What does it say about Michiganders' food tastes? Sweet Lorraine's is a venerable, much-loved brand, one of the first restaurants in the area to serve more adventurous food, way back in 1984. But right next door in the Ren Cen food court, Subway sports a lunchtime line of 20 or more, while at Sweet Lorraine's you can walk right up.
It's the perennial refrain of the restaurant reviewer: There's no accounting for tastes. Or there is, but you don't want me to go ranting there.
Lorraine Platman will soon open a fifth and her largest Mac n'Cheez, this time with a liquor license, in Midtown on the site of Marwil Bookstore, so lunchers and restaurant watchers are mildly abuzz. (Other locations are in East Lansing, Auburn Hills, and Troy; July is hoped for the new location.) If I had two words of advice for the spinoff — and who knows? Maybe they'd improve sales — they would be "more cheese." And make it sharper.
The mac dominates in all four of the mac and cheeses I tried in the Ren Cen. Most of the offerings are gussied up with other ingredients added by counter workers at the last minute — like pickles, peppers, and mustard in the "Cubano" — but they don't make up for the mildness of the main attraction. Which should be the dairy product, not the pasta.
It is pasta with a great mouthfeel — big, fat, al dente macaronis — and the "mini" size is about right for lunch (and less than $6). But the add-ons are not sufficiently integrated: They sit on top rather than being baked into the mixture, which is run under a broiler for only a minute.
That said, the idea of riffing on the theme of one of America's longtime favorites is certainly a good one. Who doesn't like mac and cheese? Many of Platman's variations are favorites from other realms: the BLT, the Philly Cheesesteak, Buffalo Chicken, the Cheeseburger, the Pepperoni Pizza, and the Macho Nacho. In fact, Platman's method seems to be to take a dish famous in one sphere and translate it to another: A sandwich becomes a casserole; a wrap enfolds a Caesar salad, chicken wings, or antipasto.
In one case she makes the blending of domains literal: In the Twisted Grilled Cheez, a brioche is stuffed with mac and cheese. It's not Paula Deen's hamburger patty between two doughnuts, but it's a cousin. (One dissenter rants about such genre-hopping: "Pick a lane, taco pie. Stop waffling, waffle sandwich.")
I found my Truffle and Mushroom mac too mild, no truffle flavor evident, and likewise for the Green Mean Pesto: You could see whole spinach leaves and walnuts, but any pesto made from the two was barely evident. I realize that deconstruction is the fad of the moment, but it's not always a happy one.
The Cubano was spiced up by Italian peppers and pickles, but neither the ham nor the Swiss made much an impression. The BLT was better because it used good amounts of bacon, though the crumbles were on top rather than melded in.
Cheeses are cheddar, Parmesan, pepper jack, or Swiss. Extra toppings can be purchased, from pizza sauce to cranberries.
Platman offers soups, salads, and wraps in addition to the main event. One weekday four soups were available, plus a chili. I liked my tomatoey chicken tortilla soup despite the absence of tortillas and near-absence of chicken. The chili, thick with corn and beans, was a good kind of smoky.
A chicken Caesar wrap used chunks of real, strongly flavored chicken with a decent dressing. An antipasto wrap was pretty mild, even the black olives, and would have benefited from salami (I admit, it wasn't listed). The Spicy "Wing" wrap benefited from lots of blue cheese and Frank's hot sauce, which gave it a vinegary flavor.
The Red, Bleu, and Greens salad was lavish with bacon, tomatoes, cranberries, blue cheese, and white onions. Other salads, like the Chopped or the Shrimp Pasta, are similarly goodies-heavy.
Despite my quibbles about the execution at Mac n'Cheez, Ren Cen diners ought to lift their sights. Surely at $7.99, the mac-wrap combo (it's two items, not lavash stuffed with noodles) is competitive with Subway. And the Midtown location promises both breakfast and beer.