Review: Detroit’s Cork and Gabel does the big three (Italian, Irish, and German, that is)

Jun 19, 2019 at 1:00 am
Bangers and mash.
Bangers and mash. Bridget Ekis

Joe Mifsud is probably getting sick of folks telling him how lucky he is: to own the building that houses the restaurant that lies closest to the old train station. In a few years, when thousands of Ford engineers make the station their worksite ... ka-ching.

Mifsud would no doubt prefer "prescient" to lucky. He had the foresight to buy what was then a shell of a beautiful 1911 brick building — with a cupola — in 1993, so that makes him smart, not lucky.

Workers in the old building first manufactured steering wheels and propellers. In the 1940s they fried doughnuts, and in the '60s they repaired cars.

The space is now lovely inside, going much further than the clichés of industrial-chic restaurant décor that started taking over in the 2000s. (One NPR writer said, "Every one of these restaurants looks so much like a factory that I'm constantly looking over my shoulder for the foreman.")

It's inviting partly because of the giant windows with views of the train station, the Ambassador Bridge, and downtown. The cupola/clock tower is new, but was copied from the original that was crumbling when Mifsud took it down. The giant gears below the roof were used in the 1880s to power factory equipment and today run Cork and Gabel's fans. Table tops were once Detroit bowling alleys, and parts of the walls come from barns up north, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bathroom sinks are kegs. The front door is the oddest part — it's a recycled oil tank.

All this thought and care has gone into making a place for an unusual mix of cuisines: Italian, Irish, and German. No one else on Corktown's restaurant row has that! (Mifsud's partner and chef Matt McGrail is half-Irish, half-Italian, and Mifsud, who's Maltese, just likes German food.)

Sometimes the cuisines are combined in the same dish, like a chopped salad with Black Forest ham, sopressata and Dubliner cheese sticks, or arancini, which are Sicilian, stuffed with beef, lamb, and mashed potatoes, like a shepherd's pie. Portions are hefty. Everything is from scratch except for a couple of breads.

My favorite entrée was a special that wasn't recognizably Italian, Irish, or German — salmon with an old-school French sorrel sauce with butter and cream. McGrail managed the feat of not overcooking the delicate flesh yet producing a nice crust.

I also liked bangers and mash, one of four sausage offerings from Corridor Sausage. The skin-on Yukon and redskin potatoes became interesting with roasted garlic and were dressed up with onion straws.

The shepherd's pie arancini — piog an aoire in Gaelic — were crisp and filling, but we didn't like the beef gravy — too redolent of canned (not that I've ever eaten canned gravy). The other sauce was a terrific carrot purée.

A dish served just Thursday-Sunday is enough to share: 20 oz. of braised lamb shank with generous portions of potatoes and gravy. The lamb flavor is stronger than you sometimes get, which is not a bad thing.

My trencherman companion managed to finish his tall schnitzel BLT, but barely; it's one of the better deals at $14. The sandwich is crisply breaded pork loin on in-house rye, and the L in the BLT is Bibb, a thoughtful touch.

Also delicious is the mammoth, loaded burger on housemade brioche. Its two cheeses are black pepper mozzarella and Dubliner, and why not add bacon, caramelized onions, and garlic aioli too? IMO a burger is quintessentially American, but I guess the cheeses are nods to the theme — and the onions are cooked in Guinness.

Likewise mac and cheese is what McGrail calls "using modern techniques on old-school classics," even if the old school is right here at home. He uses cavatappi for familiarity but makes a four-cheese Bechamel and adds bacon lardons — and pretzel crumbs. (Pretzels are a recurring theme.)

A mushroom risotto is more purely Italian than anything else on the menu, save shrimp scampi (the bruschetta becomes a hybrid, on pretzel crostini). It has more add-ons than the classic — spinach and roasted peppers — and is a tad salty and less thoroughly creamy than many.

For dessert we tried bread pudding — and our generous server brought six slices, presumably because six people were sharing. It was cinnamony and medium-moist with some good crusty bits. Another night an "Irish waffle bomb" turned out to be a dark chocolate waffle under vanilla ice cream, with Guinness, Bailey's, and Jameson all figuring into the recipe. The best, because unexpected, part was the salty pretzel crumbs scattered around.

In the cocktails department, the Irish-Italian-German theme is abandoned, with sake, tequila, and American spirits making an appearance. The many draft beers change daily, but the long list of bottles tends toward Michigan, with a few Irish and German options.

Cork and Gabel offers $5 parking in its lot, but for now there's plenty of street parking. They'll open for lunch when the patio, in the lot, is ready, hopefully later this summer. It'll be enclosed by a wall made of stones repurposed from Detroit buildings. Better enjoy the patio now, because I predict Ford Motor Co. is going to want to buy that space.

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