Wednesday, January 10, 2007

More than mugs

Posted By on Wed, Jan 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM

It's been true for a while that calamari, quesadillas and fajitas feel just as thoroughly at home on an all-American menu as do apple pie and a grilled cheese sandwich. There's a standard list now for middlebrow restaurants, which includes not only burgers and chicken tenders (invented by McDonald's?) but basil pesto pasta and maybe even crème brûlée. Matt Prentice's newest restaurant, open since Nov. 1 in a strip mall at the corner of 13 Mile and Southfield roads, serves all of these and many more crowd-pleasers (wings, potato skins, salads that are more meat than greens) that we'd usually associate with a less adventurous restaurateur.

The Matt Prentice Restaurant Group's other low-end spots, Plaza Deli and the two Deli Uniques, serve more interesting, Jewish-deli-type fare, but the menu at Tavern on 13 is not that different from those at Ruby Tuesday or 1,804-location Applebee's. (Spinach-artichoke dip and chicken quesadillas seem to be a federal mandate.) Prentice says he's learned, in a tavern-type atmosphere, "not to try to swim upriver against what my guests want."

Tavern on 13 takes the place of Flying Fish in the same location, which Prentice believes "got too culinarily aggressive" for the audience. Volume is now up more than 50 percent, and "the No. 1 menu item on a Friday night is a burger. The biggest entrée is probably fish and chips."

Though I haven't eaten at Ruby's or Applebee's, I'm making an assumption that Prentice's fare is a step up from theirs. He serves sourdough bread, for instance, and desserts are all housemade.

Standouts for me were calamari, a cheesy Caesar redolent of anchovies, chili, ribs, ranch beans and apple pie.

The calamari were sautéed with tomatoes and black olives that added a lot, not chewy at all but pleasantly lemony. The Caesar used fresh anchovies, though they were obvious not in appearance but only in a subtle taste, just right. The porterhouse chili was filled with good vegetables and maintained a heat level that didn't disguise the fine flavors. If it had to come topped with sour cream, so be it.

Baby back ribs sported a sauce in which you could still taste the tomatoes — too many sauces are just sugary — and they were tender enough for a baby to chew. Their accompanying ranch beans were not an afterthought but complex.

I also enjoyed my garlic-crusted whitefish, although the fish was very soft and its flavor pretty much obscured by the luscious garlic-beurre blanc sauce. One of the potato options offered is a sweet potato, which comes plain and delicious, no gussying needed nor applied. (All entrées also come with a soup or salad, adding to the affordability of the place.)

I had nothing against my tall and buttery Reuben nor my companion's Club roll-up, though I thought the Reuben's rye could have been firmer with more flavor — a bit rye-er, so to speak. The Club is a very thick roll of turkey, bacon, avocado and cheddar, and emblematic of the public's apparent demand to throw everything the chef can think of between slices of bread. We used to eat BLTs; now a BLT includes salmon. The Tavern's turkey sandwich is made with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and Parmesan.

Which brings me to the salads. I have long thought that salads of this type are simply diners' way to fool themselves into thinking that they're eating healthy. "Oh, I'll just have a salad" — but it's big enough for four people, and includes meat, cheese and bacon in addition to fruit, vegetables and a thick dressing. The greens and red onions in my Michigan Turkey Salad, which I'm sure you can guess included apples and cherries, seemed not to have been thoroughly dried. The "Everything Chopped Salad" included hearts of palm, chicken, bacon, cheddar and Monterey jack, leaving the greens a distant afterthought.

For dessert, the Tavern serves cheesecake, carrot cake, a hot fudge brownie with strawberry sauce and whipped cream, its own interpretation of Sanders' bumpy cake, apple pie à la mode and crème brûlée. The pie is the brown-sugary kind, served warm, and if the caramel sauce gilds the lily, that's not out of keeping with the rest of the menu. The crème brûlée was less successful — too much like vanilla pudding in the cool underneath, too chewy in the should-be-crackly top layer.

The Matt Prentice Group is now down to just nine restaurants, what with the demise of Etouffée, Thunder Bay Brewing Company and former mainstay Morels. Nothing daunted, Prentice will be opening a tenth in the spring — also tavern-style.

A word of the very highest praise: One sure way for a restaurant to get on my bad list is not to be open when it says it will be. Tavern on 13 normally stays open till 9 p.m. on weeknights, but had decided, on Jan. 1, to close at 6 that day. I had a reservation (not in my name) for 6 — but instead of closing anyway, as most establishments would, the manager of Tavern on 13 actually called to make sure I had not come early and gotten discouraged by the sign on the door. My party was served graciously, with no rush. When I mentioned that most restaurants would not have stayed open for one customer, the hostess replied, "You had a reservation!"

All restaurateurs should be so smart.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to


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