What makes a dish outstanding? Sometimes it's a novel combination of flavors and ingredients we'd never thought could work together. Sometimes it's a classic done so well we wish we could take back every other iteration we've eaten. It can also be a very humble dish given a special tweak or just that extra bit of care that converts us instantly.
Bear in mind the usual warnings that taste is subjective, that this list is the unscientific result of our limited experiences and what stands out in our memory right now. That said, let's review these wonders, big and small.
Smoked Skuna Bay salmon, $10
For this dish, the kitchen at Chartreuse takes salmon from the Pacific Northwest's glacier-fed waters and gives it an almost pastrami-style cure that gives it a bit of a crust. But the culinary savvy doesn't end there. The rest of the plate adds even more flavors and textures: a creamy, slightly chunky, sauce-like chevre, a spicy jalapeno jam, and crunchy grilled cornbread. Of course, since Chartreuse's menu is seasonal, you may have to settle for the simply marvelous Lake Superior whitefish, with parsnip, pomegranate, fennel, orange, and agrodolce. Either way, you win.
Marais, Grosse Pointe
Rohan Duck, $36
The Rohan duck, available at Marais on both the tasting menu and a la carte, is a supreme treat. The ducks themselves are hybrids, a cross between the most tender and flavorful breeds, from a special farm in upstate New York. The kitchen at Marais puts weeks of work into preparing them, dry-aging them for weeks, then warming them bone-in on a rotisserie, which pulls out moisture, warms up the meat, concentrates the flavor, and helps break down the amino acid structure. The final cuts of meat get expertly cooked to crisp up the flesh, before being served medium rare with pickled and raw carrots, mellow white miso imported from Japan, and a parsley emulsion.
Detroit Institute of Bagels
Chicago Bagel Dog, $5.50
Chicago Bagel Dog, an all-beef Sy Ginsberg frank wrapped in bagel dough and cooked, then sliced open and dragged through the garden, stuffed with green relish, a pickle, a slice of tomato, a sport pepper, and chopped red onion, all in a crisp poppy-seed bagel coating. You won't leave a single bite of this bun uneaten.
The Sardine Room
Pan-seared sea scallops, $18
The scallops have been on the menu since this Plymouth spot opened almost four years ago, but they're still amazing. It's a pork belly confit that gets a house-made barbecue sauce glaze, and is topped with three perfectly cooked sea scallops topped with a house-made Hollandaise sauce, with pickled onions and microgreens. The generous slab of pork doesn't overwhelm the delicate scallops. That might have to do with the way the acidity of the pickles cuts through the richer flavors. It's a surprising balancing act that works: It remains one of the eatery's best sellers.
Ploughman's Plate, $25
Another menu item that got rave reviews was this selection, called "a bountiful combination of rotating house-made meats, cheeses, breads, butters, and pickles." But that doesn't do it justice. It's really two high-end food boards — one meat, one cheese. It rotates around the eatery's commitment to using artisanal, house-made, and locally created, seasonally available food. It might feature bread, butter, pickles, and cheeses made in-house or coming from local producers. The proteins are made in-house too, from whole animals, such as lamb, pig, duck, rabbit, chicken, or fish. That might find its expression in a rillettes, a sort of potted, whipped meat, or in a cured fish preparation, such as rollmops made of pickled herring. It changes depending on what's on offer. Chef Sarah Welch calls it "the most artisanal plate you can buy."
Breakfast tacos, two for $5
Trino's has popular weekend brunches, and serves food most days, in fact. But we're huge fans of their breakfast taco. Sure, they'll have the crema, the peppers, eggs, and that wedge of lime, but also veggie chorizo? The menu rotates all the time, but we always hope we'll see a breakfast taco or burrito on the menu.
Detroit Guerrilla Food
Sausage and biscuit, $5
About this time last year, at Meiko Krishok's weekly food truck night, she prepared a bit of Corridor Sausage Co.'s apple-sage sausage tucked inside her version of a hot water cornbread biscuit, topped with a green tomato, garlic, and chili salsa, all atop a bed of leafy greens. It's the perfect tidbit to enjoy with a cup of tea around an autumn fire. Krishok always has something inventive at her Thursday night events, but this is one we'd like to see again.
The Barrett, $10.25
Greg Mudge's expanding Corktown delicatessen has earned a reputation for doing deli fare right, with no shortcuts or workarounds. To call "The Barrett" a basic corned-beef deli sandwich is to engage in supreme understatement. The meat in this popular sandwich comes from Sy Ginsberg, and it's lean, lacking the unwelcome mouthfuls of fat that lesser kitchens would leave in. It's mounted on a fragrant onion roll, topped with Swiss cheese, house-made cole slaw, and Thousand Island dressing, served warm.
Linguine Delmar, $16.98
It's billed as "a combination of fresh shrimp, scallops, and whitefish, sautéed in a zesty tomato sauce," but that doesn't do it justice. The dish unites seafood and tomato sauce in excellent proportion. Freshly made linguine noodles swim in the sauce with perfectly prepared ocean proteins, including shrimp, flavorful medium-size scallops, and bits of whitefish that flake apart wonderfully; what doesn't make your mouth in one bite adds complexity to the sauce.
Zeke's Rock and Roll BBQ
Barbecue Poutine, $9
This starter is a mound of fries covered with deep-fried cheese curds and pulled pork, then showered with gravy. Something magical happens to cheese curds in a deep fryer: The normally sloppy curds firm up into delicacies packed with rich flavor that explodes in the mouth. And the pulled pork is exalted by the gravy.