I never thought I'd be tempted to write that a restaurant has "too much flavor" or "tastes are too intense." But I did feel that way one evening at Lucky's, where I couldn't find any respite even in the side dishes, from umami that came on like gangbusters. No palate cleansers here.
Take that semi-complaint with a grain of salt, of course, or a grain of MSG. We want big and bold flavors, right? Unless we're the folks whose meal is not complete without a slice of Wonder bread on the side and a plate of wet iceberg lettuce. And none of you Dear Readers fit that description.
Lucky's is the latest project of iconic Detroit restaurateur Jimmy Schmidt, who first wowed the locals as a chef at the London Chop House in the 1980s and soon after with the Rattlesnake Club. Now he's "reimagining barbecue" in a tiny kitchen, using his research background to tweak both flavor and nutrition.
Lucky's is one of four tiny-kitchened restaurants in the upmarket Fort Street Galley food court downtown. It's informal, grab-your-own-utensils, with both picnic-table seating and chairs; all four kitchens share the dining space and the charming, four-sided Magpie bar. No reservations, of course.
If you haven't stopped by the Magpie first, you might want to start your Lucky's meal with a sinus-clearing Northwoods ginger beer, the most powerful I've experienced. A Wild Bill's root beer was more normal, quite sweet.
But you do want to visit the Magpie. Its cocktails, which include a number of fashionable low-alcohol choices, are imaginative and even gorgeous. "Doves in the Wind," which includes pisco (a brandy), Suze gentian liqueur, citrus cola, pineapple, and more, comes topped with a lovely leaf design that takes a while to construct. The low-ABV drinks, on the other hand, are on draft; you decide whether to stick with the recipe — like a sweet, not-hot Galley Mule made of Barenjager (a honey liqueur), ginger, lime, and demerara — or add a shot of harder liquor for an extra $6. If you want the chance to try a number of different taste sensations while remaining relatively sober, this is the way.
Schmidt is into nutrition. The reason he serves no pork, just beef (and salmon), he says, is that the high omega fatty acids in his Wagyu beef, imported from Nebraska and Idaho, are good for you and easier to digest than pork. "It's a better barbecue you can eat all the time," he claims. He's anti-gluten and has removed all wheat and soy from the menu; the main ingredient in his sandwich buns is sorghum, but the eggs and milk make that not a deal-breaker. It's good bread.
Without a smoker on the premises, Schmidt first cures the Wagyu like bacon, with prebiotics, salt, and sugar. That curing process enables a cold smoke to stick. Then the precious meat is cooked at a very low temperature for 24 hours.
The results are luscious. The beef in my pulled short rib sandwich was heavy in the hand and practically melted in the mouth. It and other sandwiches are sprinkled with sweet potato fries. A hickory-smoked Angus brat was loaded with caramelized onions and had the satisfying elastic pop that makes a brat a brat.
Tender, smoky Wagyu back ribs are the pink of corned beef — that's the curing — with just a bit of a rind. They're served with a slaw that's way heavy on Roquefort — think of it as cheese rather than as a side salad. Like I said, no respite from the big flavors.
I thought Schmidt's salmon did and didn't work, depending on what it was paired with. In a salmon carpaccio starter, it's under mustardy greens and a bunch of capers and horseradish; the delicate flavor gets lost. But served with a creamy succotash, the fish can shine.
I wasn't as enthusiastic about five-onion soup, which is thick, or baked beans, which are spicy, sweet, and too soft. Other possible sides are deviled eggs, pimento cheese, butternut squash soup, mac and cheese, roasted beets/cocoa cole slaw (!), and fries with garlic, smoked paprika, and cheddar dust.
A vegetarian friend called Lucky's offerings for those of her persuasion "painfully limited but extremely delicious." She loved a Three-Apple Salad, though I thought it low on apples, and a beet carpaccio with mild goat cheese.
Dessert was a deconstructed dark chocolate tart: bits of pine-nut brittle stuck in a thick chile-laced mousse. It was fabulous, and would have been even better with more heat. Other desserts are a peanut-butter tart and a barbecue-spiced pecan pie — just so you don't forget you're in a barbecue joint.
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