For years and years, the seafood go-to in town has been Sindbad's. The spot on the waterfront with its unabashed nautical theme and the stench of algae that permeates from the docks when you walk out to the adjacent marina is a Detroit staple. It's a favorite for the brunch or celebratory dinner with the family crowds and the food is what you would expect from any old-school fish house: a menagerie of deep fried, buttery lake fish, shrimp, frog legs, Alaskan King crab legs and big ol' honkin' slabs 'o meat. It's the type of place where waitresses who call you doll are par for the course and are a favorite of your Great Aunt Cheryl's when she comes to visit "the city" from the east side suburbs.
Which makes it interesting that a loose variation of this theme would work in Birmingham's well-to-do dining scene. That's just what's happening at Triple Nickel, though, where, Marc Blancke of Sindbad's helped set the space on the ground floor of a high-rise at 555 Old S. Woodward. Chef John Fleming, who worked under Blancke, was brought on board to design the spot's menu, which he says draws inspiration straight from his old kitchen.
The decor seems to be a toned-down, in-real-life version of an old Simpsons episode, the one with bartender Moe who, needing to draw in a family crowd to save his dive, dresses the place up in red, white, and blue, whilst serving birthday fries to nagging children, and wearing a pinstripe suit and barber shop hat. The awnings, as well as bits of the upholstered curtains, are all in the patriotic tri-colors, the head of a buffalo is mounted on the wall behind the bar, images of a proud bald eagle, and pristine models of sailboats, all scream, maritime Americana (the namesake nickel, or rather the old-time Buffalo nickel helps tie this all together). Unlike that Simpsons show, however, this look feels appropriate and is more refined, thanks in part to rich, chocolate-colored leather booth and thick, wood tables – all giving the denizens of Birmingham who can be more preoccupied with bling, furs and private jets, a bright, family and football fan-friendly dining destination.
In the kitchen, Fleming pays homage to his many years at Sindbad's, but also takes pains to update the recipes. He lays off some of the heavy, oily frying methods, famous at the Detroit spot, but still strives to give diners a value. Whereas many menus in Birmingham tend toward the pricier a la carte approach, he says his entrees are rounded out with a bit of vegetable and starch.
He also seems more open to experimentation, such as with his stuffed calamari. We tend to think of calamari as this chewy ring, whose essence is lost after having gone through a deep breading and trip into a greasy vat or skillet. That's not the case here. While the classic flash-fried version is on the menu for fans to enjoy, the real treat is the stuffed variety, in which the squid is used like a dough, in which minced ham and Maryland lump crab are enveloped inside and then laid out with lemon caper sauce. The result is a bountifully endowed, savory seafood dumpling. There's also an earthy offering of portabello mushroom patties whose umami flavor is intensified by a pool of balsamic-infused zip sauce. For a lighter start that could just as easily go on the dessert menu, is a heavenly baked brie that bathes gleefully in honey, along with apple, pecans and spreads effortless atop toasted baguette slices.
Fleming pays close attention to freshness with his catch. He gets all his ocean fish from Foley Fish in Boston and for his lake fare, he turns to Ontario. He tells us all his fish have come out of the water either one or two days before entering his kitchen, an important detail for the Midwest, where freshness is a leading source of frustrations among chefs around here who cook the stuff. This sautéed lake perch comes out in succulent filets that sit upon garlicky, buttery caper sauce without much distracting heavy frying action, thus helps to bring out its tenderness.
If you or your dining partner want to veer away from the surf, the filet mignon gives you a woody, smoky finish on the outside and no question about whether the kitchen knows how keep that juicy pink in the middle. For poultry, a parmesan and marinara shell encrusts a juicy chicken breast, a combination reminiscent of the caramelized cheesy goodness of a classic slice of Detroit square pizza. Sides, as we mentioned all entrees come with sides, are adequate. The asparagus spears and green beans are just crisp enough and the fingerling potatoes are standard, all to say that the star is really the protein.
For dessert, a popular option comes in the form of a classic slice of key lime that's combined with the nostalgia of a Good Humor ice cream bar. What you get is tart and creamy key lime ice cream in the center, then dipped in a graham cracker crust, then finished off with a dark chocolate hard shell.
The staff, uniformed in black and chalk striped bistro aprons, are not only gracious, but go out of their way to keep the water glasses full. Plus, they have enough familiarity with the menu to offer up recommendations, without hesitation — a sign of their confidence in the food.
These days, we tend to get excited about the new, trendy restaurants opening up in new, trendy Detroit, where the fare aspires to the experimental. But Birmingham has long held onto a strong reputation in the scene. These days, as evidenced at Triple Nickel, the trend in this Oakland County city leans toward giving the diner a classic, comforting touch. Always a tried-and-true formula in our book.