On a recent episode of this season of “Top Chef,” Tom Colicchio recently commented that a contestant fell in love with an ingredient, but she didn’t do enough with that ingredient to make it stand out. He felt that it seemed that Jill chose an ostrich egg to stand out from her rivals, but the choice wasn’t enough. Something else was missing. I willl comment on a restaurant that failed to deliver as Jill did and some other restaurants that hit the mark as Jill probably hoped to do.
I recently had a dining experience that made me think the same thing about a local restaurant. Troy, Michigan’s Camp Ticonderoga was the offending party. None of the dishes were particularly inspired. It was as if the restaurant had fallen in love with wild game, but didn’t really do much with it to make it stand out. Similarly in love with meat is the menu of Iron Chef Michael Symon’s Roast. The Iron Chef and James Beard Award Nominee Mike Symon and Executive Chef Jeff Rose did not make the same mistake.
The appetizer I chose at Camp Ticonderoga was named Wild Thang. Okay, so, I like meat. I like Jimi Hendrix. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was most interested in the rabbit ravioli, which I hoped would be like a similar dish at Manhattan’s Del Posto, owned by Mario Batali and Joe and Lidia Bastianich. Actually, more than anything, I went to Camp Ticonderoga for the rabbit ravioli, because I wanted to recapture the rapture of the rabbit ravioli I had at Del Posto. Unfortunately, the appetizer was full of disappointment. The plate also included spicy venison sausage, duck tenders, whitefish pate, and BBQ buffalo meatballs. Unfortunately, the rabbit ravioli was fried. Quite simply, it was dessicated and hard. The meat could have been anything, and I would never have been able to tell the difference. The best part about it was the sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. Likewise, the venison sausage was dry. It was improved by some lemon juice. I’m not sure if I was supposed to use the lemon wedge on the plate for that purpose, but it certainly helped. The duck tenders were not even remotely tender. I suppose they were meant to be like chicken tenders that one might find at a bar or a fast-food joint. Like the dessicated rabbit ravioli, I would have been hard pressed to identify the tenders as duck. Again, the best part of the duck tenders was the sweet-and-sour dipping sauce that I used for the rabbit ravioli. The BBQ buffalo meatballs would have been just as dry were it not for the BBQ sauce, which wasn’t particularly inspiring either. It’s certainly nothing like the divine but superfluous Alex’s Red Rage BBQ sauce found at Zingerman’s Roadhouse (http://www.zingermansroadhouse.com/index.php, 2501 Jackson Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48103; Tel.: +1-734-663-3663). I have had Alex’s Red Rage BBQ sauce on the Roadhouse’s Pit Smoked Spare Ribs. I say the sauce is superfluous, because the ribs are succulent, tender, and tasty all by themselves. The sauce is merely a bonus. It’s the cherry on top of the sundae. The sauce on the BBQ Buffalo Balls, as Camp Ticonderoga calls its meat balls, is entirely necessary. Everything on the Wild Thang seemed overcooked. Perhaps, that’s the danger in using wild game that’s supposedly less fatty than meats like pork and beef. They’re going to be easier to overcook. Maybe, that’s what happened here.
Not everything was bad, however. I must give credit where credit is due. I did like the whitefish pate. I did like the Guinness BBQ chicken: a half chicken, slow roasted in Guinness Stout and broiled in Camp Ti’s BBQ sauce. Not bad. It was pretty tasty, but it wasn’t excellent by any means. I did appreciate the tangy bite of the sauce and the spicy finish, which were strangely absent from the BBQ Buffalo Balls. As I ordered chicken and ribs, the ribs also deserve comment. The ribs were described in the menu as being everything that BBQ ribs should be. I know opinions are like assholes in that everyone has one. Let me show you mine: this isn’t everything that BBQ should be. Like pretty much everything else, the ribs were dry. Did they fall off the bone? Sure, with a little pushing and prodding. The Jack Daniel’s BBQ sauce was okay, but this dish is something I would have expected from a mediocre chain like T.G.I. Friday’s. If this restaurant is striving for a national profile, that’s not the type of profile I think one ought to strive for. The ribs at Zingerman’s Roadhouse do fall off the bone without much effort. Recently, I saw my friend pick up the bone in an attempt to tear a rib from the rack. The bone came right out of the rack completely clean. My friend was holding up a bare bone in awe and delight. Trust me, the Zingerman’s ribs are excellent. They’re so good that one easily forgets that they serve it with the exemplary Red Rage BBQ Sauce. You can have your Zingerman’s ribs either with sauce or without, depending on your chosen BBQ dogma. Now, that’s everything that BBQ should be.
I don’t know if it deserves mention, but Camp Ti’s lobster ravioli was another dish I was interested in trying. So, we tried it. This dish sparked a little discussion on focus. Perhaps, Camp Ti should have stayed with their specialty, which is meat. Instead, they seemed to have this dish to try to be all things to all people. Having variety is a good thing, I suppose, but does variety for the sake of variety excuse poor execution of a dish? One could find this dish at a two-star motel, a mediocre pseudo-Italian chain like Olive Garden or Maggiano’s, or in a plastic box from Costco. It was unexciting and bland. It didn’t even taste much like lobster.
I’ve been going on about Zingerman’s Roadhouse, but they deserve their own blog entry for their consistent excellence at providing diners with what they claim is “really good American food.” Is there no truth in advertising? Their food isn’t just really good. It’s exemplary. Executive Chef Alex Young is a recent nominee for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region. If a restaurant is striving for some kind of notoriety, that’s the kind of notoriety it should seek. Camp Ti has some sister restaurants in the area. So, they seem to have at least a local profile—in contrast to national profile of Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Camp Ti’s sisters have the same menu. I imagine they all have the same mediocre execution. I imagine they’re trying for something a little less than what Zingerman’s does consistently.
Where Camp Ti fails, Zingerman’s Roadhouse and Iron Chef Michael Symon’s Roast do not. Ensconced in the newly renovated Westin Book Cadillac Hotel (1114 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226; Tel.: +1-313-442-1600), Roast is one part of current attempts revitalize Downtown Detroit. Roast has a similar emphasis to Camp Ti. While it may not be wild game all the time, Roast does have a Roast Beast of the Day. As you may gather, much of what is served at Roast is roasted. (Menu .pdf: http://www.bookcadillacwestin.com/assets/u/ROASTMENU1008.pdf) Chef Symon was nominated in 2007 by the James Beard Foundation for best chef in the Great Lakes region, much like Alex Young of Zingerman’s Roadhouse. I suppose it should be no surprise that both Zingerman’s Roadhouse and Roast are far better than Camp Ticonderoga.
We arrived early for our reservation. So, we elected to have a drink at the gorgeous bar at the front of the house. I started off the night at Roast with Samuel Smith’s Organic Ale, which I heartily recommend if you have the opportunity to try it. My friend James had some Absinthe.
Chef Symon was in the house that night. We saw him walking around talking to patrons, cooking on the line, the whole deal. He walked by us, and I called out to him, “Chef!” He graciously came over to us and welcomed us to the place. I was honestly a little bit star struck having met a Celebrity Chef for the first time. So, I can’t remember what I said, but I do remember shaking his hand. I do remember he seemed glad to have us in the house. I remember telling James that night that it seemed like Mike Symon was a guy kind of like us. He seemed to be a rock ‘n’ roll-type dude who just happens to dig food in a big way. I thought, “Hey, I dig rock! Hey, I dig good food! Mike Symon’s my kind of guy!” I don’t know what part of that was serious and what part of that was Samuel Smith’s Organic Ale, but Chef Symon does seem like my kind of guy.
Restaurants that I like have the ability to make me feel like I’m going to be a repeat customer. This feeling starts early in the meal, often with the appetizer. Once, as with the case of Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in Manhattan, I felt that with the first bite of bread. Roast isn’t Le Bernardin, but then again, who else is at that level? It was with the appetizer that I knew I’d be back. We chose the Beef Cheek Pierogie and the Roasted Marrow. The Pierogie was the weakest part of the meal, but it was still good. It was outshined by the heavenly (or is it sinful?) Roasted Marrow.
Two halves of what I assume was a beef shank were served. They were seasoned with sea salt, oregano, and chilies. When Chef Symon came by to see how we were doing, we gushed about the marrow. We all agreed that they were, “Awesome.” I must admit that instead of having a sweet tooth, I ought to say that I have a salt and fat tooth. The Roasted Marrow definitely hit me on both of those. The oregano and the chilies were the perfect complement to give some complexity to the flavor. Excellent. I will be ordering this again, next time. Heck, I almost ordered another one right there on the spot!
My friend James and I had been talking about getting roast suckling pig at Roast after their opening. Heaven smiled on us that evening, because the Roast Beast of the Day was suckling pig. It was done with a salsa verde and served with some cracklings on top. Okay, it wasn’t a Cebuano Lechon from the Philippines, but it was still darn good. It was moist, but not greasy. My one criticism of the dish is that it could have used a bit more seasoning. Otherwise, it was great. Whether salt or a more aggressive salsa verde would have made the difference between merely very good and excellent, I don’t know. It just needed a little more kick. I probably should have reached for the salt shaker. The good news is that the dish was good enough that I couldn’t stop to reach for the salt shaker. So, was it really just “very good,” or was it something better? Whatever it was, I’m interested in another portion. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture to show you.
Our sides were what modern American food needs to be to stand out these days. Let’s face it. Those of us who care about these things have probably been to our fair share of restaurants good and bad. The good ones make us feel worse for having found yet another bad one. With every good restaurant comes less patience for the bad ones, less tolerance for the waste of money and time that a bad restaurant represents in our lives. Roast is definitely one of the better restaurants I’ve tried recently. Our sides represent two more reasons why. We ordered the Bacon Creamed Corn and Mac & Cheese with Goat Cheese.
The Bacon brought the salty counterpoint to the sweetness of the corn. As you can see above, the dish brought a thumbs up. Honestly, I don’t know why no other restaurant that I know has thought of this. Don’t they say that bacon makes everything else better? So, why not the steakhouse standby, creamed corn? Thankfully, that lightbulb came on in the design of Roast’s menu. Whether it was Michael Symon’s idea or something out of the mind of Executive Chef Jeff Rose, to me, it was an inspired choice. Professional food writers may have had something like this somewhere else, but I sure haven’t. I’m also interested in another portion of the Bacon Creamed Corn.
I told another friend about the Mac & Cheese with Goat Cheese. He was inspired to make his own. Until another recent brush with Mac & Cheese greatness (at Zingerman’s Roadhouse), Roast’s Mac & Cheese was the best I had ever had. Certainly, it was more flavorful and complex than any other mac & cheese I had eaten before. I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily more rich, though. The richness was just right, but the flavor was out of sight! While it is now the second best mac & cheese I’ve ever had, it is still exemplary.
For dessert, I honestly don’t remember a thing about James’ dessert, which could be the Dark Chocolate Cream cake that I see listed in a blurry picture I have of the desert menu. I was too enthralled with the idea of my dessert: Beer & Pretzels. I know. It doesn’t sound like much, but wait until you read the description. It was Guinness Ice Cream with chocolate covered pretzels arranged like a parfait in a pint glass.
This is another one of those ideas about which I wonder why no one else thought of it first. Guinness does have hints of chocolate and coffee flavors to it. They make both chocolate and coffee ice cream, right? Guinness is smooth and creamy, especially the foam. Ice cream is smooth and creamy. Hey! Why not make Guinness Ice Cream? I don’t have a clue how they did it, but I loved it. I don’t know if liquid nitrogen was involved, but who cares? I’m having another order next time.