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Review: Playful Besa is quietly becoming one of Detroit’s best new restaurants 

click to enlarge Sea scallops.

Tom Perkins

Sea scallops.

When an artist, musician, or chef creates something that's unusual, experimental, or otherwise outside the bounds of what's normal, they heighten the stakes. If one gets playful or cute but doesn't land the trick, then they fall a little harder, looking a little more ridiculous and coming off as pompous.

At downtown Detroit's Besa, chef Kyle Schutte often takes that kind of risk. The decorated chef (he served tenures in notable kitchens like Virginia's Tuscarora Mill and Atlanta's ONE Midtown Kitchen) says in his bio that he's creating "innovative food that leads the way in culinary trends and plays with [diners'] expectations." He holds a "culinary point of view that great food should be fun yet sophisticated, innovative yet familiar, humane yet accessible."

That much is evident in the unexpected turns his dishes take. Indeed, there's elevated risk in serving lamb shank covered in foam; blueberries and Funyuns with beef tartare; scallops in a gouchajang-white chocolate broth; or vichyssoise that's mostly a waffle. There's even more risk in going that route in a relatively conservative culinary town like Detroit.

But Schutte mostly succeeds, and because of that Besa is quietly one of Detroit's best new restaurants. Besa lands on the "finer" side of the dining scale, with a sleek, contemporary interior that's right at home on the ground floor of the Vinton Building in Gilbertville, and a party of two can easily drop a bill there. For all that's going on in Detroit's dining landscape, there's really not too much like what Schutte is doing with Besa.

The best place to start is the raw bar and the beef tartare. The small, rectangular portion of raw meat is mixed with oyster mayo and lemon, then studded with dried blueberries, and enhanced with Funyuns. Schutte notes the oyster brine helps pull out the Michigan Holstein beef's flavor, which he says is superior to Angus or Wagyu. The Skull Island prawn ceviche is another raw menu hit. The prawns are the jumbo wild variety from Australia that Besa cuts into small pieces that are marinated with diced onions and red pepper in a 3:2:1 ratio of lime, orange, and lemon juice. That's arranged on the plate with popped sorghum and clarified butter, which provides sort of a buttery "popcorn" effect that jives with the citrus. Besa's tiny West Coast oysters are super fresh and served with a mix of whole pickled mustard seed and bacon mignotte, which I enjoyed despite my preference for distraction-free oysters.

The sweet and savory theme is found throughout the menu, including in the sea scallops, a plate on which Schutte douses three pucks of scallops with a gochujang-white chocolate broth. It works because the white chocolate's sweetness and fat cuts through the gochujang's heat, Schutte says. That sits in a creamy polenta that holds small cubes of salty braised bacon and acidic bites of crunchy pickled red onion.

Perhaps the menu's best territory is the pasta section. Agnolotto is the singular form of agnolotti, a cousin of ravioli. The plate holds one long agnolotto tube that Schutte covers with emulsified marrow and stuffs with housemade ricotta mixed with microthyme, citrus, and cream cheese. The dough is flavored with pastrami spice, which is sweet from the brown sugar, and the emulsified marrow is made with apple vinegar reduction and cream. It's safe to say that you've likely never had anything like it, and you'll probably want more. The agnolotto comes under three small bunches of wild mushrooms, and the entire plate is dusted with pastrami spice.

Like its agnolotto cousin, the raviolo is a singular ravioli, but it's made from ramen dough that gives the texture and bounce of what you'd find in a bowl at a Japanese restaurant like Katsu. Besa fills the raviolo with black garlic cream, a fermented garlic that turns jet black and is sweet, but not particularly garlicky. That's topped with a prawn and almond pesto flavored by chile de arbol, lemon, parsley, and more. Unlike the other pasta dishes, Schutte's buckwheat pappardelle consists of a small bowl of noodles, and its flavor profile is driven be the liberal use of aged cherry. That's punctured by little shocks of braised peppercorns that can be eaten whole because Schutte puts them in a pressure cooker for 90 minutes, reducing the bite while maintaining the peppery finish. The addition of soft, nutty Midnight Moon goat cheese gives the dish even more depth.

Vichyssoise is typically a rich, chilled creamy potato and leek soup, but Besa's take on it involves a potato waffle set on a plate among splashes of vichyssoise. The waffle holds a little tab of leek butter and sits atop a mess of warm, sauteed leeks. It's a good package, but the best part was the actual vichyssoise, and I found myself wanting a bowl of that. The lamb shank is everything a killer $42 lamb shank should be — a giant bone that's essentially a club of fall-off-the-bone lamb meat laced with super soft fat. It's chai-braised, and the earthy chai spice works well with lamb meat. It's accompanied by pureed parsnip and charred parsley root, and the package is covered in foam.

The wine list is hundreds of bottles deep, which means there's something for everyone, and Besa's cocktail game seems to be on par with its food.

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