Food & Drink

Review: Maccabees Traders pivots to Asia

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With its excellent location — across from the DIA and next door to Wayne State — 5057 Woodward is a restaurant space seemingly born to win. Yet that hasn't been the case.

Maccabees in Midtown, the previous occupant, focused on gargantuan sandwiches and salads, appearing to emulate the venerable Traffic Jam (without the housemade cheese, bread, and beer). It never gained a loyal local following nor, seemingly, visitors from the suburbs on a cultural night out.

Desperate stabs at an Italian menu and then soul food failed to pan out — though a soul-food weekend brunch is still going strong.

Now new co-owner David Kraus, who made his name in Chicago restaurants, has switched the concept to "Asian-influenced," and hired a Chicago chef, Rafael Esparza, with expertise therein.

It's early days, but as of late March Maccabees hadn't yet come together the way you might have hoped. This building is on the National Register of Historic Places! Albert Kahn designed it! It deserves a clear-headed menu, well executed. The slogan is "Asian Flavors. Detroit Style." That's going to require more thoughtfulness than serving wings, glazing some pork with Vernors, and offering zip sauce with your grilled tofu.

As Esparza told me: "We opened at breakneck speed [March 6]. We're still finding our legs."

Till Maccabees gets there, here's an intriguing experiment: On Mondays from 5 p.m. until close, Esparza invites the public to share the traditional restaurant "family meal" — the early dinner served to staff before service gets busy. He says it's his favorite cooking of the day, and he lets the cooks get creative in deciding the five courses, taking suggestions from the whole staff, from dishwashers to servers. Sounds like a chance worth taking to me.

He's also gradually changing the popular weekend brunch, which includes $1 mimosas, and adding some Asian dishes to the soul lineup.

In the meantime, my Maccabees experiences were best with some of the starters ("Sharing") and the soups ("Broth"). Two versions of wings were both sticky and both complex: one with fish sauce, cilantro, and lime, the other with ginger and toasted sesame, both meaty and a good deal at $8.

Lamb meatballs were five jumbos on rice, a little picante, quite solid and dense. That makes them awkward to cut with a fork, let alone chopsticks. A looser meatball is friendlier, if harder for the chef to manage and serve.

Shishito peppers tasted like their mustard sauce, no pepper complement. Ribs were good and tender and quite rich, with a sweet chili sauce that would not remind you of a barbecue joint. The pork glazed with Vernors was our least favorite of the appetizers: bland as could be, and mostly rice.

While some were quite tasty, none of these starters had the lightness and deftness of touch that we often seek in an Asian food experience.

Chicken and jasmine rice dumpling soup, with cilantro and chili oil, did measure up to my light-but-complex standard. Coconut-carrot was thick enough to stand up a (plastic) spoon in, more of a whipped cream consistency than a soup. Its obvious sweetness was good, but could have used some kick.

Our dining group found the entrées disappointing. Vietnamese fried chicken was American-restaurant fried chicken, pure and simple, with a lot of thick crust, no discernible spicing. All the spices went to the pickled green beans on the side. Drunken noodles were a combination of hot-spicy and vanilla that could have been intriguing, but the sauce was so thick and sticky as to be cloying.

Although we had personable and attentive servers, on one visit it seemed the kitchen could not keep up, and the waitstaff fidgeted disconsolately. We waited 25 minutes for our soups, 35 minutes for all the food to arrive, and missed the opening of A.O. Scott's lecture at the DIA across the street. Since being a pre-DIA stop ought to be one of Maccabees' calling cards, speed needs to be a priority.

But as I said, it's early days, and efficiency on the line will doubtless improve.

I found wine prices high compared to the food, and a Sauvignon Blanc quite uninspired. There are three beers, one of them Stroh's. Missed opportunity: Sietsema Orchards' (Grand Rapids) lemongrass hard cider, a great idea to go with Asian. Gladly missed opportunity: $5 bottle of still water.

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