Oakland bounty

Keego Harbor's Modern Food & Spirits is worth the drive

Sep 17, 2008 at 12:00 am

Intrepid foodies from all over the metroplex first trekked to out-of-the way Keego Harbor when Jeremy Restaurant & Bar opened four years ago. Since last August, when Modern Food & Spirits made its debut, they have had another reason to visit the little village — despite the price of gasoline. Indeed, given the Modern's depression-sensitive price structure, you might almost forget that you paid $3.75 a gallon to fill up your gas-guzzler.

Veteran restaurateurs Francis and Kim Stanton, the owner-chefs who previously operated Luxe Cuisine in downtown Detroit, created the Modern as a comfortable eatery where working stiffs like themselves could afford high-quality, sophisticated cuisine. They have succeeded quite well at their stylish establishment in a little strip mall on Cass Lake Road.

The "modern" in their establishment's name originates in part from the amusing mid-century-modern furnishings (some of which came from Birmingham's old Midtown Café) that accent their small room, which can accommodate about 75 at tables and 20 at the handsome bar. Alas, only a few of those tables offer glimpses of shimmering Cass Lake across the roadway.

Dinners, which include unusually generous portions of far-more-than-perfunctory soups or salads, average around $18 with none, except for daily specials, breaking the $20 barrier. Despite those generous portions, it is difficult to resist the appetizers ($7), most of which can satisfy at least two diners. A clear winner is the wondrous salmon, two thick slabs gently smoked and served on sesame crackers with a piquant lemon-lime aioli.

Other exceptional starters, both of which are seasoned more assertively than expected, are large rice-paper spring rolls with hot wasabi cream and a cooler tamari sauce, and plump crepes stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, scallions and Gruyère. The eclectic appetizer list roams the Mediterranean as well for a platter of grape leaves, hummus, feta and olives, and to Mexico for a grilled vegetable quesadilla.

Among the four comes-with salads are spinach with grilled sweet red peppers, toasted pine nuts and Gouda in a balsamic vinaigrette, a unique crispy summer vegetable slaw that is less creamy and more vinegary than most coleslaws, and an imaginative bundle of romaine leaves, neatly bound together to permit easy dipping into a smooth shallot herb dressing.

The main problem with those splendid salads is that the house-made soups, the other option that comes with dinner, are even better. Here, considering the versatility of the Stantons' kitchen, you should go for a sampler of three that might include a tomato bisque with a hint of cheese, a thick vegetable corn chowder and a sprightly gazpacho. Few restaurants around here, even those multi-starred palaces of the culinary arts, devote so much care to the soup or salad course.

The Stantons offer nine or so entrées attractively presented, often with inventive accoutrements. The whitefish maven in our household, who tends to order it virtually every night when we are up North (and glows from mercury for weeks after), pronounced the Stantons' pan-seared version, two chunky filets with a chive potato cake in a lemon Riesling reduction, superior to that of Leland's legendary Bluebird. The Modern's mastery of fish carries over to their grilled Florida grouper, attractively garnished with black beans and rice and a zesty salsa.

Less busy but no less accomplished is the New York strip, presented perfectly as ordered, that comes with mashed potatoes and, surprise, a bit of sopressata, an Italian sausage. The savory braised boneless beef short ribs with mashed sweet potatoes are unusually tender while the slightly fiery grilled Calabrese sausage serves as a counterpoint. Beef brisket, seared chicken breast, ponzu soy glazed salmon with sesame ginger asparagus and straw mushrooms, and turkey meatballs marinara round out the mains.

Since the enticing entrée list is not quite "modern," vegetarians will have to construct their dinners from the appetizers, soups and salads, which should not be much of a challenge.

Almost half of the Stantons' well-selected wine list, much of which comes from relatively obscure producers, is under $30. And the beer is also a bargain with Amstel, Corona and Sam Adams, for example, all going for $3.

Desserts ($6) are highlighted by a warm fruit crisp topped by cool vanilla ice cream and luscious chocolate mousse cake. And as with the other courses, these will satisfy more than one diner.

Although the Modern's simple bare tables and laid-back ambience suggest informality, the servers are highly skilled professionals. Carl King, for one, obviously knows how important a contribution he can make to an exceptional dining experience.

The Stantons conceive of their establishment as a friendly neighborhood restaurant. They humbly understate what they have created. Considering the Modern's prices, pleasant decor and, especially, its cutting-edge kitchen, it is the sort of place that should have locals from as far away as Mount Clemens or Westland flocking to the shores of Cass Lake for one of the better meals they can find in our area.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].