As in the past several years, metro Detroit's restaurant community grew exponentially in 2017. A crop of young, talented chefs launched their rookie efforts around the region. Several established and decorated chefs and restaurateurs returned to Detroit to ply their trade in their suddenly hot hometown. Some of the area's biggest names opened or announced new projects, while a few underrated cooks did their thing at pop-ups or in food carts. We not only saw all that in greater downtown and the burbs, but also in the city's outer neighborhoods, where minority and immigrant chefs started getting some deserved attention.
Here are the best dishes we found along the way while traveling through metro Detroit bite by bite over the last 12 months.
Tom Perkins' top 10 dishes
Chicken yassa at Maty's African Cuisine: Chef Amady Gueye opened Detroit's only Senegalese restaurant in March and immediately dazzled us with his salty and garlicky chicken yassa. He makes it by deep-frying a whole bird to a crisp, dipping it in a bright vinegar-mustard marinade, then charring it above an open-flame. The chicken is stuffed with minced garlic, parsley, and onion that permeates the moist meat, and the package arrives next to a vibrant, thick vinegar-mustard and sautéed onion sauce. (21611 Grand River Ave., Detroit ; 313-472-5885)
Open-faced pumpernickel pierogi with beet-cured tuna at Bumbo's: Hamtramck chef Brian Krawczyk builds dishes at his weekly Wednesday pop-up from a Polish foundation, and from that base he charts a lot of new territory with his creative recipes (like the Hawaiian pierogi stuffed with spam and topped with a pineapple creme). But Krawzcyk is at his best when he cures fresh fish, and there's little under the sun like his open-faced pumpernickel pierogi with beet-cured tuna. The deep red tuna arrives atop the dough with cucumber, pickled mustard seed, and dill vinaigrette. The result tastes almost like a Polish tuna Reuben. Intriguing? It always is at Bumbo's. (3001 Holbrook St., Hamtramck; 313-285-8239)
Carne de res guisada at Asty Time: The best dishes at the Dominican Asty Time are those driven by sofrito, a slurry of aromatics that is the base of much of the Caribbean's cooking. Asty's variation is comprised of sautéed garlic, onions, bell peppers, celery, oregano, green onions, cilantro, lime, and a small amount of soy sauce. It's also behind the deep flavor in the carne de res guisada, a dish of stewed beef that soaks in a small puddle of sofrito sauce and falls apart with the slightest nudge from your fork. (7340 McGraw Ave., Detroit; 313-285-9390)
House-smoked salmon with roe at Ima: Close your eyes and throw a dart at Ima's menu and you'll hit something worth considering for Detroit's best dish of the year, but the bright house-smoked salmon with roe over rice stands apart. Chef Mike Ransom's dry-brined, applewood-smoked salmon fillet is cooked sous vide, which he explains is what leaves it with a silky texture. Mix up fish with avocado, cucumber, cabbage-wakame slaw, pickled ginger, micro shiso, sesame-yuzu sauce, salmon roe, and house furikake seasoning and you have what are some of Detroit's best bites. (2015 Michigan Ave., Corktown, Detroit 313-502-5959)
Michigan smoked ribeye at the Apparatus Room: Michelin-starred chef Thomas Lents dry ages for three weeks beef brought in from Ferndale's Farm Field Table, then cold smokes it before cooking. The resulting subtle smokiness is perfect — you'll know it's there, but it doesn't dominate. That's crucial because you'll not want to be distracted from the deeply flavorful beef au jus made from roasted oxtail, or the mellow, creamy celery root purée, which is superior to the standard starch side. That's all served with root vegetables roasted in rendered beef fat, and the plate is finished with black trumpet mushrooms and flowering watercress. All told, it's a refined dish that reveals why there was so much anticipation for Lents and Apparatus Room in early 2017. (250 W. Larned St., Detroit; 313-800-5600)
Mohammara at Al Chabab: The umami-rich, deep red Aleppian paste could be mistaken for a form of hummus, but is actually a mix of Aleppo peppers, pomegranate, walnuts, Aleppo pistachios, olive oil, and spices. The Syrian city's cuisine benefits from its unique-for-the-Middle East climate and soil, as well as its position along the former Silk Road, which means centuries of civilizations left their prints on its recipes. It's an altogether singular cuisine, and chef Chamo Barakat's mohammara puts that display. (12930 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn; 313-582-2927)
Detroit-style pizza at Loui's Pizza: It's rare that a past generation's culinary icon stands the test of time. Seemingly as a rule, yesteryear's best restaurants cut corners, opened locations all over town, or found some other way to diminish quality. You'll find no such dip at Loui's. Not only does it make Detroit's best pie, its Detroit-style deep dish belongs in the best pizza in America conversation. The restaurant opened in 1977 in Hazel Park, still uses a pound of Wisconsin brick cheese on its large pies, and ensures that caramelized cheese edges the lightest and crunchiest crust in metro Detroit. (23141 Dequindre Rd., Hazel Park; 248-547-1711)
Caldo de res at Antonio's Coney Island: It may call itself a coney island, but the Honduran menu is what pulls in customers in this tiny Ypsilanti restaurant. Caldo de res, or beef soup, is a central American standard, but Antonio's does it best with big hunks of super tender beef, vegetables, and starchy yucca in a complex broth. (2896 Washtenaw Ave., Ypsilanti; 734-905-7321)
Perfume Fish at Trizest: It's a rarity to find the mouth-numbing dried berries called Sichuan peppercorns in metro Detroit's "Szechuan" restaurants. That's partly because cooks here bent Sichuan dishes to suit American tastes for so many years, and the berries were illegal until 2005. Trizest uses them liberally, and to great effect in plates like Perfume Fish. A fork full of it ignites shifting oral sensations that are to varying degrees warm, tingly, and refreshing — the result of the peppercorns working with three varieties of fermented hot peppers. Trizest's Perfume Fish looks threatening when it arrives in a pool of scarlet oil with bean sprouts, mushrooms, and all those peppers, but it won't singe your mouth. I'd say it offers metro Detroit's most pleasant burn. (33170 Dequindre Rd., Sterling Heights; 586-268-1450)
Brown stew chicken at Jamaican Pot: Detroit's small Jamaican food community doesn't get quite the attention that it should. If you've never sampled curry goat or jerk chicken, a good place to start is the Jamaican Pot, a small carryout spot on Eight Mile Road near Greenfield. But chef Mama Rose's best plate is her brown stew chicken, which is a full and flavorful mix of tender chicken, garlic, scallion, thyme, onion, browning, and other seasonings. (14615 W. 8 Mile Rd., Detroit; 313-659-6033)
Jane Slaughter's top 10 dishes
The tuna poke bowl at Sushi Coup: It came with a startling amount of ruby-red tuna, as fresh and satiny as a rose petal, and red onion slivers, cucumber slices dusted with black sesame seeds, romaine, seaweed salad, and avocado smashed to just the right consistency, all atop warm sushi rice. Each ingredient, rich or tart, warm or cool, in whatever combination, brought out the best in every other ingredient. The tuna (from True World Foods, which specializes in Asian seafood) was hand-line-caught rather than net-caught. Praises be that this Hawaiian specialty finally made it to Detroit. (147 W. Auburn Rd., Rochester Hills; 248-260-7633)
The shredded pork tamal at El Catracho: It was made by hand by Honduras native Sandra Padilla: moist, square, substantial, cooked in a plantain leaf, the masa imbued with pork juice, and barely a distant relative to the dry tubes with little stuffing that pass for tamales in Mexican places here. It makes sense that a place where the cook hand-pats corn tortillas — they're thicker, softer, cornier — and grinds her own morro seeds for horchata would put this much care into a $2.25 tamale. (4627 Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-784-9361)
The Brussels sprouts at Gather: Chef Jessie Patuano, new to Gather this fall, produced an entrée-size mound roasted with hazelnuts, an inspired pairing. The charring and crispness levels were perfect, the interiors soft, the outsides lightly caramelized. Melted raclette, a Swiss cheese, brought it all together. Patuano sticks with ingredients that are available locally and seasonally, so don't expect to find sprouts on her menu every month. (1454 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; 586-850-0205)
And the Brussels sprouts at River Bistro: Chef Maxcel Hardy, who opened his "Low Country and Caribbean" restaurant this summer, first sautéed the sprouts with bacon, then tossed them with garlic and Parmesan, producing a smoky richness. The sprouts are so popular with customers he goes through a case in a day. (18456 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-953-2225; riverbistrodetroit.com)
The roasted golden beet soup at Lady of the House: Chef-owner Kate Williams is dedicated to surprising the diner with unusual combinations like this smooth soup that hid shredded duck confit. The soup itself delivered sweetness followed by heat, like a parfait in a bowl, and I could feel the chef's orchestrating hand. Then the duck chimed in with its own earthiness. Perched on the bowl was a slab of pine-nut brittle just for fun. All Williams' dishes are like that: a lot going on, all of it good. (1426 Bagley Ave., Detroit; 313-818-0218)
The salmon at Red Dunn Kitchen: I ordered the Bakkafrost salmon (from the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic) rare, and it was, both in the not-very-cooked sense and in the how-often-do-you-taste-this sense — luscious deep pink and melting in the mouth. Pickled chilis cut the richness, and it came with three kinds of carrots, including cumin-roasted. In all of his protein dishes, chef Jay Gundy handily disproved the notion that a hotel restaurant can't be good. (1331 Trumbull Ave., Detroit; 313-887-9477)
The marrow at Conserva: It's impossible to think of anything richer and more umami-laden. The big bones were split and roasted, leaving the diner the well-worth-it chore of digging out the concentrated fatty delight and piling it on toast. The amounts were small but would have been cloying if the chef had provided all you thought you wanted. A tapenade of wild royal trumpet mushrooms was heaped on top. Chef-owner Matthew Baldridge said, "I'm just going to cook and stay away from normalcy," and delivers. (201 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-291-6133)
The steak and eggs at Parc: The name was a misnomer, prices were high, and the dish was ugly to behold, resting in a foamy green sludge of puréed parsley. But chef Jordan Hoffman had worked some sort of magic trick on the braised short ribs, which emerged spectacularly tender, and even the lowly poached egg added more than seemed possible for an egg. Watching the skaters on the ice rink outside, while eating warm food within, was a bonus. (800 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-922-7272)
The Boombap at Ima: The dish is Chef Mike Ransom's take on the Korean bi bim bap. I added ginger beef for an extra $3, then tasted each element separately first, arrayed in their pretty bowl, before swirling them into the mix. Each was flawless on its own — musky shiitakes, fluffy rice, a medium chili sauce — and even better with its friends. Pickle slices were ultra-thin, made in-house by quickly processing cucumber in rice vinegar and mirin in a vacuum seal machine. A crisp-edged fried egg helped them all to play nicely together. (2015 Michigan Ave., Corktown, Detroit 313-502-5959)
The ceviche at La Dulce downtown, now sadly closed: Fish, shrimp and octopus were combined with coconut cream and red onions. Despite the coconut, the result was not sweet at all, and all the flavors shone through despite high spice levels. Too bad owner Luis Negrete, who waited on us himself, charmingly, couldn't quit his day job to make La Dulce a go.
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