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The RenCen’s Hearth 71 is more than a restaurant with a view 

click to enlarge Half chicken.

Tom Perkins

Half chicken.

By the time Coach Insignia at the top of Detroit's Renaissance Center closed several years ago, it was best to visit the restaurant for a beer and incredible view instead of dinner. The food service had, in a word, declined. But there's not a better view of the city, so it remained a favorite.

Shawn McClain, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind the newest restaurants on the RenCen's 71st and 72nd floors, set out to turn the city's most elevated space into a spot where one goes for food first and the view second.

Or, rather, spots. McClain took on the insane task of opening four concepts in the two floors that used to hold Coach — a high-end, slightly pricey steakhouse called Highlands; a more accessible restaurant called Hearth 71; a craft cocktail bar called the High Bar; and an event space that occupies the top floor and isn't accessible to the 71st floor's diners.

If there's a drawback to the new setup, it's that one can't really walk around the entire building without passing through three concepts. If there's a plus, it's that there are now three concepts from which to choose.

McClain says Hearth 71 grew out of a desire to offer a more casual spot, and the New American plates that are familiar. To be honest, the genre is a bit risky, as it's a snooze in the wrong hands. But that isn't the case here. McClain notes that, after three months, the restaurant is still a work in progress — "finding our footing," as he puts it — and that was evident in a few spots.

The steak, for example, is one of several recipes that has changed or been tweaked in recent weeks as Hearth tries to find the right formula. The version we tried was good — a sizable portion of sliced skirt steak arrives over or among pureed avocado and splashes of salsa verde that seems a bit like chimichurri, grilled radicchio, and crispy potatoes. All great stuff, especially when taken together, but the flavors didn't quite pop like I expected them to.

However, one spot down on the menu is the half brick chicken with sweet pickled mushrooms, edible flowers, lima beans, and two pieces of bird flavored with chicken jus and a good whiff of thyme, salt, and a touch of sugar. This was another that McClain says is a work in progress, but it seems like it might be time to halt the work. It's perhaps the menu's best dish.

Among the small plates is the Spanish baked eggs, an awesome dish with complementing flavors and textures in its sunny-side up egg that sits among a mix of carrots, potatoes, red pepper, and chestnuts in a spicy tomato sauce fueled by smoked paprika and garlic. It's served with crusty bread. Also excellent is the mushroom bucatini, an umami-heavy plate of bucatini pasta in an intense mushroom stock that's brought down with a little truffle and mushroom paste, and "reinforced" with more mushrooms. Layers of umami on umami.

The crispy fried yukons are, at the end of the day, fried potatoes, but there's more to it. McClain slow-cooks them in a malt vinegar brine with garlic and herbs before smashing them, letting them cool off, then frying them. Wonderful flavor and nice texture with the crunchy skins. I don't usually go for baba ghanoush, but Hearth adds sesame seeds, which offer an interesting dimension.

The only other bummer came in the spicy arugula salad. The honeynut, butternut, and acorn squash are jumbled with arugula, greens, and crushed hazelnuts. That's hit with an excellent charred lemon vinaigrette and hazelnut oil, though there was only a faint hint of it. I don't need my salad swimming in its dressing, but it really could've used a bit more vinaigrette. That's a really simple detail to fix, and it's hard not to wonder if such a quality-control oversight isn't the result of the unwieldy load that McClain faces in getting four concepts off the ground. Though three of the four occupy the same floor and share a bar, kitchen, and staff, it's still a different game than focusing on one idea and menu. But there's something to be said for McClain's plan to offer choices instead of one exclusive spot that people visit only once per year.

The High Bar offers a long list of cocktails, like the Pomme and Circumstance, with Laird's Applejack, apple cider, fresh lemon, house made ginger syrup, and ginger beer. The scotch selection is deep, and the beer selection is on point. A dessert with two warm chocolate chip cookies and a vanilla shake made with Guernsey ice cream is a fine way to cap a meal. All that said, I'm looking forward to tasting what's in store at The Highlands. Oh, and, yes — the view is still as incredible as ever.

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