Tavern on the lean

For 14 years, neighborhood hangout Vinsetta Grill on Woodward just north of Catalpa in Royal Oak has been serving ribs, sweet-potato fries, fried chicken, fried fish and other not especially healthful tavern food. Last January, owners Michael and Tracy Papa decided to start unclogging their patrons' arteries by banning trans fats from the kitchen. They also took a step toward unclogging their lungs by banning smoking in their informal, tastefully decorated establishment.

They have come a long way from the dense nicotine haze that permeated the old DeLuca's in the same venue where just about everyone of a certain age, highball in hand, puffed up a storm around the piano bar as they grooved to Lenny Randall's golden oldies.

The Vinsetta Grill's less rakish crowd of businesspeople at lunch and multigenerational locals at dinner have been excited of late because Michael and Tracy have permitted them to "Build Your Own Burger." You start with a burger that will result, after grilling, in one-third of a pound of beef ($6.99), or two-thirds of a pound of turkey ($8.99) or one-pound veggie option ($12.99). Then come the virtually unlimited choices.

You can have your patty in a traditional bun or in a bowl with greenery and add one cheese from 10 options that include feta and horseradish cheddar and four toppings from among 20 that range from prosaic onions or tomatoes to unusual dried cranberries or hard-boiled eggs. And you're not done yet, because you can also select from among 19 sauces, with peanut, roasted garlic aioli, and soy-ginger glaze among the most intriguing.

The Papas estimate that also considering a grilled-chicken "burger" variation, choice of bun and additional "premium toppings," they offer as many as 300,000 possible individualized burgers. And Burger King boasts about having it your way?

But how do these creations taste? First, it is advisable to order the toppings on the side so that you can experiment with what can fit into your already ungainly burger and determine what goes best with what in what sequence. That said, all three burgers are thick and juicy, with the pricey and complicated veggie burger — corn, mushrooms, scallions, bell pepper, spinach, carrots, spinach and potatoes — a bit looser in consistency than its meatier counterparts but, according to my longtime vegetarian luncheon partner, competitive with our area's best.

The perfect accompaniment would be the grill's signature French fried sweet potatoes ($3.79) cooked without trans fats. The American Heart Association reports that just one serving of fries with trans fats surpasses by far its recommended daily dose of the potentially deadly cooking medium. The Papas' sweet-potato fries, which still contain fats and calories, are the choice in terms of taste and health over their ordinary fries.

That takes care of lunch at the Vinsetta Grill. As for dinner, you can begin with onion soup ($4.99), a tangy blend of provolone and Swiss cheese in a sweet broth that is marred by soggy croutons. The Caesar salad is a bit tame; if you like anchovies ask for extra ones since they are imperceptible in the regular preparation. The recommended house-made creamy Italian dressing is similarly understated in the simple green salad.

Other starters include French fried dill-pickle chips, crab-stuffed mushrooms and baked potato soup.

Back in the '80s, Michael Papa's folks used to own the Oxford Inn, another Royal Oak gathering place celebrated for its ribs. Michael's baby backs ($12.95 for a half slab) are praiseworthy, with the tender meat falling off the bone and the spunky house sauce a suitable accompaniment. Ribs are also available in St. Louis, bounty of beef, and Mexican variants. All four can be sampled on one plate for a reasonable $12.99.

No complaints either about the thick, 14-ounce New York strip ($19.99) that emerged from the kitchen perfectly medium-rare as ordered. Other mains include grilled shrimp on a skewer, southwestern chicken and fried cod. Although the menu boasts 18 different entrées, some are combinations, such as shrimp or chicken and ribs. All come with a choice of two sides. Here the clear winners are a subtle, broad-cut cole slaw with just enough vinegar to balance the creamy sauce and slightly spicy ranch-style baked beans.

Despite working amid bare wooden tables, paper napkins and Wetnaps for the ribs, the nattily attired servers lend a degree of sophistication that is reflected as well in the graceful sconces that line the walls of the dimly-lit main dining room. That room is separated from the bar by a high wooden wall.

The wine list is not especially sophisticated, with 30 dependable, mostly California bottles that range from $24 to $50.

Desserts involve cake that is not house-made and several ice-cream specialties, with the huge Sanders hot-fudge sundae, with only vanilla alas, a bargain at $5.95. It does not contain a lot of natural trans fats but with the mound of whipped cream and generous lacing of fudge, it will do little to contribute to your health.

Nonetheless, if you can resist the laudable ribs and the sundae, the comfortable Vinsetta Grill offers plenty of solid, healthy food, including the unusual burgers, all in a smoke-free environment.

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

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