Suburban restaurateurs Norman and Bonnie LePage have put a lot of thought into creating Lumen, a playful place to eat downtown.
They've taken maximum advantage of their setting in 1.2-acre Beacon Park at the junction of Grand River and Cass, a venture funded by neighboring DTE and managed by the Downtown Detroit Partnership. It's a public park with a big swath of astroturf lawn that's home to concerts and volleyball leagues, and the energetic sponsor gets a nod in the names — Beacon, Lumen (a measure of light output).
The building itself, which had my companions using words like "spaceship" and "Jetsons," has applied for silver LEED certification for being green. There's a living rooftop, with tables surrounded by plants and flowers, that will soon be available for dining, and more than half the 380 seats are outdoors, on the roof or the big patios. Even the indoors is enclosed only by floor-to-ceiling windows, which are now open to the weather.
The view of a wide-open circle of green astroturf lawn is an expansive novelty, especially for downtown. Personally, I like looking at the castle-like Grand Army of the Republic building across the way. No luminous space invaders better try storming those dour turrets!
The space has been attracting crowds, even on a Sunday night, for all those reasons. The LePages have kept prices at half the level of their Big Rock Chophouse in Birmingham, with a mostly American menu that runs from Brussels sprouts to steak.
I started with an excellent Gentlemen's Mule in a dimpled copper mug. To the traditional vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice of a Moscow Mule (is Russia too controversial these days?), Cointreau and a slice of jalapeño are added, and I could taste each one distinctly — except the vodka, of course.
That was followed by "Cured Fish," a generous array of smoked trout —more buttery than fishy — salty whitefish spread, hard-boiled egg, cream cheese, and toasted bagel, with minced red onion and capers.
Other "snacks" are mac and cheese, crab cakes, a sausage pairing of andouille and Italian, pretzels with beer cheese, and chicken wings spiced like an everything bagel.
A couple of Lumen items shared the odd property of not containing much substance yet tasting fantastic. That was true of a chicken gumbo, which I expected to be a roux-based, thickish stew full of chicken, sausage, and vegetables. The server warned there'd be no rice. What arrived was a thin broth with a few micro-thin sausage slices. The flavor was superb, redolent of both chicken and sausage, and I suppose it made a better appetizer than something heartier.
Similarly, Rustic Tomato — a smallish entrée serving of pasta with fresh tomatoes, basil, and white wine — contained very few visible tomatoes yet managed to taste summery and sublime. Hats off to chef Gabby Milton, who has come downtown from the Chophouse.
Gnocchi with tomatoes, mushrooms, and spinach were gorgeously colorful but not too numerous, and they were from the "plates" list, not the "snacks." A Garden and Grains salad went the opposite direction, piling on spinach, arugula, farro, lentils, couscous, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and a whole lot of luscious hazelnuts. It would have been perfect with half the vinaigrette, and my added skewer of shrimp was roasted just right. I should have asked before plunking for the Brussels sprouts salad — the sprouts are raw, not roasted, and therefore just a lot of crunch, in my humble opinion. (In the olden days, this was called "roughage," and before that, "bulk.") The dried cherries felt like an ancient throwback, and the kale like a recent one.
We had better luck with salmon, which comes with asparagus and chimichurri. One night a fellow diner got a slightly crisp exterior, which worked surprisingly well. Another evening a friend specified "medium rare verging on rare" and it wasn't, but was still tender and yummy, not dry at all.
For steak, the menu spells out the temperatures for each gradation: Rare is 95 degrees, red with a cool center; medium is 120 degrees and totally pink. This is presumably a practice learned at the LePages' steakhouse, where they want to match the expectations of diners paying $65 for Imperial Wagyu. Here the New York strip runs $27 or $35.
For dessert we ordered a hot fudge cream puff with Sanders sauce, which cooled quickly in the evening air.
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