American splendor

Mar 22, 2006 at 12:00 am

Over the past few years, Ferndale has begun to surpass Royal Oak as the suburban destination of choice for restaurants catering to adults. The December opening of the Oak City Grill in the old Woodruff's on Sixth in Royal Oak represents an admirable attempt to reverse that trend.

The Grill is a step up from owner Mike Sophiea's last restaurant, Rumors, the now-shuttered, venerable burger-and-beer joint that arrived on Main Street in 1985, when then-sleepy Royal Oak was best known for its army-navy store. With a full kitchen ably presided over by Chris Lambert, formerly of Big Buck Brewery, and his two capacious rooms patrolled by Al Silveri, an experienced manager who worked at Boocoo, Sophiea's new enterprise fills several gaps on the Royal Oak entertainment-dining scene by providing traditional American cuisine at decent prices.

Sophiea wisely did not dismantle the unique stage perched above the huge curving bar in the Grill's lounge area. However, his playbill is not as jazz-oriented as Woodruff's had been, and his schedule is less ambitious, with live performances only on Thursdays through Saturdays. In addition, although he did add a few tasteful touches to the decor, the basic outlines of Woodruff's (and, to some degree, even the earlier Kyla's) remain, highlighted by the expansive windowed front that opens to the street in the summer.

The menu itself is more limited than Woodruff's, offering more appetizers and salads (17) than entrées (10). According to Silveri, the large number of appetizers appeals to many late-night diners who prefer to nibble on small plates in the lounge rather than order a soup-to-nuts meal in the dining room. Moreover, by keeping the entrées to a manageable number, he can maintain better quality and cost control.

This does lead to a peculiar price structure, with appetizers averaging around $8 and more than half of the entrées coming in at a modest $16. Wine is also quite reasonable, with most of the bottles ranging from the low twenties to the low thirties.

The appetizers are slightly more daring than the entrées. A roasted red pepper stuffed with herbed goat cheese and garlic surrounded by perfectly toasted pita points or two huge, grilled, oh-so-tender portobello caps, marinated in a balsamic dressing are characteristic of Lambert's flair with firsts. On the latter, however, the promised greens, shreds of which poked out from beneath the caps, were a bit uninspired.

Among the familiar dishes rounding out the usual suspects on appetizer lists are crab cakes in a lobster cream sauce, baked brie, shrimp cocktail and calamari.

On the occasion that we ordered the soup of the day, the seemingly innocuous variation on white bean proved so peppery that Christian, our accomplished server, concurred that something must have gone awry in the kitchen.

On the other hand, the spinach salad (entrées are a la carte), flecked with feta, onions, dried cherries and tomatoes, and laced with a slightly tangy, creamy balsamic vinaigrette, could be another recommended first course for those venturing on to the large plates.

Most of those large plates revolve around grilled meats, fish, and fowl — nothing too fancy or fussy. Typical is the marinated salmon, grilled to a crusty turn, and happily not overwhelmed by the few dollops of the dill cream sauce. Although the comes-with vegetables were well-seasoned as advertised, they may be a bit overcooked for some tastes.

Of the three chicken creations, Christian suggested Oak City (what else?) chicken with mushrooms and mashed potatoes in a Marsala sauce, as against Michigan barbecued chicken with dried cherries and green onions or lemon chicken with artichoke in a sort of piccata sauce. All three are anchored by breasts, so those searching for dark meat will have to seek satisfaction elsewhere. To grill a thick chicken breast properly — visibly charred on the outside while maintaining an inner tenderness — is not an easy feat, even in a restaurant kitchen. Lambert easily passes muster here.

His other mains are pecan-encrusted trout, two steaks, pork chops marinated in a Dijon-soy sauce, and two pastas, one with chicken breast (again) and the other with shrimp. And that's it, with an occasional special thrown in. One wonders whether this solid but limited list of all-American standards will attract enough repeat diners to make the Oak City Grill a neighborhood haunt of the loft-dwellers currently filling up downtown Royal Oak.

They might, however, drop in for the special dessert we had one occasion, a thick, moist, and fruity bread pudding that belongs on the slim regular dessert menu, not all of which are house-made.

As with most new restaurants, it is too soon to tell the direction Oak City Grill may go over the coming months. So far it is drifting in the right direction.

Mel Small, who reviewed restaurants for MT from 1982-85, is distinguished professor of history at Wayne State University, and has very good table manners. Send comments to [email protected].