BEST NEW RESTAURANT
Modern Food and Spirits
1535 Cass Lake Rd., Keego Harbor; 248-681-4231
To be sure, Keego Harbor is a schlep for most of us, but it is well worth the time and gas to dine at Modern Food and Spirits, across from Cass Lake. The Modern, which opened at the end of last summer, is an informal little spot with generous portions and amazingly reasonable prices — most dinners are under $20 including an unusually imaginative array of comes-with soups and salads — and a menu full of little culinary surprises from around the world. They do fish well here, especially grouper with salsa and whitefish that is comparable to the best "Up North" versions, while the steaks, brisket and short ribs will please carnivores. Best bet for the smashing comes-with salads or soups is the sampler of three complex house-made soups, while the wine list includes many intriguing, obscure varietals.
BEST NEW JAZZ RESTAURANT
Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe
97 Kercheval Ave., Grosse Pointe Farms; 313-882-5299; dirtydogjazz.com
The Dirty Dog is another feather in the cap of Gretchen Valade, the entrepreneur and philanthropist whose generosity and love of jazz saved the Detroit International Jazz Festival. Chef Andre Neimanis' sophisticated tapas-style menu encompasses unusual dishes that showcase his creativity. Musically, the Dirty Dog has some of Detroit's best players, with piano sets from 4 to 6 p.m., followed by two evening shows with full bands. Willie Jones, the general manager, is visible in the front of the house, overseeing service and keeping the whole show running smoothly. All the elements combine to make this Detroit's best new restaurant.
BEST NEIGHBORHOOD PICKER-UPPER
5169 Trumbull St., Detroit; 313-833-2701
A beautiful neighborhood that's seen its share of crime woes, Woodbridge was in need of a walk-to restaurant-bar. Resident Jim Geary, a man with no experience in the food biz, decided to right that wrong by transforming an empty former party store — no windows unless you count bulletproof glass — into a welcoming refuge. Years of elbow grease later — applied to gorgeous found elements like an all-wood meat-locker turned into a men's room — Geary and his neighbors have a place they can call home and that calls them home.
38550 Van Dyke Rd., Sterling Heights; 586-979-4460
Last fall, after 16 years in a strip mall, Ike's Family Restaurant moved down the block into more stylish and spacious digs, dropped the word "Family" from its name, and brought in reasonably priced booze. Ike El-Alam, the genial, hands-on owner, specializes in Middle Eastern fare including a few unusual dishes such as Sheikh El Muhsi, an eggplant, lamb, onion and pine nut stew. For those who aren't attracted to the kitchens of the Levant, his huge menu, with multiple combination possibilities, devotes space to Greek and American specialties — and even fish and chips. A special bargain is Ike's Turkish coffee.
BEST STARTLING TRANSFORMATION
From MamO Bistro to Smoke & Spice Southern Barbecue
1515 Ottawa St., Windsor; 519-252-4999
In August Chef Ryan Odette closed the fabulous but tiny MamO Bistro, where he cooked dishes such as breast of duck with parsnip purée, roasted apricots and fig jus, delectable delicacies reflecting his French training. In September Odette reopened on the site of the shuttered Bin 151 — another upscale place, where chef Martin Atkins had served, for example, a different risotto daily. So what does the new joint serve? Barbecue! A cuisine from another planet! Luckily, Odette brings the same wizardry to ribs and pulled pork that he did to fettucine with creminis and white truffle oil; the meat is indescribably good, worthy of winning the Best Ribs in Windsor category as well.
BEST REWARD FOR A LONG WAIT
Mercury Coffee Bar
2163 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-496-4000
Through several investors, several years, a couple of concepts and a name change, the spot across from Slows Bar-BQ sat empty but full of potential, tantalizing Corktowners and southwest siders with the promise of good food to come. This month, it's finally open, with a cyan-magenta-yellow color scheme, an open kitchen, and coffee both fast and slow (individually brewed to order). The 7 a.m.-10 p.m. menu features $6-$8 panini and house-baked pastries, including a signature tres leches cake. Most striking feature: You can gaze at the train station as you sip your rosetta-topped cappuccino.
BEST RESTAURANT TO MOURN
After more than a century in business, the New Hellas closed this winter, a victim of the Greektown Casino's remaking of Monroe Street as well as octogenarian owner Gus Anton's decision to begin his well-deserved retirement. For many Detroiters, this busy restaurant was synonymous with Greektown, the place where multiple generations learned about retsina, octopus with wine sauce, taramasalat and the rest of that earthy Mediterranean fare.
BEST REPLACEMENT FOR THE NEW HELLAS (AND BEST "GREEK" RESTAURANT)
579 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-961-1550
Those downcast about the shuttering of the New Hellas need only walk next door to the Cyprus Taverna to get their saganaki (opa!) fix. Vassos Avgoutis, who runs the cozy taverna with his wife, Eleni, apprenticed up and down Monroe Street for several decades, including a stint at the New Hellas, before he opened his own place in 1994. Aside from such expected Greek platters as lamb and rice and stuffed grape leaves, they feature unique items from their nation, including savory lamb riganato, fried haloumi cheese, mushrooms in wine and coriander, and Eleni's justly renowned pineapple cake.
BEST RIVERSIDE DINING
300 River Place Dr., Detroit; 313-567-4400
Although there are other spots on both sides of the river with pleasant water views, none can match the fine-dining experience of the Rattlesnake Club. For two decades, Jimmy Schmidt, the respected doyen of local chefs, has presided over one of the most creative kitchens in town. Alas, dinner at the Rattlesnake does come at a rather steep price. The best way to sample the fare and lower the tariff is to go for lunch, when some of the same dishes appear in smaller portions and at a lower price. Moreover, as we move into winter, there is not much to see on the river during the darkened dinner hours.
BEST PRE-THEATER — MODERATE
4145 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-3965
Whether you are going to Orchestra Hall, the Fox or even the Fisher, Union Street is a bustling, versatile restaurant that attracts an unusually diverse urban clientele. Over the 30 years it has been in business (in a century-old building), it has evolved from a neighborhood bar into a full-service restaurant with global culinary pretensions. Try, for example, chicken kung pao, jambalaya, antipasto salad, Scooby Doo pasta or the incendiary dragon eggs composed of gorgonzola-stuffed chicken breasts in hot sauce over a Caesar salad. Chalkboard specials daily feature bargains on their extensive beer and wine lists.
851 Erie St. E., Windsor; 519-255-7548
Nico sets only 14 tables, so no bustle will distract you from your partner's face. It's the sensuality of the cuisine that makes this place romantic — every dish tastes as if the chef were asking for your hand. The sheer over-the-top layering of sensual flavors will impress your date — say a chicken breast stuffed with ricotta and spinach and wrapped in prosciutto; then the brandy cream sauce seals the deal. Or for those who think red meat will enhance their powers, there are pound-plus slabs of beef such as a rib-eye with Gorgonzola butter. The intimate setting and gracious service make you feel cared for, and the wine list, including grappa, may help dissolve resistance.
Renaissance Center, Detroit; 313-567-2622
As long as the food is good, whatever restaurant occupies the top of the RenCen should always win this category. Coach Insignia, the elegant flagship of the Matt Prentice empire (and not the manager of Italy's Olympic basketball team), does not disappoint, with a far better kitchen than its predecessors. Unlike them, however, it does not do a 360, a feature that used to concern the minority of diners prone to vertigo. Although Coach Insignia is expensive, there are enough relatively reasonably priced dishes and libations to make it a prime consideration for a romantic date or to show off spectacular views of the river and a foreign country to cosmopolitan visitors to flyover country.
BEST AL FRESCO DINING — SUBURBS
330 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-584-3499
Even though you know the huge Ferndale public parking lot is nearby, Assaggi has done a remarkable job in creating a Mediterranean oasis to go with its top-notch Mediterranean fare. A fountain, statues, Italianate sculpture on the stone wall, tall greenery along the borders, and piped-in old classics help to transport you to the Old World. Saucy dishes such as Moroccan-spiced twice-cooked duck, Chesapeake Bay wild striped bass, and pheasant coq au vin satisfy. Main problem is the attractive environment is conducive to lingering over a bottle of wine, but doing so will be costly.
BEST AL FRESCO DINING — DOWNTOWN
4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700
As if they did not have enough going for them — restaurant, pizza place, bowling alley and music theater — the Zainea family opened their huge Alley Deck this outdoor season as still another element of their entertainment complex. To be sure, the venue is not as green as other comparable venues, but the elevated view of our gritty downtown is what sells the location. The Alley Deck's grilled fare is far simpler than that served in the main restaurant downstairs, but you can ask for a special order of the more sophisticated stuff from down below. And while Cheli's much smaller deck further downtown is higher and offers spectacular views of Comerica Park, the Majestic's cuisine is better in general and the Tigers have tanked.
Maple Leaf Café
297 E. Maple Rd., Birmingham; 248-723-1222
Seven days a week, the Maple Leaf Café serves up some of the best breakfasts and lunches around. Using all-natural and organic ingredients in such contemporary dishes as lemon-blueberry pancakes and "voodoo french toast" — skewers of challa bread in a rich New Orleans-style batter of yogurt, honey, egg and vanilla, dusted in toasted coconut and accompanied by a fruit cobbler. Egg-lovers will find a variety of omelets too. The lunch menu begins with five-star meat loaf and macaroni and cheese, a creamy concoction made with six cheeses. The sandwiches and salads and half-pound burgers are every bit as good as the menu descriptions.
BEST RETRO DINING
Mr. Paul's Chop House
29850 Groesbeck Hwy., Roseville; 586-777-7770
Mr. Paul's opened 40 years ago and has changed little except, of course, for the prices. This old-fashioned, upscale roadhouse, which features flamboyant tableside preparations of Caesar salad, Chateaubriand and cherries jubilee, is where several generations of eastsiders have gone to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays and graduations. Other well-executed classics rarely seen nowadays are escargot bourguignon (albeit out of their shells), sautéed calf's liver with bacon and onions, and frog legs. Big heavy reds dominate a wine list recognized by Wine Spectator.
BEST OF THE EASTERN MARKET
Russell Street Deli
2465 Russell St., Detroit; 313-567-2900
A fixture of the Eastern Market for years, the Russell Street Deli was sold a few years ago to Ben Hall and Jason Murphy, who have continued to serve top-notch soups and sandwiches. The lines at lunchtime — especially on Saturdays — attest to the eatery's popularity, and the diverse crowd includes business people in suits, workers from the market, and shoppers from all over metro Detroit, waiting to enjoy the casual atmosphere and the chow at the kind of joint that has the feel of the market. The food is fresh and the selection provides something for every palate.
BEST FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD BAR AND RESTAURANT
28028 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak; 248-543-2626
Ask friends what they can tell you about Vinsetta Grill. They may tell you that they think they've seen it, but even with a visible location on Woodward Avenue, it has remained under the radar, a well-kept secret. That said, this friendly spot is full of many of the same customers night after night. The menu includes build-your-own burgers from an array of choices. The huge Caesar salad will easily serve four. Ribs — both beef and baby back — are popular, as well as steaks and shrimp. The delicious cheese steak is one of the best. The nonsmoking policy is a bonus.
Simply Good Kitchen
1105 S. Adams Rd., Birmingham; 248-203-2450; simplygoodkitchen.com
Simply Good Kitchen is not as simple as the name suggests. Husband and wife Bill and Shanny Apodaca, both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, can cook! Their food is terrific. (So are their cooking classes — see Best Cooking Classes elsewhere in this section). Many of the choices change weekly. There are some hard-to-find ingredients; sauces, fine chocolate candies and house-made sausages like tandoori lamb and hot Italian. The "Food To Go" is delicious. The Asian noodle salad is outstanding. The moderately priced entrées are better than most cooks can prepare at home. They also offer cookware, discounting All Clad 25 percent on orders of four pieces.
Culinary Studies Institute at Oakland Community College
27055 Orchard Lake Rd., Building J, Farmington Hills; 248-522-3700; oaklandcc.edu/culinary
You'll have to plan ahead for this occasionally offered bargain lunch ($9.95), but if you go to it, you'll find a daunting amount of food with almost everything prepared by the student chefs either good or great. You'll find both contemporary dishes and old favorites dressed up for extra credit, such as a deviled egg with smoked salmon or potato salad made with roasted spuds. Expect a dozen cold salads or appetizers plus a cheese selection, a paté selection, a fruit tray and a smoked fish platter, not to mention such entrées as Andouille-stuffed pork loin, short ribs braised with Burgundy and pearl onions, and salmon with lemon caper beurre blanc. No reservations, so arrive early or prepare for a line. If you miss out on the all-you-can-eat, see the Institute's a la carte lunch offerings, also remarkable deals, and its fancy dinners with entertainment.
BEST FOR ADULTS WITH CHILDREN
5725 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-828-2825
Although those opposed to hunting might object to the huge game heads mounted on the walls, most kids love the natural-history-museum-like environment, including the moose- and elk-oriented coloring materials, and the dog wall that features photos of hundreds of patrons' best friends. The children's menu covers all the usual suspects. As for adults, the campfire whitefish, buffalo loaf and venison chili are satisfying, as is the signature dessert that all will happily share — warm, freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies.
BEST NEW MARKET & TAKEOUT — DETROIT
3100 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-3400
Fed up with trekking to the suburbs for posh provisions? Go no further than the southern reaches of Detroit's Midtown. The original Zaccaro's is in Charlevoix, and it shows — the place is a mix of the green (toilet paper to toothpaste), the healthy (gluten-free brownie mix) and, mostly, the gourmet, with prices to match. More than a market, the scene includes café tables and a sit-down espresso bar, an in-house bakery, prepared meals and sandwiches, and green packaging. In addition to dozens of imported cheeses and 12 brands of olive oil, it's possible to get your staples here: grains, nuts, and flour, canned goods, pet food, nine kinds of sea salt. Take-out possibilities include lemon-ginger chicken salad, rosemary roasted vegetables, eggplant Parmesan, an apricot walnut tart from Give Thanks Bakery and nine panini (such as one made with juicy roast beef, wild mushrooms, Cambozola and caramelized onions). Most fun: the olive bar.
BEST SUBURBAN DINING
For more than a decade, Royal Oak could claim the laurels in this category.
Recently, however, Ferndale passed it with more high-quality, adult-dining venues like Via Nove, Assaggi and Starving Artist, along with ethnic favorites Star of India, Anita's and China Ruby. For a while this year, Maria's was gone from that culinary pantheon but it has reopened under new management of the people who run Nami Sushi Bar. To be sure, Royal Oak is attempting to reclaim its No. 1 position as it added Ronin, Town Tavern, Small Plates and Blackfinn to its roster recently, but Ferndale maintains its lead. Aside from Royal Oak, the race is getting tight in this division with Dearborn and even Grosse Pointe (!) on the rise.
BEST BAKERY — LOCAL
Avalon International Breads
422 W. Willis St., Detroit; 313-832-0008
A pioneer in the rejuvenation of the Cass Corridor, the Avalon continues to fashion a wide selection of healthy and fresh artisanal bread, scones and cookies, not only for its fortunate walk-in patrons but also for several area restaurants and grocers. From the slender baguettes to the earthier farm breads, you are certain to discover your favorite crust and dough. Moreover, the owners deserve kudos for their involvement in progressive politics in the city, a commitment that continues to be displayed each day in their choice of venue for a bakery the suburbanites would die for.
BEST BAKERY — STATEWIDE
Stone House Bread
407 S. Main St., Leland; 231-256-2577
Twelve years ago, Bob Pisor, local journalist, author (he wrote the best book on the battle of Khe Sahn) and Coleman Young apparatchik, gave up the political rat race to open the Stone House bakery in Leland, 20 miles north of Traverse City. He has now given up the bakery rat race and sold his place to two local families, who remain faithful to the original concept. Their dark and dense Chernushka Rye, soft ciabatta and varieties of crusty baguettes are state-of-the-art. Yeah, 250 miles is a long way to go for your daily bread, but Stone House does ship loaves all over the country. If that doesn't work for you, there is more than a hint of the Stone House approach at the award-winning Avalon in town — the talented people who founded that bakery interned at Stone House. Speaking of talented food folk, Pisor is married to foodie and writer Alice Waters' sister.
BEST MUSICAL BRUNCH
222 S. Sherman Dr., Royal Oak; 248-584-7400
If you're looking for some fun on an early Sunday afternoon why not spend it sipping on a bottomless Bellini or Mimosa cocktail while moving to the Django Reinhardt- and Louis Armstrong-influenced tunes of Gino Fanelli's Red Hot Sugar Daddies. Munch on poached eggs atop spicy thick sausage patties on crispy biscuits topped with a roasted red pepper hollandaise. Your sweet tooth will adore almond marscapone between two fluffy slices of french toast covered with a cranberry-and-apple reduction. The Bloody Marys are good too.
Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup
32407 Northwestern Hwy., Farmington; 248-626-6767; gcatsoup.com
Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup specializes in, as the name suggests, comfort food. What evokes a greater sense of comfort than the dishes that you grew up eating on a blustery winter day? If tomato soup, doesn't suit your fancy, certainly one of the other varieties, made daily, should. Most of the sandwiches are grilled, making the bread crisp and melting the cheese. More comfy stuff is Grandma's mac and cheese, chicken pot pie and pot roast. Salads like Maurice, Cobb and Caesar round out the menu.
32748 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak; 248-544-9881
The vast majority of patrons who come to this plain storefront with space for 10 diners are picking it up to go. It is comforting to see that the chefs take longer than expected with the orders, which suggests that most of the items are made from scratch. Ultra-fresh and artfully spiced ingredients combine with pickled turnips and yogurt to make a falafel feast. The portions, even those labeled lunch-size, are as generous as the price is modest. Beyond the falafel, the chicken shawarma is moister than most and the kibbeh, made from beef, not lamb, is well-seasoned. You can try most of the menu in foot-long wraps.
BEST MUSSELS AND POMMES FRITES
4300 Cadieux Rd., Detroit; 313-882-8560
Besides serving up huge bowls of tasty classic Belgian mussels steamed in white wine and vegetables with sides of clarified butter and a mustard and vinegar sauce, Cadieux Café offers them prepared with marinara, garlic and numerous other ways. Whatever style of mussels you choose be sure to match them with a plate of pommes frites — crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside — and accompanied by one of three mayonnaise-based dips. For pure north-European bliss, add a strong and spicy Belgian ale to wash it all down.
BEST PIZZA — NEW YORK-STYLE SLICE
My Cousin's New York Pizza
42967 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 248-874-9999
Lunchtime in New York finds legions of pizza lovers — and who isn't? — strolling down the street, noshing on a generous sized slice of 'za folded in half, a cheap, filling and scrumptious meal. Some say that the dough is unique to New York due to the water. Whatever the cause, it's good, thin chewy, saucy and cheesy, oily in a good way from the full-milk mozzarella and the spicy pepperoni that seem indigenous to the Big Apple. Now you can enjoy it here, thanks to Ronnie Gonzales, who worked in family-owned pizzerias in the New York City.
BEST PIZZA — ROUND, THIN-CRUST
29275 14 Mile Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-855-3555 and 24369 Halstead Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-888-4888; tomatoesapizza.com
To call Michael Weinstein a pizzaiolo pazzo — crazy pizza maker — is likely to be taken as a compliment, as it's intended. His passion for pizza — the best pizza — consumes him. Last year he put in a coal-burning oven, the first in the area, at the location on 14 Mile Road. For those who haven't tried it, you'll find a slightly charred and bubbled pie, mimicking the New Haven-style Neapolitan pizza of the legendary Abate's, where he studied the art of the pizzaiolo, working beside Lou Abate himself. Start with the red pie. Ask for more garlic.
BEST PIZZA — SQUARE, DEEP
23141 Dequindre Rd., Hazel Park; 248-547-1711
In this fiercely contested category, Loui's wins for its deep-dish pies, which boast deftly charred, crunchy crusts and an appropriately greasy and sublime blend of cheese and tomatoes. They emerge from the kitchen on plastic dinnerware served by colorful veteran servers who seem happy to be working in a central casting pizza parlor decorated with Chianti bottles hanging from the walls and ceiling. Indeed, everyone seems to be having a good time at Loui's (which also could win the award for most misspelled restaurant name) in part because of the reasonably priced boombahs and carafes. And you gotta love a place that offers Old Grand-Dad and Coke as a drink special.
31452 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak; 248-549-0300
A million burger lovers can't be wrong. Thick, juicy succulent; use extra napkins. The Redcoat Tavern has been the bastion of a great burger seemingly forever. Located on Woodward Avenue a few blocks north of 13 Mile Road, this place is crowded every day at lunch and dinner — and usually in between. The notable burger is served with the "special" sauce, grilled onions that most folks request burnt and the rest of the usual toppings found wherever a good burger can be had. There is a full menu, and not just bar food. Don't miss the Caribbean-style seafood chowder, not to be confused with the clam chowder.
2972 Coolidge Hwy., Berkley; 248-543-3283
Although its menu looks a good deal like what you would expect in a drive-through burger joint, Bagger Dave's is a full-service restaurant that boasts wine, beer and cool recorded jazz. Like most sliders, these are thin, so go for a double (only a dollar more) and load 'em up with an extensive variety of toppings, cheeses and sauces, including black-bean chili and guacamole! Hand-cut double-fried Belgian fries and, especially, seasoned sweet-potato fries round out a satisfactory if artery-clogging repast. A few modest salads and more interesting sandwiches and shakes are also available.
525 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-962-7093
Though not quite as fancy as some of the other nearby Greektown restaurants, stepping into Golden Fleece just feels right. Immediately behind the counter are two vertical rotisseries spinning massive dripping hunks of gyro meat, and the heat from the burners is palpable. The gyros are the real deal here. Simply sliced off the skewer, layered onto a warm pita and adorned with tomato, onion and tzatziki sauce, they are tasty, triple-napkin handhelds worthy of their reputation and damn good with a cold beer.
BEST GARDEN BURGER
624 Brush St., Detroit; 313-962-7067; jacobysdetroit.com
Jacoby's is one of the best places downtown for a great, no-frills, all-American (well, they are also noted for their fine German food) lunch — a wonderful place for a burger and a brew before a Tigers game or a show. Those burgers are said to be superb; their perch sandwich to die for. But what about lunch for those of us of the vegetarian persuasion? Well, Jacoby's has one of the finest, tastiest garden burgers we've ever tasted — and we've tasted a lot in our lifetimes. Don't know exactly what they do to make it so special or so darn tasty, aside from the cheese on top (we always go with melted Swiss) and the incredible buns — but it's their secret and we're certainly not complaining. In fact, at least two MT editors claim they could subside on nothing but these. Comes with a pickle and a side of french fries — though, lately, we've been substituting a terrific garden salad (you have numerous other choices, including Jacoby's famous potato salad, etc.) for only a buck more.
BEST CHICAGO-STYLE HOT DOG
1648 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-524-9778
In the land of Coney Island dogs, sometimes it's nice to have your wiener "dragged through the garden" — topped with mustard, onion, outrageously green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt. It's an all-beef Chicago-style hot dog nestled in a poppy seed bun. At Hippo's, the little brick stand on Rochester and Maple, they make them exactly like they do across Lake Michigan. Big eaters will want to order the "Great Scot Hippo" — it's double-sized.
BEST PIZZA AND A BEER
Motor City Brewing Works
470 W. Canfield St., Detroit; 313-832-2700
Of all the beer brewed in Detroit, one of the most poundable you're going to find is Ghettoblaster. It's a full-bodied, full-flavored beer, both malty and refreshing. It's best on tap from the source, washing down a brick-oven pizza. Choose from simple pizza Margherita to more intensely flavored pies like the pesto, goat cheese, roasted red pepper and roasted garlic Godfather. Or create your own from a large list of ingredients. Finish your meal with one of the seasonal or one-off beers.
BEST DIM SUM
6407 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield; 248-626-8585
Time was, a while back, when you wanted good dim sum, you had to cross the pond to Canada where Wah Court ruled. That's no longer necessary. Shangri-La serves as many as 75 varieties of these delectable delights (or "touches of the heart") on Saturday and Sunday. The carts roll by the tables one after another, each holding four or five different dumplings — steamed or fried — including seafood stuffed peppers, tiny octopus in garlic sauce, noodles and, one of our favorites, chive dumplings, along with dozens of other morsels. The legions of Asians attest to the authenticity of the fare.
Northern Lakes Seafood Company
39495 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 248-646-7900
After a decade in business in the Radisson Kingsley Hotel, Northern Lakes continues to reign over all things nautical, including an interior design that features whimsical fish mobiles and menacing octopi chandeliers. Stick with the unusually diverse fresh-catch-of-the-day list that is reasonably priced and attractively prepared, although the busier "house specialties" like the Nobu-influenced tuna duo are meritorious as well. The quirky "Interesting White Wine" section of the wine list merits attention as does the justly celebrated Matt Prentice sourdough, a previous winner of best restaurant bread.
45 E. 14 Mile Rd., Clawson; 248-585-2314
So what if it's not an upscale Asian restaurant adorned with Eastern flash? You'll forget all about that the minute you bite into a fat spider roll. And the green tea is free! There are just a few tables behind a makeshift wall separating the "restaurant" from a Japanese market full of exotic foods. Carryout might be advised during the dinner rush, or you can snag a box of what is surely the freshest pre-made sushi available. They even offer raw fish pieces in the refrigerator section for do-it-yourselfers.
401 S. Lafayette Ave., Royal Oak; 248-543-1964
If patatas bravas are the measure by which tapas restaurants are judged, Sangria gets top marks. Pros from Vigo, Spain, were brought in to help set the menu. You'll find a long list of authentic hot and cold tapas here. Consider pulpo a la vinegreta: The chunks of octopus are meaty, almost beeflike, and subtly marinated with potatoes in lemon vinaigrette. Have your goat cheese baked and your blue cheese fried. Olives, shrimp, mussels — the menu is a taste of the Iberian Peninsula.
BEST SOUL FOOD & JAZZ
Baker's Keyboard Lounge
20510 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-345-6300; bakerskeyboardlounge.com
In 1996, when Clarence Baker's pending retirement threatened to close the world's oldest jazz club, along came Juanita Jackson and John Colbert to rescue this jewel of the national jazz scene. Juanita, known as Detroit's (chicken) Wing Queen, took over the kitchen, putting down some terrific, destination-worthy soul food. Try the wings and the catfish! The music lineup, which for years had been dominated by the legends of jazz, was supplanted, for the most part, by our many great local players — local legends who have given Baker's the warmer, homier feel that helps keep it packed nearly every night.
4313 W. 13 Mile Rd., Royal Oak; 248-288-3744
Chef Tim Voss's seasonally changing menu includes standards like Caesar salad, roast chicken and pork chops — even spaghetti and meatballs — alongside tofu marinated in maple syrup, beef tenderloin in black currant sauce, and scallops with olives in a tomato-fennel purée. If some of the names are familiar, all the outcomes are spectacular. Voss loves his sauces, and, as a result, so do the patrons. Try the super-tender braised lamb shank with artichokes or the salmon with a corn fritter and a roasted portobello. Off the beaten track, Fiddleheads has the friendly feel of a neighborhood place but a level of service, decor and taste that call out for special occasions.
BEST BREWPUB FOOD
410 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak; 248-591-5459
At Lily's Seafood, the house-made beer is fresh and good (we particularly enjoy Reggie's French River Red), but it's the food that draws us back. The delicious signature Creole soup is spicy and rich with chunks of Andouille sausage, crawfish tails and chicken; we order it every time. The tuna burger is ground sushi-grade yellowfin, and the malt-crusted whitefish is superb. Open for brunch on the weekends, you might even be tempted to hit the Bloody Mary bar instead of ordering a pint of ale with your salmon hash.
2138 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-9828
Forget the Texas vs. North Carolina argument; in the revitalizing Corktown neighborhood Slows Bar-BQ treats both beef and pork to unhurried hardwood smoke seasoning and then offers up a choice of five tasty sauces. Or try one of their more interesting creations, such as brisket enchiladas or split pea-and-okra fritters. But it's not entirely about the Q. The beer list is one of the best in town. The wine menu is more thoughtful than many nearby upscale restaurants. Add to that a nice selection of small-batch bourbons and you might end up staying awhile.
1426 Bagley St., Detroit; 313-963 4546
Tiger Stadium no longer stands whole in Corktown, but there are still plenty of good reasons to visit. In addition to the gorgeous dark wood and stained glass interior of Baile Corcaigh, they're making some quality victuals there. Still, in the comfort category, the cuisine goes well beyond corned beef and cabbage and should delight a range of diners. The charming dense and crumbly house-made soda bread might as well be called a scone. Stop in for a Beamish stout or a snort of whiskey during melancholy hour.
BEST ITALIAN — CHAIN
Multiple locations; andiamoitalia.com
We usually avoid chains, many of which serve mediocre, commissary-prepared, often-frozen food. Not so with Andiamo. Joe Vicari's 11 restaurants are part of an Italian chain, all right, but they have different styles, different menus, and they all have equity-owning managing partners who run them like independent owners. Under the tutelage of Chef Aldo, the kitchen staffs are trained to prepare the outstanding recipes that have sustained this operation and enabled its growth for the past 19 years. From a trattoria in Grosse Pointe Woods to the flagship in Bloomfield Township, Andiamo defines Italian food.
BEST ITALIAN — MODERATE
La Dolce Vita
17546 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-865-0331
Driving on Woodward Avenue three blocks north of McNichols Road, strangers to La Dolce Vita might miss it, tucked away behind a brick wall with the letters LDV being the only clue to its existence. Pull around to the rear to find a courtyard that, in season, is surrounded with lush greenery, complete with flowers and vines growing over the walls, covering an iron fence, secluding the courtyard from the street. The European atmosphere complements the fine food and service. Reasonably priced Italian food — salads, pastas and protein — are fresh and straightforward, uncomplicated, in the Tuscan style. This is a delightful oasis, a destination that defies the adage "location, location, location."
BEST ITALIAN — SPLURGE
29410 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-358-0344; baccoristorante.com
Italian doesn't get any better than Bacco. The dining room is lavish and tasteful at once. It's open and spacious, while maintaining a sense of intimacy. The service is professional, provided by a knowledgeable staff that can describe every dish and its ingredients. A visit for a special occasion will not disappoint. Luciano Del Signore grew up in the restaurant business and has taken it to a new level. The ingredients are the freshest, prepared by a man who is able to translate his love of food and wine to a sophisticated palate.
BEST NEW ITALIAN
4111 Orchard Lake Rd., Orchard Lake; 248-855-1259; italiafresca.net
Sam Sharkas is a brave man. He opened a restaurant tucked away in a location that has claimed several predecessors, in economic times that frighten the faint of heart. He even opened without a liquor license, although he hopes to have one soon. What is making Italia Fresca a success is the food. Sam can cook. The menu includes pastas — his pesto is redolent of fresh basil and garlic with just the right texture to coat every noodle. What's more, the quality of the veal, chicken and seafood are evidence of a chef who has spent his entire life cooking.
Zinc Brasserie & Wine Bar
6745 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield; 248-865-0500
Relying mostly on the cuisine of southern France, with nods to Spain and Italy, this brasserie offers a carefully chosen list of European beers and 200 wines, more than 40 by the glass, in a bustling, see-and-be-seen atmosphere. Classic French entrées are coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon and cassoulet, but nightly specials might include various renderings of whole fish, Basque-style spare ribs, lobster and braised beef short ribs. Especially popular are the bouillabaisse, osso buco, paella — and, oddly, the famous Red Coat Tavern hamburger (same owners) — along with sophisticated tapas and charcuterie. Almost everyone gets pommes frites with the house mayo — or truffle aioli.
Tre Monti Ristorante
1695 Big Beaver Rd., Troy; 248-680-1100
No contest here as this is the only local restaurant (and one of the few in the United States) that features the cuisine of tiny San Marino, the oldest republic in the world. That cuisine is similar to what is found in northern Italy where the mini-state (population 30,000) is situated. Some of the pastas, bread and especially the Monte Titano dessert are unique to the San Marino kitchen. Most of the rest of the light and well-prepared plates will seem familiar. Added attractions include several inexpensive regional Italian wines and, especially, the gracefully decorated room that belies the relatively moderate price structure.
2900 S. State St., Ann Arbor; 734-332-9700
Even though Detroit is home to many splendid Mediterranean restaurants, you'll have to travel to a mundane shopping center several miles from the center of downtown Ann Arbor to find the best in our area. Mediterrano covers the cuisine of the countries bordering the sea for which it is named, from Spain to Turkey on the north shore and from North Africa to the Middle East on the south shore. Here you can find paella, pistou soup, tapenade and a vegetarian Turkish burec in a large comfortable dining space full of geographically relevant kitsch. The portions are generous, the diversity is admirable, and the intelligent wine list covers a wide swath of Mediterranean vineyards along with New World varietals.
BEST GERMAN FOOD IN A DETROIT BAR
624 Brush St., Detroit; 313-962-7067
It's a piece of Detroit history with more than a dozen taps of German beer. Autumn is the ideal time for a bowl of Jacoby's famous German sausage soup. It's a simple and utterly satisfying mixture of sausages and vegetables in a tomato-based broth. The breaded pork medallions (schnitzel) are ideally prepared, sautéed crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. If your meal doesn't come standard with potato pancakes, make sure to order a side and slather them with sour cream and applesauce.
3203 Peter St., Windsor; 519-254-4369
The dishes are familiar to fans of Middle Eastern or Greek cooking, but with a twist that improves each one: The secret of Turkish cuisine is long, slow cooking that concentrates and marries the flavors, producing gems such as karisik (one of several eggplant appetizers), humus that's chunkier, tangier and nuttier, minty lentil soup, sigara boregi (flaky phyllo stuffed with a rich and tart spinach filling, far more delicious than most spanakopita), eggplant kebab (ground beef wrapped in eggplant) and hunkar begendi (veal stew on a bed of mashed grilled eggplant, smoky and creamy). Try the "mixed Turkish plate." Levant and Aykan Evrenoz serve it all with informal warmth despite the refinement of the surroundings — the former Alan Manor, in an 1877 house two minutes from the Ambassador Bridge.
30005 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-851-8200
Some dishes are familiar — humus, kebabs, grape leaves — but then you run across ghormeh sabzi (herb stew) and khoresht-e-bademjan (eggplant stew). Enhancing dishes with traditional ingredients such as sun-dried limes and ground walnut-and-pomegranate paste, Pars is seeking both to satisfy the Iranian community and to recruit others to its intriguing cuisine. Chicken, lamb and beef are combined with rice, herbs (cilantro, fenugreek), fruits (raisins, dates) and nuts (almonds, pistachios) to create perfectly grilled dishes new to most Detroiters' palates but very welcome if you feel you've eaten a lifetime's worth of chicken shawarma. Be sure to try the soups and the grilled eggplant starters.
BEST MIDDLE EASTERN
14633 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn; 313-846-9330
Known among its mostly Middle Eastern patrons for its deconstructed salads — you start your meal with a head of romaine, a bunch of scallions, a whole tomato and some cucumbers and pickles — Al-Ajami is equally celebrated for its bargain "family trays," laden with succulent shishes, shawarmas, kaftas, falafel and creamy garlic sauce. The impossibly long menu includes impossibly tender lamb and "chicken lemon" cooked with artichokes, as well as a sizable seafood list (perch, lobster, scallops, snapper). Chicken rice soup flavored with cumin is a standout. Breakfasts featuring beef-lamb sausage are served anytime. Come with a good-sized party to do this place justice.
BEST INDIAN — DETROIT
136 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-963-2860; sizzlnspice.com
This little northern India-Pakistani spot has been popular with downtown lunchers for its carry-out buffet — all you can stuff into a box for $8.99, but recently ended — and its $3.99 chicken or shrimp biryani and tandoori chicken (still going strong). A new menu — including a number of $1 items — was going into effect as we were finishing this issue, but a number of crowd-pleasers remain, including butter chicken masala, chicken tikka masala, palak paneer, dal tadka (lentils with lots of spices) and lamb achari — curried with pickle spices. Indo-Chinese dishes made with soy sauce (that is, Chinese as it's done in India) are popular with natives of India. It's open Monday-Saturday evenings too.
BEST INDIAN — SUBURBS
29200 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-626-2982; bombay-grille.com
Something has changed at Bombay Grille. The service is more attentive, even at lunch, when nearly everyone chooses the buffet, one of the best bargains in town with its myriad dishes and flavors. On a recent afternoon the fare included a delicious Indian-Chinese corn and chicken soup. Next were two appetizers, one a fried ball of mashed potatoes and peanuts, followed by Tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala, dal, aloo palak — spinach and potatoes — and several others, all perfectly seasoned and spiced, all for $8.95. This is a great way to explore a new cuisine for those who aren't familiar with it.
6880 E. 12 Mile Rd., Warren; 586-751-5288
Although the dim sun that won laurels two years ago is still estimable, this year we again salute Golden Harvest for its regular fare. Maritime delights are one of the specialties on that extensive menu with the walnut shrimp and sizzling seafood platter among the favorites. For vegetarians, it is difficult to beat their hot pot of garlicky eggplant. Almost all of the clientele is Asian, many of whom order intriguing-looking items that don't appear on the English menu. Walk around the room before taking your seat to see what they are eating, and then point to the tables of interest when your server approaches. And even though she might inform you that Americans don't care for the soup that comes with, order it. For likely translation problems, call for Yip, the genial manager who comes from Hong Kong.
323 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-548-5373
Just about everyone has a favorite local Thai joint to satisfy their regular urge for curry, noodle and fried rice dishes. Ours is Ferndale's Bangkok Café, where medium-hot actually means medium-hot and leftover Pad Thai might not make it past midnight. Without fail, every time we dine there we can't help but order the fresh rolls: a simple chicken and vegetable mixture rolled into rice noodle wrappers and enhanced with mint leaves and a tangy dipping sauce. And we could easily carry out 12-dozen seasoned Siam wings to nibble while watching football.
325 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-546-0888
Moving into a jinxed restaurant space on the corner of Lafayette and Fourth near the Royal Oak Music Theatre, Ronin looks like it will be a keeper. Its dramatic subdued Japanese interior combined with superior sushi and other Japanese treats make it one of the more sophisticated dining spots in town. Although the non-sushi and -sashimi side of the menu is brief, it is full of interesting items, such as sweet-potato tempura, pork potstickers, chilled green-tea noodles, black risotto and the somewhat oxymoronic Kobe beef sliders. The artistically constructed gluten-free dark and white chocolate cake is a surprising winner.
BEST VIETNAMESE — BUDGET
30491 John R Rd., Madison Heights; 248-588-7823
No frills at Thuy Trang — no website, no bar, no cloth napkins — just good fresh food on the cheap. If you spend 15 bucks here, you've overeaten. The pho, a staple of the Vietnamese diet, is a large bowl of hot broth filled with noodles and some kind of meat, usually beef or chicken. On the side are bean sprouts, basil, hot fresh chilies, chili sauce and fish sauce. You can make a meal of pho or share it if you can find an extra bowl. If you're familiar with the menu, you know what to order. If not, ask.
BEST VIETNAMESE — UPSCALE
22053 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-565-8744
Still the best because the ethereal delicacy of its food is matched by the spare elegance of the surroundings. The Nguyen family's secret is to use fresh herbs — cilantro, mint, lemon grass — and to stir-fry with few oils. Customers' favorites are chicken lemon grass and catfish cooked in a clay pot with a caramelized sauce. Equally good are the lotus stem salad, appetizer sampler, bouillabaisse and ginger chicken with eggplant. Wine list and full bar too, with Japanese and Chinese beers. Though we've called it "upscale," prices are eminently affordable.
Señor López Taqueria
7144 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-551-0685
Skip the tourist traps on Bagley Street and head west. Beans are the measure of a Mexican restaurant, and Señor López does them right: Cooked fresh every day with onions and without lard; whole, not mashed and refried. Try the crusty whole tilapia, chiles rellenos (two poblanos barely dipped in egg batter, grilled and peeled for a smoky flavor and filled with creamy Muenster), guacamole (chunky and infused with lime), the simple $1.25 taco, slathered with cilantro, puerco en chile verde and chicken soup for the Mexican soul. Instead of the usual gringo favorites (death by chimichanga), branch out and try chile enogada, mole (red or green), and Mexican drinks like horchata, tamarindo and jamaica. Tequila, beer and margaritas are served.
Atlas Global Bistro
3111 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-2241
Whoever said "do one thing and do it well" hadn't met Chef Christian Borden, who borrows ingredients and traditions from cuisines all over, or at least Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. His dishes evoke the familiar — France, Italy, Japan — but they may also call to mind Algeria, Fiji, Scandinavia or Quebec (duck leg with maple sauce), and they change seasonally. He often deliciously juxtaposes elements from different continents in the same dish, such as Baffin Bay crab over kimchi or macadamia-dusted calamari. Whatever he does, it's intense, verging on gilding the lily.
BEST CULINARY GRAND TOUR
28875 Franklin Rd., Southfield; 248-208-7500
You can put together a virtual Grand Tour of Europe on the Internet, but why not try something that you can sink your teeth into — like Pi's menu, which roams the Old World from Irish lamb stew to Greek lamb chops? In between you can stop off for the seldom-seen-here Portuguese salt cod, French bouillabaisse, Hungary's chicken paprikash and Poland's bigos. The reasonably priced wine list also roams the Old World for bargains, while the varied beer list includes quaffs from Macedonia and Russia. Live jazz from the New World enhances the evening.
BEST PRE-THEATER - UPSCALE
4421 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-7500
This category originally read "expensive" — but that would not do justice to the new, more affordable menu that came with the handsome refurbishing when the Whitney reopened for business last fall. There may a bit of sleight-of-hand here — as the prices came down, so did the portion sizes — but that should be irrelevant (who takes a doggie bag to the theater?) when you can feast on five-lily soup, Peekytoe crab salad, duck two ways and roast chicken roulades stuffed with pork and pistachios. And all of this amid the most elegant surroundings in town, whichever of the 52 rooms you happen to find yourself in, including the celebrated second-floor men's bathroom.
Good Girls Go To Paris Crêpes
2 John R St., Detroit; 313-964-2023
Don't look for a door: It's the only New York-style walk-up we've got. It's not like downtown is so jammed with businesses that this was the only way to squeeze in one more, but the idea does add a touch of urbanity to the city center. Here, a crêpe griddle is tucked into 48 claustrophobic square feet of cooking space with a window on the street. Customers place their orders, get handed a steaming crêpe loaded with veggies, bacon, fruit, chocolate — whatever — and walk away; it's all designed for portability. The crêperie opens early for downtown foot traffic and stays up late on Fridays and Saturdays.
Taste of Ethiopia
29702F Southfield Rd., Southfield; 248-905-5560
and 2453 Russell St., Eastern Market, Detroit; 313-567-6000
Omnivores and vegetarians are both happy here. They've discovered that an Ethiopian restaurant doesn't have to serve all-you-can-eat (though that option's available for $17.95). Most customers order from the varied a la carte menu. Along with their injera they get generous servings of familiar vegetables — collards, lentils, carrots, cabbage — simmered in a long list of spices to bring out their quintessential spirit; it's easy to feel you've never truly appreciated these humble sides before. Beef, lamb and chicken are available several ways, as are lentil-carrot-scallion soup, plantains or fresh fruit for dessert, a simple salad of lettuce, tomatoes and red onions dressed in sesame oil and lemon juice, Ethiopian tea, coffee in a clay pot — even a thin crust "pizza" with basil.
6430 Farmington Rd., West Bloomfield Twp.; 248-661-4466
Jim and Mary Lark's eponymous European country inn has been around for more than a quarter-century, winning awards for its French-oriented kitchen and for its vast wine cellar. In their exquisite but simply decorated room with only 12 tables, discriminating guests dine on a prix-fixe that averages a hefty $75 but includes a wondrous cold appetizer trolley (try a bit of everything), a choice of warm appetizer, a palate-cleansing sorbet, entrées such as rack of lamb, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and Dover sole, as well as a salad. A hands-on owner if there ever was one, Jim Lark patrols his domain, chatting up his guests and making certain that his highly skilled staff takes care of all diners' gustatory desires.
BEST CUT-RATE SWANKY
31425 W. 12 Mile Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-848-9393
How to enjoy one of the area's very best restaurants without blowing the rent? First off: At Wednesday through Friday lunchtimes, ordinary mortals find that 20 bucks will get them either an appetizer plus an entrée or an entrée plus dessert — anything they want from the menu of the award-winning Tribute. Choices are likely to include Szechuan calamari with chili lime mayo or smoked salmon "pizza" with crème fraiche; lobster Bolognese, sautéed halibut, beef tips with gnocchi, salmon with edamame mashers; and crème brûlée or chocolate mousse. Secondly: the dinner menu entrée prices themselves have been slashed: from $59 down to $39 on the high end. And November features a three-course dinner for two for $99.
BEST DEAL ON A TAMAL
2054 Junction St., Detroit; 313-554-9087
These square Guatemalan tamales from chef Inocencia Urizar are moist and rich, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, the way a tamal should be. No one, even gringos, should settle for the skinny, dry cylinders that pass for tamales in some Mexican restaurants. Prized as a Christmas dish, a Pollo Chapin tamal — its masa made with broth and lard, and stuffed with chicken — must be eaten with a fork. It would be delicious at twice the price, but it's $3.75 to eat in, or $2 to go.
BEST CONEY ISLAND ON A TROUT STREAM
621 N. Main St., Rochester; 248-652-9862
The metro area is rich with Coney Island restaurants, but perhaps none have quite the setting as the ultra-friendly Lipuma's in downtown Rochester. Paint Creek runs directly past a covered deck and several picnic tables outside the small building. Though their dogs and fries are some of the best, they taste even better during the temperate seasons with the sound of burbling water and busy ducks as backdrop. Gorge yourself and then work it off with a hike or bike ride on the nearby Paint Creek Trail.
3710 Junction Rd., Detroit; 313-894-2070; elbarzonrestaurant.com
Even if there were more Mexican-Italian restaurants, it's likely that El Barzón would get the nod in this category. Chef and owner Norberto Garitas learned Mexican cooking in his native land, and then cooked for years at Il Posto, the lauded Italian restaurant in Southfield, where he honed his Italian cooking skills. The combination of cuisines sounds odd until you've tried Garitas' food. The Mexican side of the menu has $1.25 tacos, mole poblano and other examples of a cuisine that is much more than tacos and quesadillas. The Italian portion of the menu has much of the standard fare, all expertly prepared and reasonably priced. The zuppa di pesce is outstanding.
Vicente's Cuban Cuisine
1250 Library St., Detroit; 313-962-8800; vicente.us
On a recent Saturday night there was a line to get into Vicente's at 11:30 p.m., with a DJ spinning salsa and the dance floor crowded. But before dancing, get fortified on the selection of tapas and four paellas, the traditional saffron-infused rice dishes that range from Cuban Style Paella — filled with lobster, shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, calamari, chorizo, chicken and vegetables — to paella de huerto — made with assorted seasonal vegetables and the venerable Spanish saffron rice. Or try the ropa vieja ("old clothes"), shredded meat cooked with bell peppers, tomatoes, red wine and green olives. For lighter fare, try a Cuban sandwich. Now dance!
1449 W. 14 Mile Rd., Madison Heights; 248-597-0800
A winner with few competitors, Sabidee introduces the Laotian kitchen to our area. After operating Bahn Nah in Ann Arbor, the Inhmathong family moved its operation to Madison Heights this summer. The owners hail from the northeast part of Laos bordering Thailand, which helps to explain the number of Thai standards on their menu as well as their often-incendiary spice levels. Larb, sticky rice, pork sausage and basil steak are among Laotian specialties worth a try. But so too is the more generic beautiful to look at and delightful to consume crispy duck. Alas, those who are peanut-averse will have to take a pass on the flavorful peanut-based sauces that accompany several of their offerings.
BEST VEGETARIAN NOT IN A VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT
1600 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-526-1444
Like most Middle Eastern restaurants, the Lebanese Grill boasts a large number of vegetarian dishes, but this cozy family-run place is special. Among the aromatic vegetarian dishes on its encyclopedic menu are borghul, cracked wheat with tomatoes, onions, green peppers, garlic and mushrooms, madjara, lentils, cracked, wheat and onions, and arayis, pita stuffed with goat cheese and tomatoes. Other options include dense flavorful soups, crisp lemony salads and oshta, a sweet dessert pudding covered with honey and fruit. And the wine list is dominated by a diverse selection of the best from Lebanon's venerable vineyards.
BEST CONDIMENTS AND GARNISHES IN A DINER
The Fly Trap
22950 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-399-5150
While you're skanking in your seat to the ska beats pouring out of the Fly Trap's sound system, take notice of the quality accoutrements this "finer diner" offers. The delicious dill pickle spears are naturally fermented. The house-made jams are typically a mixture of fresh fruit and complementary herbs — an outrageous improvement over the small plastic tubs of corn syrup-sweetened jellies. And their fiery yet tasty habañero "swat sauce" is so popular a $5 bottle can be purchased to go.
BEST COOKING CLASS
Simply Good Kitchen
1105 S. Adams Rd., Birmingham; 248-203-2450; simplygoodkitchen.com
Bill and Shanny Apodaca love to cook and to turn the world on to great food. They are knowledgeable chefs and have plenty of charisma, which comes through in their fun and informative classes. They teach their excellent, detailed recipes to a maximum of 15 students — and many bring wine to drink while watching as their gourmet dinner is prepared. The latest class schedule came out at the beginning of August and sold out in several days. How coveted are slots in their classes? A friend signed up for one scheduled at the end of January, was accepted, and then asked to pay immediately just to hold the spot.
Traffic Jam and Snug
511 W. Canfield St., Detroit; 313-831-9470
There are the regular desserts like a double scoop of house-made ice cream available in seven flavors, the Carlotta Chocolatta ice cream cheesecake that will have even the heartiest chocolate lover in a spin, bread pudding, fresh berries or even a simple Boston cooler made with vanilla ice cream and Vernor's ginger ale that once was brewed only two blocks away. Then you have to decide from daily specials such as German chocolate cake and Lemon chiffon. Enjoy your treats on the newish outdoor patio facing the quiet West Canfield neighborhood.
BEST CRÈME BRÛLÈE
555 Forest Ave., Plymouth; 734-455-9463
Chef Nina Scott's two crème brûlèes, vanilla and chocolate, are just the right combination of crackliness, barely burnt flavor and creamy insides that a brûlèe should be. She uses the traditional method, slow-cooking the eggs and cream over a double boiler, and makes only four or five at a time. The chocolate version uses 50 percent cocoa chocolate instead of bittersweet. Most people go over the top by adding a topping: a fresh fruit sauce of whatever's good that day (say, raspberry-strawberry) or the "turtle" — fresh caramel sauce, chopped walnuts and crème anglaise. It's bliss multiplied by bliss.
BEST ICE CREAM
Shatila Bakery & Café
14300 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn; 313-582-1952
If you're accustomed to thinking of fruit ice creams as light — sherbet-y — and vanilla and nut ice creams as rich, revise your thinking at Shatila. Apricot, mango, pineapple and lemon, made with puréed fruit, are super-premium and super-rich, potent in color and intense in flavor. Even richer is kashta — like French vanilla only more so. Pistachio, coconut, almond, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are also on hand, as is a vast array of Mediterranean and European pastries. A scoop is $1.48 ($7 per quart), but think in terms of cents per gram of butterfat.
BEST PLACE TO SHOP FOR PAN DULCE
4300 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-554-0001
There are a dizzying amount of sweet breads, pastries and cookies at Mexicantown Bakery, and you will be amazed how little cash you need to spend to walk away with a bag full of them. They also offer more refined cakes and tarts, freshly baked buns, tamales and a grocery well-stocked with Central and South American, Mexican and Caribbean specialties. Next time you're dining down that way, try dessert at the bakery. Or better yet, load up and have yourself a little picnic across the street in Clark Park.
BEST FROZEN CUSTARD
Erma's Original Frozen Custard
6451 Auburn Rd., Utica; 586-254-3080; ermascustard.com
Erma's has been around, just outside downtown Utica, since 1942. It shows. That's not