A bar in an art museum bases its cocktail choices on the colors of paint swatches. Pretty apt, I'd say. And I could get all lyrical about how the food menu is also a work of art, chef Marc Djozlija is a maestro, etc.
None of this is surprising if you know that the co-owners of Café 78 are also the co-owners of Wright & Co., Djozlija and Dave Kwiatkowski. These guys know what they're doing behind the bar and in the kitchen, with a modern menu that roams the American canon (sliders, potato chips, shrimp rolls) and makes a few nods to familiar dishes from Europe (croque madame, antipasti salad). Their $7-$10 drinks menu takes eight base boozes and builds on each till a fascinating fusion is achieved.
The drinks are well described by a knowledgeable counterman and are listed by Pantone color: Gin, for example, is mixed with carrot juice, ginger, lemon juice, and sweet sherry to make 1595, a deep orange. Even if you normally avoid carrot juice in smoothies, it's delightful here. Those looking for dessert can order bourbon-banana cream-cinnamon-egg white, which comes out nearly white.
Requesters of the dull blue 801 will be pleasantly surprised to find that it's actually electric blue, a product of the artificial food coloring "Brilliant Blue" found in blue Curaçao. The base here is mezcal, which dominates the Curaçao, cocoa nibs, saline, and dry vermouth to produce mezcal's typical smoky-gasoline flavor.
(A side note: There are 160 subspecies of the agave that's fermented and distilled to produce mezcal in Mexico, and because of the wide variety of growing and production conditions — soil types, climate, flat or hillside, different clays in the distilling pots, different firewood, different crops grown alongside the agaves — no two bottles should taste the same, even from the same artisanal producer. In Oaxaca recently, I sampled 12 kinds at a tasting and was amazed at the range. But commercial manufacturers are looking to standardize mezcal for the U.S. market.)
Beers ranging from PBR to various microbrew ales and porters were chosen by Wright & Co.'s beverage director Christian Stachel, as were six lusciously described wines ("fleshy," "earth, grip").
The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit is all big echoing spaces, and the café, which has its own entrance, is the same, the opposite of cozy, with scarred wooden tables and WiFi.
Though the café opens at 8 a.m. during the week, it hasn't caught on yet with a breakfast crowd, perhaps because its dishes don't tend that way. The food menu includes snacks like roasted cashews and small plates that are not necessarily small; a trio of tall sliders or a big grilled cheese sandwich will fill up the footsore museumgoer quite well. Some dishes have been adopted or adapted from the Wright & Co. menu, which is a good thing.
By coincidence, we ordered most of the really fabulous dishes on our first visit, relegating the good-but-not-great to the second. The fabulous include celery soup; don't be misled by the Spartan-sounding connotations. Here it's rich and creamy with crème fraîche; chives and tiny garlic croutons add a bit of sharpness. The antipasti salad is lettuce, salami, provolone, and red onions all slivered into a fine jumble and crowned with garbanzos. (Here the influence of Wright & Co. can be seen, where in the early days a snap pea salad was made with salami, red onion, and pecorino.)
Pea meal bacon is placed between the halves of a brioche roll with a simple honey mustard sauce to create a fine slider. Nearly as good is the cold shrimp roll with a dab of tomato glaze and some herb mayo. A cold salad is made with ditalini, one of the cuter pastas, with a good basil pesto mayo.
Djozlija's croque madame (a croque monsieur with a fried egg on top) is thick with ham and Gruyère. It's filling in the extreme and drenched in béchamel. Chicken liver mousse is mixed with hard-boiled eggs and bacon and served on six slices of toast, for another hearty if not transporting snack-meal.
Fresh potato chips are served with a dipping sauce of melted cheese and Italian sausage that doesn't quite rise to the standards set earlier.
The only dessert is chocolate panna cotta, again borrowed from Wright & Co. and normally not a favorite of mine because panna cotta can be mighty bland. But the chocolate is deep, the raspberries on top are bright, and almond brittle completes the holy trinity. It helps that the portion is large enough to share.
Café 78 is as different from its predecessor café at MOCAD, the uneven, often bland, and vegan Topsoil, as Jackson Pollock was from Andrew Wyeth. The directors were smart to make the switch.