Townhouse Detroit serves up unapologetic extravagance

Sep 23, 2015 at 1:00 am

If you were to encounter Townhouse Detroit in any other major American city, it's entirely possible that you would do your best to avoid it. It's loud, in every possible way. The place's statement-making atrium, though beautiful, is an imposing structure that spills out onto Congress. In the first weeks since the spot opened in July, perhaps using that awe-inspiring all-glass structure as a compass, guests raced toward oncoming traffic driving the wrong direction on the one-way street toward the spot's valet parking. It was as if they were in a frenzy to be among the first to patronize the much-anticipated addition to downtown's dining scene.

The wait staff, many of them uniformed with too much hair texturizer and red suspenders, are harried as they carry the establishment's signature 10-ounce, can't-wrap-your-mouth-around-it, award-winning burgers to well-to-do suit-wearers, knocking back bourbons neat. The wall-sized "house rules" insist no wine spritzers allowed, to never stand on the bar, but rather dance on it and that, and that if ever in doubt, call an Uber. The noise is topped off with a soundtrack of indistinguishable electronic music that neither gives the listener a sense of time or place.

Townhouse Detroit, the second in what's expected to be a chain of burger-and-bourbon-themed restaurants, is commanding you to look at it in much the same way a rebellious teenager purposely gets caught smoking in the locker room. He wants you to stop and pay attention. And because we're in Detroit, which for generations was completely void of this type of gimmicky though exciting destination, we get all worked up about it. Finally, a spot within the city limits where the dregs of Wall Street douche-baggery can come to frolic, after they've slaved away in cubes for 12 hours straight.

There's nothing apologetic about Townhouse's extravagance. The concept was dreamed up by Jeremy Sasson, who already had the smaller corner bar-sized Townhouse in Birmingham. For his Detroit debut, he wanted, and got, bigger. The 314-seat restaurant features the glass-enclosed, four-season atrium that houses the main dining room, a whiskey lounge, a sushi bar, open kitchen, and fire pit with lounge seating — all accented with potted trees and other greenery. Diners are packed into just about every square inch of the place: at cozy tables alongside the curb (and next to the valet station), on oversized, white plush sofas, facing a moss and floral-covered wall, and at one of two bars. Still in the first couple of months in business, reservations remain strongly suggested, as the wait on a typical night can top 90 minutes. In fact, just to grab a seat at the bar, one has to engage in a game of cat-and-mouse with the host to guess which stool will free up first.

Selecting an order from the drink list can take several minutes, as the 35-page Michigan-made red bison menu, known as the "libation library," features nearly 150 different bourbons, plus ryes, foreign and domestic whiskey, brandy, tequila, mezcal, sake, wine, beer, and classic and original craft cocktails.

During dinner service, a server might greet you with a dim sum tray containing an array of small plates that rotates daily. We use the term dim sum loosely, as the selections can include a deep-fried mac-and-cheese ball, a deviled egg, or small cubes of blue fin tuna. In the two times we visited during dinner, none of these items actually resembled the traditional Cantonese cuisine that includes steamed dumplings, pork buns, or congee of a typical dim sum cart. While American culture can pay homage to traditional ethnic cuisine by offering up domestic renditions of traditional ethnic cuisine, this take feels contrived and misleading.

This lapse can be overlooked, though, given several hits on the menu, including the Townhouse Burger. While Detroit already has burger options almost to a fault, we have to say this is probably the best burger in town: Ten ounces of a proprietary blend of 28-day-aged steak cuts sits on a Plugra butter brioche bun topped with bourbon-glazed onions and aged white cheddar. The meat could easily stand alone, without all the trimmings. It crumbles, not quite melting in your mouth, so the flavor lingers after each and every bite.

The sushi menu, created by chef Rob Lee, manages to maintain that balance needed to properly pay respect to the craft while providing his own unique local twist. Lee utilizes fruit in several of the pieces, such as the poke salad. Usually poke is made with yellowfin tuna, but Lee's comes with salmon. The richness of the fatty, almost translucent fish is balanced out with the sweet citrus of mandarin orange sections, pine nuts, seaweed salad, sesame, and a splash of soy sauce.

Another winner is the elk, a maple-cured tenderloin that wades in a rich blackberry gastrique, and is paired with mushroom farro risotto and walnuts. Shipped directly from New Zealand, the elk is perfect when the meat is basically seared (just ask for it to made to chef's temperature). The gaminess, similar to that of a venison and combined with the subtlety of the berry, give you a deep, rich flavor that you can't find in many places in Detroit.

The steak torta, a traditionally Mexican sandwich, is both a steakhouse and lonchera (rough Spanglish translation is food truck) experience. The mole bistro sirloin is cut thick and cooked to order. Instead of being served on a French baguette, it's given the Mexicano treatment, and comes in a crusty bolillo roll that's also slathered with black beans, chipotle aioli, escabeche, queso fresco, avocado, and arugula. Though tortas are sold elsewhere in metro Detroit, they're not as popular here and thus don't tend to top diners' to-eat lists. These are a welcomed exception.

For dessert, we sampled the DBC Ice Cream Sammie, made with squid ink that turns the cookie black, with chocolate ice cream and chocolate caramel. Served three at a time, these would be best consumed shared, as the intense flavors can be a bit overwhelming.

In perhaps a coming-full-circle moment, Townhouse Detroit feels like a suburban transplant that moved to the city, decades after his or her family fled. It's like an enclosed portal that transports folks to just the right amount of Detroit, giving you an urban edge, but without the messiness often associated with the city. Regardless of how you may feel about this phenomenon, it represents a new chapter for the city, in an era when city dwellers and suburbanites can peacefully coexist. And we can cheers to that.