I'll get my ritual complaints about the casino out of the way first: I've never seen such a grim-faced assortment of humanity, glued to their screens. The milieu was more cheerful when I worked on the line at Chrysler. As my companion put it, as we race-walked through the cascading electronic clamor to the far end of the building, "At least the dog races have dogs."
But after you've made it through the smoky din, Saltwater itself is an oasis of tranquility. Exceptionally skilled servers — affable and well-informed — take good care of you. The U-shaped bar is perhaps too close to the casino proper to be thoroughly relaxing, but it's good-looking.
And the food is marvelous. The menu was designed by San Francisco chef Michael Mina, whose official title on Saltwater's website is "celebrity chef," and Mina does his best to bring the ocean's delights inland.
I'd venture that the number of Detroit-area diners who know the difference between a Tatamagouche oyster from Nova Scotia and a Beausoleil from New Brunswick is very, very small, but I congratulate those mavens and wish them joy choosing among 19 different East and West Coast varieties. My friend ordered a Japanese-style oyster shooter, with sake, wasabi, fresh lime and ponzu, downed it in the prescribed one gulp, and pronounced it first-rate. There are plenty more shrimp, crabs, clams, mussels and lobster to dine on raw or in cocktails.
I never order shrimp cocktail, which usually means a nasty sauce, but I figured Saltwater was a good bet, and I was right; the mix included avocado, crème fraîche and lime juice (though the shrimp were too small and few). Another good appetizer, if anomalous, was chicken vegetable soup (a special for Detroit Restaurant Week), spiced completely differently from your bubbe's. And a Caesar salad came with fresh anchovies.
Best of all was ahi tartare, "Michael's Classic," mixed at the table by your server for a fine show. The ruby-red, jewel-like tuna was combined with chili powder, sesame oil, garlic, pine nuts, red and green chipotles and a quail egg, for a complex taste I would have liked a lot more of.
Other starters are New England clam chowder and mussels steamed with fennel and absinthe, and the "snacks" menu includes fish tacos, Maine lobster rolls, crab cake sliders and oysters Rockefeller.
Is it startling to see such humble dishes as fish and chips or clam linguine on the menu of an upscale restaurant? Not necessarily, if they're done with a twist or with flair, as the shrimp cocktail was. But I wanted to see what a San Franciscan did with cioppino, a shellfish stew in tomato broth that was invented in that city. Saltwater's was not so much a stew as seafood with sauce, every bite sublime: giant garlicky shrimp, clams and mussels, salty buttered toast to absorb the spicy broth. At $23 it's a mid-price entrée.
Also excellent were simply grilled swordfish, loin pieces served on skewers and brushed with garlic butter, and grilled mahi-mahi with dill. Those celebrating their winnings can go for $63 of surf-and-turf.
Or do what my companion did and unwittingly order an $85 lobster pot pie (designated on the menu as MP, market price, aka BB, buyer beware). This is Mina's signature dish, baked in a copper pot and deconstructed tableside. The server removes the top crust and places it on a plate, followed by the lobster pieces and vegetables, drenching it all with the brandy cream sauce in which it was baked. It looks like a huge mound of food — but then there are all those shells, and my friend finished his with very little help from the rest of us.
When Saltwater first opened, the pot pie was only the most expensive of a list of entrées that began in the 30s. Last summer both prices and offerings were toned down, but the pot pie was retained, as was a long and ambitious and quite pricey wine list. In the most pedestrian part of the inventory, California Chardonnays, most bottles are more than $100.
For dessert, there are house-made ice creams. We tried a selection: one scoop each of sour cream, malted milk and roasted banana rum with sea-salt streusel for crunch. Only the banana tasted like its name, but all were creamily or eggily luscious. And a banana parfait did more with puréed banana than I would have thought possible, topping it with burnt caramel. This is not a place to skip dessert.
Saltwater is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].