Review: Trump’s loss is Detroit’s gain at Apparatus Room 

click to enlarge Lamb shank from the Apparatus Room.

Tom Perkins

Lamb shank from the Apparatus Room.

Well-heeled foodies have been abuzz about the installation of a Michelin two-star chef at a downtown hotel. The Michelin Guide's "inspectors" don't even visit Detroit! But Battle Creek native Thomas Lents told the Free Press he wanted to return to Michigan partly because of a "What is my life about?" cancer scare, and partly because, since the election, it's not always been fun working in Chicago's Trump Tower.

Yes, while under Lents' charge, Trump's Sixteen restaurant was rated at two Michelin stars ("excellent cooking, worth a detour"). I have no data, but likely some potential diners decided that any Trump property was worth detouring away from.

Now Lents is presiding over a refurbished firehouse in a prime location a block from Cobo, with the fancy DFD shield carved on the front. The huge doors that used to open for the fire trucks are now glass. It's spacious and airy, with lots of leather and a big easy chair-sofa seating area.

click to enlarge Vegetable fritters. - PHOTO BY TOM PERKINS
  • Photo by Tom Perkins
  • Vegetable fritters.

I thought I should dress up a bit for a Michelin-anointed guy, but no one else in the Apparatus Room agreed — it's a decidedly dressed-down crowd. Nor was the Room quite as expensive as I'd predicted, because entrée prices are kept in line with other restaurants'; it's the starters, sides and desserts that are higher. And brunch is pretty nervy: $14 for scrambled eggs.

Just about everything my friends and I sampled at the Apparatus Room was fantastic. As one would hope.

Scanning the menu, one diner remarked, "To order a vegetarian main course, I would be compelled to eat nettles." That would be the farro risotto, which incorporates the thorny plant. But she was more than satisfied when she put together some plates from the starters and sides lists.

Like pine-roasted carrots with lemon ricotta and pine nut granola, served cool, a remarkably complex dish that includes piquant pickled onions. And chewy Kalettes, which look more like kale and taste more like Brussels sprouts. They're hard to eat — you pretty much have to pick up a stalk in your fingers to tear off a chunk — but worth it, with a mustardy anchovy aioli.

Likewise burrata (a concoction of fresh mozzarella and cream), also cool, served with brûléed pink grapefruit, avocado, and some baby peppers.

I shared with her a bite of my vegetable fritters, a surprisingly complex dish where the heat starts mild and grows. They're served with delicately pickled radishes, beets, and onions, very crunchy.

click to enlarge Pine-roasted carrots. - PHOTO BY TOM PERKINS
  • Photo by Tom Perkins
  • Pine-roasted carrots.

For flesh-eaters, I loved the rich lamb shank with the Flintstones-style bone you could use to hoist it, if you dared. Don't neglect the gremolata the lamb rests on, strongly flavored with blood orange. With it we ordered a side of rich deep-fried potatoes, cooked with mustard seeds and served with spiced yogurt.

My friend raved about both his customary oysters — "plump, small, a tart brine that brings out the oyster flavor" — and a very moist halibut, also with an enhancing broth. I regard halibut as the king of fishes, after only Dover sole, and the home of a two-star chef is a pretty good place to try it out.

Lents offers $18 pastas in less-than-entrée sizes. I went for the cavatelli — such solid, firm little morsels, with musky, deep suckling pig and a chili bite in the sauce.

The birthday couple next to us had opted for the "chef's choice," whose price varies but that night was $85 each. They were presented with waves of food, including a giant salmon not on the regular menu. And a doggy bag.

Brunch is served a la carte on weekends from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Here I felt captive hotel guests were falling victim to hotel-restaurant syndrome — not in the sense of poor quality, just in the sense of high prices. $4 for a latte and $5 for O.J.? $10 for avocado toast?

Nonetheless, my messy English breakfast sandwich on a soft brioche bun was scrumptious, if not as stellar as the nighttime offerings; it was tart with roasted tomatoes and blood sausage. And a single waffle was lighter than most and a very sweet experience indeed, with candied hickory nuts and some intense preserved cherries.

click to enlarge Cavatelli - PHOTO BY TOM PERKINS
  • Photo by Tom Perkins
  • Cavatelli

The dishes that drew the most raves from our party were the desserts (all $12). One used a traditional ginger-rhubarb combo together with buttermilk panna cotta, for a stunning heat-bland two-punch. We giggled over the "Foraged Bolivian Chocolate" — is it made from beans picked up from the jungle floor? But the dish, a chocolate bar soft enough to eat with a spoon, comes with tangy goat's milk sherbet and ... grapefruit. Who knew grapefruit and chocolate could combine so well?

Bottles of wine run $45-$231 ($10-$18 for a glass) and come from Europe and the West Coast. There's a large selection of fancy spirits and Michigan drafts and a small selection of cocktails, like an appropriately bitter Negroni. My thin and sour Luis Pato from Portugal was my only disappointment of my visits.

The designer of the seven-page drinks menu, bound in supple leather, found a great quote from Charles Lindbergh to grace the first page: "I never had a dull moment at Detroit." Thomas Lents is working in that spirit.

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