Heat of the moment

Oct 12, 2005 at 12:00 am

There’s hardly a more blighted strip of street north of New Orleans than Michigan Avenue. I live near it and work on it, next door to the Hard Body Café. The immigration of the last 15 years has brought new residents and new businesses to the area — the southwest side is the only part of the city that gained population between the last two censuses. But the landscape is still as scarred and ugly as ever.

Except the structure at 2138 Michigan Ave. A few blocks west of Tiger Stadium, in a meticulously revamped 1880s building, three young entrepreneurs are taking a chance on nearby Corktown and on the public’s love of barbecue and beer.

Slows, open only since Sept. 23, caters to a mix of hipsters, folks from area businesses and suburban brewheads titillated by the two-year buildup for the restaurant. Many are clustered around the U-shaped bar, which is trimmed with wood salvaged from the building’s years as an empty shell. Some walls are warm pink brick; other walls match the tabletops with mellow, glowing wood, painstakingly planed, sanded and refinished by co-owners Phillip Cooley and Dean St. Souver to their own design. The place is spacious, with high ceilings and big windows on that scene outside (best view in town of Duncan Speedometer). It’s a delight to sit in and sip.

The locals are loving it. Some are shelling out for 750-milliliter bottles of Belgian beer, or ordering one of 20 brews on tap, about half of them imported. The beers range from $2.50 Rouge Chipotle Ale from Oregon (mahogany, bitter) through Young’s Double Chocolate Stout (very smooth, dark and coffee-ish, with a kick at the end) to a high-maintenance Belgian lady, Castelain Ch’ti Blonde, $19. In between is something for everyone, including a good selection of Michigan-mades.

There’s a reason the owners named the place Bar BQ — the ambiance is more bar than restaurant. Yet the food gets just as much attention as the beers and the informative, reasonably priced wine list. The third co-owner, Detroit native Brian Perrone, was formerly chef de cuisine at No. VI Chophouse in Novi, so he knows his way around a hunk of animal protein.

Perrone is serving slow-cooked pig meat and traditional sides, some of them as good as Mom’s best, some with a twist. He knows, of course, that you add the barbecue sauce after the meat’s cooked, and he’s concocted five sauces to be served at the table in squeeze bottles. He hit upon the (secret) recipes on his first or second try.

Slows’ baby back ribs are appropriately tender and succulent. I like “Slows Spicy” sauce best on these; it’s fruity and hot but doesn’t go overboard. The correct cooking and saucing of pulled pork is an obsession in North Carolina, and on that you’d use “NC Sauce.” I had a Raleigh native with me, and he got worried when he squeezed some NC Sauce onto his finger and tasted Tabasco. But on the pork, the necessary vinegar flavor comes through, and my friend issued high praise: “It’s definitely good for out of state. I’d eat it again.”

St. Louis spareribs are done blacker than the back ribs; many would like “Sweet Slows” sauce on these, with its woodsy tang. Beef-eaters can try hickory-smoked short ribs or a pound of thin-sliced brisket.

A fellow diner thought her blackened catfish was served spicier than the server had implied. Use your own judgment and fire quotient. Perrone’s salmon is melt-in-mouth, with sweetness grilled into the top layer. I found his jambalaya overloaded with filé and same-tasting-throughout, though, despite the pretty whole crawfish on top.

As my Carolina friend put it, Slows has the hub down, and most of the spokes. Some spokes that could use more attention are its black beans — bland as can be — and cornbread — undercooked and tasting of baking soda. (Note that this was only week two, and there’s still fine-tuning going on.

Mac and cheese, on the other hand, is that great combination of sharp-creamy that’s this dish at its traditional best. Potato salad could have come straight out of my Alabama mother’s picnic basket. Mashed sweet potatoes are plain and just dandy that way. And Perrone has tarted up his black-eyed peas with thyme, which works.

His green beans are way crisper than the Southern norm — has no one the patience to let them simmer? — and topped with onions and mustard — too much one night, just right another. Baked beans are mysterious, not too sweet, certainly a departure from the norm.

There’s a generous list of appetizers, salads, sandwiches and soups, including chili, and gumbo with andouille and shellfish. Perrone looks away from Southern cooking for a moment with his “duck plate”: sausage, smoked breast with cherry sauce, and bacon-wrapped rillette, served with a butter-soaked biscuit. The “Phillip’s Dream” starter is divine: warm corn flan atop goat cheese atop a green tomato, with onion marmalade to hold it together. Sleep on, Phil.

For dessert, Perrone prefers to strut his stuff rather than evoke institutions — no peach cobbler here. His “apple pie” is a Chinese-style steamed bun with apple filling. Pecan dessert isn’t pie, but a crêpe with frozen pecan filling, served with a ginger snap and Port-poached pear.

The dessert to kill for, though, is White Russian: Kahlua chocolate mousse with panna cotta and fresh raspberries. Rarely have those old partners, berries and chocolate, been so well paired.

Note that although Slows has a nominal nonsmoking section, that only means no ashtrays on those tables. If it’s a busy night, when you leave, you will reek. But you’ll be part of the renaissance of Michigan Avenue. Watch for the wine bar taking shape across the street. It’s a project of restaurateur John Lopez, who specializes in placing diamonds in the rough.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].