were offered samples of dalandan, a citrus drink from green mandarins native to the Philippines. I thought it started off refreshing but ended with a metallic taste. Desserts are elaborate: a vivid purple ube cake made with that same yam, and halo-halo, which is crushed ice, evaporated milk and almost anything else you can think of. I asked Garcia why it was so expensive ($15), and he replied authoritatively that young coconuts don't come cheap.

The Galley does happy hour 5-7 p.m. weekdays, the bar stays open late, and the bartender will validate two hours of parking at the Financial District Garage anytime.

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