by Elissa Karg
La-Van Hawkins has opened a top-drawer eatery in Greektown. At a preopening dinner, Hawkins proclaimed Sweet Georgia Brown a “world-class restaurant.”
Designed by Roxane Whitter Thomas, the room is dominated by a round raised platform with a bar and a grand piano; live jazz is a nightly feature. Don’t miss the floor. A river runs through it! The glass-covered river flows over beautiful rocks, bisecting the floor in a meandering curve. When the restaurant opened in June, not all the special effects were up and running — so we missed the fiber-optic carpet.
The dining room seats 180 and is done in muted shades of purple and olive green. In nearly five years of restaurant reviewing, I have never had my napkin placed on my lap, but that’s how they do it at Sweet Georgia Brown.
The co-diner dubbed the menu “nouvelle soul,” but executive chef Jerry Nottage would take issue. “People call here asking about takeout barbecue. It’s not that kind of place,” he said. “We say there’s nothing Southern about it, except the hospitality.”
Well, what would you call a menu where you can get sweet potatoes in three different courses? A menu that scatters pralines on salad, soup, potatoes and dessert? And what’s wrong with Southern cooking?
The entrées transcend the South, but are American favorites. They include provimi veal chops, fried lobster, crab cakes and filet mignon in a classic béarnaise sauce. We loved the fried green tomato salad ($9), which was served with baby greens and thinly sliced country ham.
Starters include fried plantain chips with salsa, smoked turkey quesadillas and a mixed seafood cocktail. It includes scallops, shrimp and crabmeat, and is topped with a whole crawfish. How to eat it? Our very fussy teenager said she overheard a server’s instruction: “Bite the head off and suck out the meat.”
Sweet potato bisque is the house soup, replete with cognac and pecans; it tasted just like the ingredients for a sweet potato pie before you put it in the oven.
The “Southern Comfort Pork Chop” ($19), a grilled chop, lean and hefty, is served with an apple-wine compote and fried onion straws. The co-diner happily cut into the thick chop, which comes with a choice of sweet potato fries, baked sweet potato with pralines, potato coins or garlic mashed potatoes.
The Chilean sea bass ($22) is good, served on a bed of grilled corn hash spiked with chunks of lobster, with tarragon aioli.
I was less happy with our server’s recommendation of crab and shrimp cakes ($24). The two cakes were delicious, with that slight sweetness of fresh crabmeat combined with chewier shrimp. But the serving was skimpy. No potato comes with the entrée; the cakes are served on beefsteak tomatoes and with fried spinach. Fried spinach is an inspired idea, but there was hardly enough on the plate for a garnish.
All of the desserts we tried were tasty, but if you want leftovers, order Big Mama’s chocolate-chocolate cake, which is overwhelming. The peach cobbler is baked in a small ceramic dish, with peach ice cream that is made specially for the restaurant.
Nottage has worked with Frank Taylor for the last 15 years creating concept restaurants around the country. When Taylor approached Hawkins, the three formed Lineage Group Two with plans to open more restaurants.
Nottage says that working with Hawkins has been a good experience. “He has a vision of Detroit. He has grandiose plans. He’s grandiose himself. He doesn’t think small, he wants the very best, and he doesn’t spare any expense. There’s no such thing as a soft entrance when you’re working with La-Van.”
As we left the restaurant, there was a big black Bentley parked out front (in a no standing zone). Two valets from the Greektown Casino were ogling it. “You know that car costs $250,000,” one said to me. “It belongs to La-Van Hawkins.”
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.