The Ginger Garlic Eggplant
$7.95 for one, $14.95 for two
Mon Jin Lau
1515 E. Maple Rd., Troy; 248-689-2332; monjinlau.com
This popular vegetarian side has an unusual origin: It was inspired by Italian cuisine. Co-owner Brandon Chin says, "We like going to Italian restaurants and we always liked eggplant rotini, so we tried to come up with our own Asian take on that." They take an eggplant, slice it very thin, fry a panko crust onto it, and then take cooked Asian rice noodles, Asian pesto, pine nuts, roasted red pepper and striking wood ear mushrooms, and roll it all up in the eggplant, drizzling a ginger-garlic sauce on top. "It's been on our menu for more than 15 years. It's a vegetarian dish people love and it's one of our house specialties."
Bone Marrow and Confit of Pork
$26; Forest Grill
735 Forest Ave., Birmingham; 248-258-9400; theforestgrill.com
The amount of prep work that goes into this dish is astonishing. Forest Grill's executive chef, David Gilbert, broke it down for us, saying, "What makes this dish kind of cool is that it takes a couple days to make." It's a confit of pork shoulder. They slice up the shoulder in big tranches, give it a heavy rub of garlic, fresh herbs, different spices and let it cure for a day. This helps lift the water out of the meat, preparing it for the next step, which is six to eight hours of braising in pork fat; minus the water, the meat can now better take on the rich fat. To finish it, the meat is sautéed in a little bit of pork fat at very high heat to form a sort of outer shell for the meat, which remains very tender inside. Then it's served with arugula-tomato salad and toast points grilled from fresh sourdough baguettes and topped with a chorizo mousse. Gilbert says, "We actually make our own Spanish-style chorizo sausages and puree them into a mousse." If that weren't enough, they add a whole slab of bone marrow, made from veal bones sliced in half and roasted to order for about 15 minutes with fleur de sel and fresh chives. The dish has been on the menu for about six months, but is so popular it will likely remain on Forest Grill's ever-changing bill of fare for the foreseeable future.
The Octopus Greek Salad
$9.95; The Golden Fleece
525 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-962-7093
This little salad is one of the reasons dining can be such a value: They put all the hard work into making it, and all you have to do is sit down and dig in. And the octopus salad takes hours to make. Prep cook Ali Ajafh says the octopus is boiled for four or five hours before the skin is removed. Then the meat is cut into small pieces and goes into a simple marinade of vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and oregano, and soaks overnight, for at least six or seven hours. They serve it cold, setting the octopus in a simple Greek salad that's light on the feta.
The Cowboy Curtis
$9.95; The Fly Trap
22950 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-399-5150; theflytrapferndale.com
Chef Gaven McMillian and his partners — wife Kara McMillian and her bro Sean McClanaghan — wanted to serve diner food with a playful, sophisticated twist. Gaven's knack for diner fare with a fine-dining finish often means bang-up breakfasts with playful names. One favorite is the Cowboy Curtis. A good cut of rib-eye steak gets cooked to order, smothered with their "Wild West" sauce (a mixture of regular ketchup and seasonings, brown sugar and more), accompanied with two eggs fried easy to hard, and add a slice of toast — wheat, sourdough and rye as available.
The Ivey Sandwich
1300 Porter St., Detroit; 313-961-2000
This popular vegetarian sandwich has been on the menu since Mudgie's opened in February 2008. It starts with Mudgie's house-made, creamy spinach spread, which is made from a mixture of red pepper, red onion, pine nuts, fresh garlic and fresh baby spinach. It's spread on some really good multi-grain bread, then topped with lettuce, tomato, locally grown sunflower sprouts, dill havarti, avocado and red onion, before being served open-faced. Owner Greg Mudge says the creation is named for his pal Justin Ivey, who helped him open the place up. He adds, "What really makes the difference is the spread. For that we use local, fresh baby spinach and not frozen." The spread is so popular they also serve it as a side dish with tortilla chips.
Chicken Marie Frittata
236 S. Main St., Clawson, 248-280-2552
Named after the omelet's Italian cousin, Frittata creates inventive breakfast dishes — and the frittatas are killer. Part-owner Tracy Parlangeli is especially proud of the Chicken Marie, which has been on the menu for about six months. They put roasted chicken in a three-egg sun-dried-tomato-and-basil frittata, bake on an Asiago bread-crumb crust, and finish it with a sautée of sun-dried tomato artichoke hearts, basil, roasted garlic and a white-wine beurre blanc. It doesn't come with sides because the sides are artistic creations themselves: Even toast is a la carte here, as it's served with homemade raspberry-lavender butter and exotic jams that change every few days.
$10.25; Union Street
4145 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-3965
According to Union Street's executive chef John Wesenberg, nobody ever forgets ordering Dragon's Eggs. Ask him about the time he was flagged down by a former Union Street diner in Chicago five years ago: The gentleman, who ran the men's department at an upscale department store, was so stoked about Dragon's Eggs he even gave Wesenberg his employee discount.
That said, Wesenberg is quick to give credit where it's due, saying former head chef Ron Stewart invented the dish some time around 1991. "I'm classically trained," Wesenberg says, "and it never would have occurred to me to put cheese in a pounded chicken breast — and have tens of thousands of people love it."
Stewart's creation is made by taking a boneless, skinless chicken breast and pounding it out into a uniform flatness. It's then filled with gorgonzola cheese and re-formed into a small, meaty, cheese-filled ball. Then it's dusted in all-purpose flour, rolled in a relatively heavy house-made beer batter, and deep-fried for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on its size. Then it's tossed in a house-made "rasta sauce," a potpourri of herbs and other hot sauces that are blended together. As it says on the menu, it's "Hot as hell." ("They're too hot for me to eat," Wesenberg says, "but when my sister comes down from Toronto, she loves them.") The balls are then plated on a crisp romaine lettuce with whole-grain Caesar dressing and mandarin oranges. Then comes the magic moment, when guests take a knife and fork to the eggs and the melted gorgonzola cheese comes pouring out.
"It's listed as an appetizer but — if you've seen it — it's an entrée," Wesenberg says, adding, "It's one of those dishes people either love it or hate it — there's no in between."
But with tens of thousands of Dragon's Eggs sold over almost 20 years, there seem to be more lovers than haters.
Chef Milos' Mushroom Soup
$3.49 a cup, $4.49 a bowl; Steve & Rocky's
43150 Grand River Ave., Novi; 248-374-0688
There's no secret what draws people in for this mushroom soup: It's a Detroit institution. It's the original recipe from the legendary Golden Mushroom, which started serving it in 1976. Steve & Rocky's came by it honestly, though: Their chef Steve Allen was the saucier under Golden Mushroom co-owner chef Milos Cihelka, and one of his duties was to make the soup. Allen, who wound up taking over for Cihelka after he retired, brought the Golden Mushroom soup into Steve & Rocky's bill of fare, where it has enjoyed a 12-year run. (In a show of respect for his former chef, he has renamed it Chef Milos' Mushroom Soup.)
"It's pretty straightforward soup, to be honest with you," Allen says. "I think it's just the richness of it. It's really just domestic white mushrooms, and we use a rich chicken broth, a little bit of another meat stock as well, and good ingredients: fresh cream and butter, of course, a little sherry wine. We don't use recipes here, there are no set ingredients, but I like to think that people like the consistency of it, that it reminds them of back in the day."
He adds, "I don't think it'll ever come off the menu. It's one of those things that people come in and look forward to. If we took it off the menu we'd have a small riot here."
The Lentil Burger
$6; Cass Cafe
4620 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-831-1400
That trusty lentil burger, a low-rent Cass Corridor classic, seems to have been only $6 forever. General manager Sandy Mush has worked there for 15 years and says it was on the menu when she got there. The patties contain lentils, walnut, Parmesan and "other special ingredients," but the recipe is a trade secret. Mush says, "We wouldn't say what how much of what goes into it. You don't do that when you have a signature product, do you?" The popular vegetarian burger (it would be vegan but for that Parmesan) has even won over quite a few meat eaters because it's so hearty. And for former pennywise students at nearby Wayne State University, it's a sentimental fave they keep ordering long after they can afford the more expensive entrées.
Exotic Mushroom Scramble
$9.50; Café Muse
418 S. Washington, Royal Oak; 248-544-4749; cafemuseroyaloak.com
A signature dish at Café Muse since it opened three years ago, the mushroom scramble was created by chef-owner Greg Reyner. The mushroom scramble mixes about three eggs with Boursin cheese, chopped shallots and a variety of mushrooms, including shiitake, cremini, portabella and oyster, drizzled with a bit of white truffle oil. It comes with a choice of garlic-roasted fingerling potatoes or mashed sweet potatoes, and a choice of toast (rye, multigrain and sourdough, all bread from Ferndale's Strawberry Moon Bakery) with French jam on the side.
$8; Assaggi Mediterranean Bistro
330 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-584-3499; assaggibistro.com
Co-owner Josie Knapp says this popular menu item was created when a chef happened onto a few bananas and decided, in a moment of inspiration, to make an experimental dessert. It's Mediterranean-inspired, meaning it uses fresh, natural ingredients to achieve its flavor, including fresh banana, honey and pistachio. The ingredients are baked together in a phyllo roll and served with pistachio ice cream, pistachio nuts and a strawberry sauce. The signature dessert has remained on the menu since it was created six or seven years ago.
$11 for lunch, $13 for dinner; Jolly Pumpkin Cafe
311 S. Main St., Ann Arbor, 734-913-2730
The JP burger, also known as the Cambozola Cheeseburger, is carefully crafted. The patty is made from a custom-ground mixture of grass-fed chuck, brisket and sirloin. It's covered with melted cambozola cheese, which is a creamy, mild blue cheese that's almost like brie. Then they add cremini mushrooms and thick-cut Berkshire bacon. It's all served on a toasted challah roll from Avalon International Breads made with butter, eggs and honey. It has been on the menu since Jolly Pumpkin opened, and chef Maggie Long says of the sandwich, "Everything comes together in it, all the ingredients sort of meld together and it's all good."
Special thanks to editorial intern Catherine Gasior for her assistance with this article.