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Eating My Way Across Detroit

a toast at Wright and Company starts off a 1.5 day eating bacchanal 

So, when I told people I was taking a road trip to Detroit to eat, most of them looked at me like I had three heads.


Yes, Detroit has suffered in recent years and it's downtown population has shrunk from 2.5 million to about 700,000. It's more famous for it's hauntingly beautiful, derelict buildings than it's former, GM fueled, glory but walking around downtown, you can imagine what this place was like in it's hey day. Detroit was the ultimate showpiece of the American Dream and it's downfall was dramatic and swift, weighed down with corruption and a huge economic and social disparity.

view from the delightful People Mover

All of that may be true but the Detroit of today is experiencing a renaissance of sorts and it's an exciting place to be right now. Young chefs, entrepreneurs , artists and movers and shakers are working their asses off to breath life back into their city so instead of deserting Detroit, they are staying put. After years of an intense pop up restaurant scene, amazing brick and mortar establishments are popping up all over the city and I don't think we visited one place that has been open for longer than a year and a half.

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best view of the Shepard Fairey Mural on the back of the Compuserve building is from the People Mover

Sure, there are still challenges for the visitor who is used to big city conveniences. Hailing a taxi is little more than a pipe dream but thanks to Uber, which is thriving here, you can still get around. Hotels are well maintained and comfortable and staff is lovely but the customer service you might have come to expect from high end hotels is kind of hit and miss. You need to relax, be patient, plan ahead a bit and go with the flow and I promise you, you will leave with a full belly and a smile on your face, planning your next visit.

I will write about some of the people I met who are working to build this city back up and some of the things that you must experience when you are there, but, for now, here are the restaurants that we checked out in our whirlwind day and a half trip. Take note that I usually just don't talk about the places I don't like but in this case, I did not leave one place off the list because every place we ate in was wonderful.

It's an easy 4-5 hour drive from Toronto (a little closer than Montreal and we think nothing of driving to Montreal for the weekend, right?) and Virgin US now flies in and out. Trust me, if you want to experience a city that is exploding with amazing talent and energy, get off your ass and get to Detroit.

photo: Shack Shackleton

P.S. If you can swing a trip before Aug 15, you can catch the amazing Shepard Fairey exhibit that I wrote about here

Wright & Co

On the recommendation of Angela at Library Street Collective Gallery, which is right around the corner and a place you must visit as well, our very first restaurant on our trip to Detroit was Wright and Company. We arrived about 30 minutes after their 4pm opening and easily grabbed a table by the windows but within another 30 minutes, the place was almost completely packed, so take heed.

Housed in the historic Wright Building in the heart of downtown, you can only reach this second floor eatery by elevator, which sort of adds to it's already abundant charm. Greeted with a great selection of wine, beer and craft cocktails and an array of sharing plates, we were both very happy to be there.

I ordered a glass of Lini 910 "Labrusca Lambrusco Rose", a Italian sparkling rose for a very reasonable $9, Shack had a Stiegl Grapefruit Radler for $7, also very reasonable for such a busy, popular spot. We devoured a bowl of Moroccan Spiced Cashews ($6) while we sipped our drinks. I don't even know if you could buy a bag of cashews for $6, never mind nuts that were this delicious. We actually returned at the end of the night with friends and those nuts were the perfect late night nibble.

Next up was a plate of soft little pillows of burrata cheese sitting on top of thin peach slices, drizzled in maple syrup, with some spicy micro greens, pomegranate seeds and a really delicious sesame brittle. ($11) That was quickly followed by the tuna tartare with spicy mayo, crispy wonton chips and a drizzle of sweet soy sauce. ($14) Both plates were beautiful to look at , fresh and delicious as well as very generous for these prices. We were very happy campers.

We can never pass up a charcuterie plate and this one ($13) was, again, surprisingly large with a great selection of treats.

Our server could not have been friendlier or more helpful, giving us wonderful suggestions for other places to try while we were in the city and seemed truly thrilled to see us back later that night. The restaurant is beautiful, with high, tin ceilings, beautiful fans, chandeliers mixed with open bulbs, sumptuous red leather banquets and floor to ceiling windows. Get there very early or very late if you want to get a table because this place fills up quickly and stays full all night.

There is a great mix of old timey industrial opulence going on here

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Charteruese Kitchen and Cocktails

 The second place we ate at was Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktail Bar. We tried to get into Seldon Standard and even a bar stool was going to require an hour+ wait so we continued on our way, in the pissing rain, to a brew pub that was packed to the rafters and not our kind of place at all. I had dropped my camera in a puddle and was pretty much ready to curl up in a ball and die by this point. I was afraid that Chartreuse was going to be more of the same and that we would not be able to get in there either but I called the Midtown restaurant from the brew pub and asked if there was any chance of getting a spot if we got a cab and came over. The lovely hostess, probably hearing my tears and emotional breakdown in my voice assured me that she would save a couch for us in the lounge area at the front. She also assured me that we could eat food there so that is where we went and I am soooo happy that we did.

Chartreuse is bright and airy (as are most of the restaurants in a city where real estate prices are at a record low and space is not at a premium like it is in other large cities), the walls are, indeed, painted chartreuse and the vibe is upscale but casual. Just as I was about to sit down on our half of a shared couch, Shack went back to check for bar seats and there two, right at the end of the bar and in front of Chef Doug Hewitt's prep station, which is always our favourite seat in any restaurant.

First things first, we order two gin and tonics and are promised that they make their tonic in house so we are excited. The drinks arrive and they are alarmingly flat so we alert the waiter who immediately whisks them away to be replaced with a perfect, effervescent and absolutely delicious gin and tonic. I also tried The Last Word ($11), a house speciality with gin, chartreuse and lime because I am in a place called Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails so it would be remiss to not try a cocktail containing chartreuse. This is a potent little boozey bomb of a drink and although delicious, I don't think it wise to drink more than one of them.

Grilled Cap Steak, Tantre Farm Potatoes and The Recovery Park 
Grilled Spanish Octopus

We ordered grilled Spanish octopus with fennel, pickled onion, chorizo and and cucumber and the Recovery Park ($9) plate to start. While we were enjoying our cocktails, we were totally seduced by this sexy looking plate of roasted vegetables that Chef Hewitt was plating and had to try it. He chooses the best of the produce from Recovery Park, an amazing, non profit urban farm that employs local residents who have barriers that affect their employability and transforms that produce into something magical. I am telling you, as much as we both love our protein, this man is spinning vegetables into magical plates that will guarantee that you don't even notice the absence of meat. Okay, that doesn't mean that we didn't also order the Grilled Cap Steak ($22 and big enough to share) but the vegetables are the star of the show here. 

Oh, and gluten free, I'm on a low carb diet be damned. Order the damned bread with in house, home made butter for the love of pearl. It will change your life.

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Two James

I am going to just throw in a quick word for Two James Distillery in Corktown. It's lively, crowded, serves good cocktails and we had a fun hour or so having a drink with friends here. It's a local distillery that changes the cocktail menu to reflect the seasons.

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Astro Coffee

 Our waiter at Chartreuse recommended Astro Coffee in Corktown, so that is where we headed as soon as we woke up. I loved it as soon as we pulled up. I love the little strip it sits on, I loved the welcoming, homey interior, I loved the chalk murals on the wall and I loved the way the sunlight flooded the space and made it warm and inviting. Luckily, the coffee and the small morsel of food that we ate lived up to the hype, making it the sort of place I would frequent every day if I lived there.

We split a slice of really delicious frittata and I had a flat white that made me very happy. All of the breakfast sandwiches and pastries looked amazing but we had a big day of eating ahead and neither of us are big breakfast eaters but based on the frittata, I would say you are safe ordering anything here.

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Yemans Street

This wonderful little gem of a place hosts regular pop ups with an exciting array of guest chefs that require pre booking but every Sunday, Chef Jeremy Kalmus churns out an every changing brunch offering that is open to the general public on a walk in basis.

Located in Hamtramck, it sits on what looks like a residential street across the street from the Polish Village Cafe and from the outside, you would almost walk right by the unassuming brick building if it weren't for the little chalkboard sign out front beckoning you inside for brunch. Husband and wife team, Corrie and Matt Tinker, have turned this former machine shop into another airy, high ceilinged, warm and inviting space that is absolutely worth the trek to Yemans Street.

We shared the Tots - homemade tater tots with cheese sauce, scallion, fresh salsa, avocado and lime crema for $10 and the Korean Schmear Lox and Bagel for $13. I didn't actually eat the donut holes coated in breakfast cereal but my dining neighbour at the communal table certainly seemed to enjoy them and let me photograph them in exchange for letting her photograph my Korean Schmear Lox and Bagel. It's all about working together.

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Seldon Standard

After striking out at our 6pm attempted visit on Saturday night, we had much better luck getting a seat shortly after they opened for Sunday dinner service at 4:30 pm. Once again, we were happily seated at the end of the bar with a fabulous view of the huge , open kitchen, the wood oven and the bartenders at work.

Knowing that we still had a dinner reservation elsewhere at 8pm, we stuck to sharing the beef tartare and some grilled octopus.

The beef tartare comes with a raw quail egg and some bread that is toasted in their wood oven and it's really, really good. The beef was fresh and soft and delicious and, again, a very fairly priced $14.

Fennel, citrus, olives and saffron provide a tasty bed for perfectly charred octopus , also only $14. I wish we could have enjoyed a full meal here and plan to make reservations when we return to Detroit because, clearly, reservations are a must. We also ate more delicious homemade bread with homemade butter to go along with my rose. This city knows how to crank out great bread and butter.

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El Asador Steakhouse

Without exception, starting with Angela from Library Street Collective and continuing with every chef and waiter we met, we were told to make sure we eat at El Asadore Mexican Steakhouse. All that fine dining and trendy, hipster food is all well and good but sometimes, you just want a big, delicious dinner that was made with love.

photo: Shack Shackleton
You have to get a taxi or drive about 6 miles southwest of downtown Detroit to reach this unassuming looking restaurant but believe me, it is well worth the trek. You can't miss it since it resides in a stand alone building right on the corner with that beautiful mural on one side of it. Luckily, there is a well stocked store across the street where you can buy your beverage of choice since there is no liquor license here. We found a $6.50 bottle of Beringer Rose that we opened with a corkscrew borrowed from the restaurant and shared with dinner. You can't beat that.

We were told that we HAD to order the table side guacamole, so we did and we were not disappointed. Our lovely waitress rolled over the cart and whipped up a fresh, delicious guacamole to order for a mere $6.99.

There is no way I could ever finish the Cazuela de Mariscos ($17.99) on my own but I am okay to die trying. When this bowl of salmon, mussels, shrimp, scallops, calamari and lobster nestle in a rich, smoked chili broth was put in front of me, I actually cracked up. It is HUGE and unlike many places that serve Flintstone sized portions, it was also hugely delicious. Shack's Ribeye Con Rajas ($17.99) was not something he would normally order, as he likes his steak kind of pure and thinks he doesn't like it with sauce but who could say no to that fetching young lady when she recommends that this is the steak you should order? As it happens, he devoured it and said the steak was perfectly medium rare as well. Honestly, we could have easily ordered exactly what we ordered if our teenager was with us and shared it all and still would have had some leftovers.

I thought that this was going to be some old, family run place that had been there for ages but it's not. After some digging, I found out that owner/chef Louis Garza opened El Asador after working at Italian restaurant Andiamo and then Rojo Mexican Bistro,  it seems to have opened only in late 2013. For now, there is no decor to speak of but I read that he has plans to expand, renovate, add an outdoor patio and and an upstairs venue but really, when the food is this good, who cares about the colour of the tablecloths?

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Dime Store

 Despite the fact that we are not big, early breakfast people, I insisted we stop in at The Dime Store before leaving Detroit. Housed in the historic Dime Building, now called Chrysler House (hence, The Dime Store), this place became so popular that they were forced to open on the weekend after initially planning to be a breakfast/lunch spot for people who work downtown.

Sadly, we could only sample one dish but, wow, what a dish. If this is any indication of the other menu offerings, I feel confident telling you to eat here. We shared the Duck Bop - duck confit potato hash with spinach and Korean BBQ sauce for an astounding $12. Even though neither of us was particularly hungry, we still managed to eat every last morsel of duck and the eggs, leaving just a mound of potatoes. There was nothing wrong with them and, in fact, they were delicious, but we have priorities and duck, runny fried egg and trump potato when you have limited stomach real estate available.

 Salads range from $6 to $13, breakfast sandwiches from $6 to $8, eggs benny dishes from $10.50 to $12.50 and sandwiches from $6 to $13. Bacon, Parm and Truffle Fries and the Duck Rueben will be the first thing I order on my next trip to Detroit and there will be a next trip.

 Coffee was good, the view provided great, rush hour people watching, service was friendly and attentive and the restaurant is, again, bright, airy, high ceilinged and modern. Another great bet for breakfast, brunch or lunch. Their tag line says Breakfast/Brunch/Booze which really should be everybody's mantra, no?

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