How Tre Monti went from dazzling to spectacular

Perfecting a gem

Aug 10, 2016 at 1:00 am
Filetto di Cervo.
Filetto di Cervo. Photo by Scott Spellman.

Metro Detroit has been getting wowed by the superbly executed northern Italian cuisine from the kitchen at Tre Monti for years. Since it's been under the helm of Zharko Palushaj for the past five years, the restaurant (which sits behind the San Marino Club castle on Big Beaver Road) has been winning praise time and again. Its portions were bountiful. Its sauces rich and creamy. Its pastas always freshly prepared.

View 22 photos from Tre Monti here

So why change what was so evidently working? Look around the area's current dining landscape — with a number of eateries taking modern approaches to Italian cooking — and it's clear that if one is to succeed in this increasingly competitive market, one must step up his or her game.

That's what Palushaj did when he recently shuttered the restaurant temporarily to give the place an overhaul. Much of space remains the same in terms of décor: memorabilia from the tiny nation of San Marino (just northeast of Italy) still dots the lobby. Luxurious fabric still hangs from the ceiling. And the garden is still as romantic as ever. What's different is in the back of the house. To reboot the menu, Palushaj recently brought on wonder kid Benedetto Palazzolo. At 23, the chef already has an impressive resume. He trained at the International Culinary Academy in New York and ALMA in Parma, Italy, and has worked at places like the Michelin-starred Jean Georges in NYC, and most recently at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach (a — gasp! — Donald Trump property).

Say what you want about his former employer, Palazzolo is a whiz in the kitchen, with a style that suggests he has experience in molecular gastronomy, while still maintaining time-honored Italian culinary techniques. Straight away, he went to work to update his new workspace — starting first with replacing the cooking staff. He swapped out huge portions of traditional fare made up mostly of chicken, veal, and pasta dishes in favor of smaller dishes (not to be confused with small plates) that allow for the diner to get a varied taste of his culinary prowess. While some longtime customers may be put off by the new setup, Palushaj tells us it's the die-hard foodies that he hopes will come with renewed interest.

The menu is organized by antipasti, a handful of pasta dishes, and main courses, as well as a prix fixe, seven-course meal for $90. We opted for the prix fixe, while our dining guest went with a raspberry gazpacho and the Colorado rack of lamb. To drink, we selected a prosecco on the lower end of the vast wine list.

Our feast started with an amouse bouch consisting of a tiny square of cantaloupe soaked in Champagne with a watermelon-lime puree — a light and refreshing start for a summer meal. Next up, the gazpacho, with Thai chilies, crunchy watermelon gherkin, and olive oil foam. The broth was poured over the soup's contents, allowing the oil to liquefy and swim harmoniously with the fruity flavors. What followed were courses just large enough for our dining partner to dig in as well. The insalata di Gamberoni featured monstrous butterfly shrimp atop mesclun greens, Euro cucumber, and tomato concasse — all drizzled with a slightly sweet pear vinaigrette. As an interval between the main course, the oricchette carbonara — with a 63-degree sous-vide egg, guanciale (cured meat), broccoli, rabe florets, and parmigiano reggiano — came out splendid, with the yoke-y egg holding chunks of meat, pasta, and veggies perfectly together.

Our prix fixe meal came with a filleto di cervo (venison tenderloin). Glazed with chili and cooked medium rare, the filet almost melted in our mouths. Paired with charred, white asparagus, shitake mushrooms, and crunchy polenta, the dish divinely added a hearty sequence to our experience. Our dining partner's lamb was prepared exquisitely rare (chef's temperature) and paired nicely with a medley of pickled vegetables, and a truffle potato croquette.

By then we could have easily been satisfied with the chocolate mousse that comes standard with the tasting menu, but our hosts had something else in mind for dessert. First, to prepare our palates, we were served a delightful pre-dessert of rose water lychee curd on a macaron. And then our server came out with a white sheet of paper to cover our table, in anticipation of the grand finale. Palazzolo followed, wheeling out a curious cart. He started by painting strokes of sweet sauces on the paper: a dark merlot, a salted caramel, a white chocolate. He dusted his canvas with powdered sweets, piles of cocoa nibs, and Turkish delight squares. After a dramatic pause, he smashed a dark chocolate sphere (imported from Morocco) filled with strawberry tuile, marshmallow, walnut almond Florentine, white chocolate pound cake, dehydrated yogurt foam, cotton candy, vanilla sponge, and chocolate fudge on the table — for a spectacular show called the "Piñata." It was one of the most whimsical and smile-inducing desert displays we've ever seen ––one that has to be experienced to believe. Using small spoons and shards of that dark chocolate as scoops, we playfully indulged like kids on Christmas morning.

Tre Monti is the kind of place where one might pop the question or celebrate a major milestone. When we were greeted by our incredibly charming wait staff, we were asked what special occasion brought us in for the night. Alas, we replied it was life we were celebrating. Once you try the new cuisine here, you'll be celebrating, too.