James Rigato has done it again, and in Hazel Park. His second restaurant, little Mabel Gray, is a carefully orchestrated mix of seeming blitheness in the decor and a piling-on of fastidious details in the food prep. The result is nothing but fun for lucky diners, who have filled the made-over Ham Heaven diner every night since it opened Oct. 1.
Service is gracious to the max; our party was offered compensatory champagne the moment it became clear we'd have to wait for our reserved table. The staff is not stuffy, either; we watched a hostess climb precariously onto a shelf above the bar to fetch bottles of wine.
The informal vibe Rigato is seeking is promoted by a fortissimo noise level, whimsical design such as an otter mural and a quilt of flags and Gibson Girls, bare tables, and mismatched plates and glasses (but cloth napkins). The height of the chef's aspirations is signaled by the well-informed servers, who are comfortable with all aspects of the ambitious menu. One night our desserts were presented by pastry chef Tina Conger herself.
Our party, all from Detroit, noted how often we'd dined in Ferndale but how seldom in Hazel Park, i.e., never. Yet the tiny industrial suburb is just a couple of miles away along Nine Mile Road. Could Mabel be the first harbinger of eastward-creeping gentrification?
Friends had visited the day Mabel opened, and complained that each dish they tried was cooked to perfection but burdened by a single overpowering ingredient, like blue cheese or hot pepper jelly. They were game to try again two months later, though, and quickly called themselves converts.
As a fan of Rigato's four-year-old the Root in White Lake, I needed no convincing. Be warned that my paeans to the dishes that follow can serve only as a rough guide, though, as the menu —studiously local — changes nearly daily. On my two visits a week apart, only five of the 12 menu items reappeared the second night, and three of them had been seriously re-engineered.
The menu is not divided into starters and mains; you have to guess by the prices or descriptions. Or ask that friendly server. I ordered roasted Brussels sprouts, with ham broth and a football-shaped poached egg, and found it would have been plenty for a main dish (at $12). Orders of green beans ($7) and broccoli ($8) by a vegetarian friend were similarly sizable. The beans came with a generous handful of crunchy almonds — not thin-sliced but chunky — with preserved lemons and a not-overpowering blue cheese, and the roasted broccoli, done to the just-right degree of tenderness, was aided by an olive-y aioli made from the business side of a deviled egg.
Sweet potatoes were as far from Thanksgiving sugar-surfeit as you can imagine: They got a zippy Mexican treatment, with pumpkin seeds, queso fresco, and mole verde. Crunchy cauliflower came with lemon, garlic, pecorino, and a handful of golden raisins in a creamy sauce.
When a chef decrees that Brussels sprouts will be garnished not just with charred onion but with pickled onion and onion mousse as well, you know he's put some thought into the matter and wants to create a complex and revelatory combination that will keep the guest guessing (in a good way) throughout the meal. As the vegetables demonstrate, there are no one-note dishes at Mabel Gray.
Take Lamb Melt. One night it came with marinated mushrooms, Swiss cheese, and a Russian dressing labeled "kimchi," all on house-made challah. Another night it was topped with Rigato's version of pub cheese: aged cheddar churned with cream cheese, fresh horseradish, pickled peppers, and beer. I can't say enough about the buttery warm tenderness of the Michigan lamb, topped with the cool cheese, the spicing of each just at the right heat level.
Likewise pork belly (also from our state) — the meat melted in the mouth and the lulled tastebuds were waked up by some pungent and cool red kraut.
My only complaint about my tuna crudo was that there could have been more of it. This was a many-level dish: The sauce for the deep red tuna, "Kentucky soy," had been aged in a bourbon barrel. Avocado added richness, as if more were needed, black radish was cut paper-thin into fan shapes, and sweetish circles of kumquat were scattered around.
House-cured lox were generously supplied, with a buttery texture, side of rye, and prominent dill flavor.
A heavily sauced rabbit cacciatore was the only dish that didn't have me raving, though it would be great for those into pickling. The source of the tartness was fermented black garlic sauce, aged in a crockpot for 10 days.
Scallops came with a lot of sauce (charred pumpkin mousse, hot pepper jelly, coconut milk) and a a spiciness that crept up on you. The dish's owner said he would be remembering it for a while.
From the dessert menu, it's worth calling ahead to see if lemon creme brulee will be on hand when you visit. Its creamy lightness has that perfect crackly crust that is the reason for creme brulee. A dark-chocolate-and-hazelnuts confection is slightly more prosaic— but how could it go wrong, wit h a whipped mascarpone topping and a bit of praline to add a toffee note? A pear tart and a pecan blondie with bourbon caramel are other possibilities.
Note that Mabel Gray keeps two time-honored customs: taking reservations (recommended) and serving bread and butter. The excellent butter is sometimes house-made, as is the bread at all times, often a light rye sourdough made from flour that's been milled to order by Westwind Milling Co.
What Rigato really loves to cook is the eight-course tasting menu, which will include some items from the menu and some he makes specially for those who put their trust in him. "We're very much a chef's restaurant," he says. "Everything is on purpose, there is no compromise."
He explains how the tasting menu "is a good place for me to use, for example, the 12 duck hearts I have on hand. If you saw them on the menu, you'd say, 'Ew, I don't like duck hearts,' but if I put them in front of you, done with a pastrami brine and on top of some chestnut soup, you'd say, 'Wow, I love duck hearts!'"
He wants customers to "put some trust back into the chef's hands. Lots of restaurants are terrified of pushing the customer's boundaries. But otherwise we're doomed to having a million Eddie Merlots."