Detroit’s newest downtown restaurant still had a few bugs to work out when I visited, which was completely understandable given that it was Day Two and Day Three of operations.
One bug was a tenderloin-Gorgonzola sandwich without any Gorgonzola. When I mentioned this to an amiably hovering Todd Stern, he said the same thing had happened to him at lunchtime: “Even the owner can’t get Gorgonzola. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” And he brought me a little pot of a spreadable version.
The day before, Nov. 4, the mayor had taken time out from electioneering to cut the ribbon at Small Plates (after a pre-opening benefit in aid of the Kilpatrick family’s foundation), so we know that Stern and business partner Todd Stowell are well connected if nothing else.
Small Plates has the right idea, if some dishes still need work, and a great location: directly across the street from the Opera House, next to alternative theater and independent films at 1515 Broadway, and a couple of blocks from the Tigers, the Lions, the Fox empire and the coming hordes of Compuware. Soon to come are shuttles to Joe Louis, the Masonic, the Fisher and “anything else not in walking distance,” according to Stern.
His right idea is medium-classy, moderately sized dishes — bigger than tapas, but smaller than the gargantuan helpings we’ve grown accustomed to — at moderate prices. Plus a full bar. Sandwiches are $5-$8, pizzas $7-$10 and entrée-type items $6-$10.
The kitchen is in view and so is the street, through floor-to-ceiling windows. The napkins are cloth and the tablecloths are paper, if that gives an idea of the formality level. Fries are served vertically, in a paper cone in a round metal rack, so that eating them with a fork is more or less precluded. On each table is a stack of small white plates, and the servers whisk these efficiently away as you finish each course.
One of my favorite items was the empanada filled with goat cheese and roasted peppers. The pastry dough is made fresh daily, and it’s drizzled in a roasted red pepper sauce. Everything except bread, according to Stern, is made in-house, up to and including the ketchup.
The superthin four-cheese pizza is good and sharp, with a crust that tastes like popcorn. You have to wrap the pan-Asian lettuce wrap yourself, using the romaine hearts provided, but the spicy stir-fry with noodles is pan-comfort food. The tenderloin baguette is a good beef fix, and plenty of food, not such a small plate after all. The “classic” Caesar salad is by far the cheesiest I’ve eaten, with slabs of Parmesan in addition to a dressing made thick with more cheese. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I liked it, although it couldn’t fulfill the usual salad function of “lighter, refreshing complement.”
Ribs and house-made fries are fine (and numerous), but not out of the ordinary. Other choices are garlic shrimp, garlic shrimp pizza, portabella with zip sauce, veggie spring roll, roasted mussels, chicken Caesar wrap, and a baguette with blue cheese, tomatoes and basil.
Disappointment arrived with two seafood items, poached shrimp on rice and scallops over angel hair. Neither of these bland dishes is worth $10. Again, this could be opening jitters, but the shrimp were cool, their rice lukewarm. The mildly toasted scallops were tasty as far as they went, which wasn’t far, and it wasn’t really a good idea to just throw them on some nondescript noodles with nothing else of interest going on.
I also found the grilled eggplant in my sandwich underdone; the whole point of eggplant is that it should be very done, or it tastes and feels like cardboard. Remember the story in 1001 Nights where the queen uses up barrels and barrels of olive oil to fry the eggplant?
Where Stern’s personal star shines is in desserts, some of which he bakes himself. I loved the pastry sampler, which included some delicate chocolate on delicate crust and some flaky family-recipe rugalach, a Hanukkah tradition. These crescents were filled with almonds or raspberries. Other possibilities are a frozen banana split or “Mom’s cakes,” made by Stern’s mom.
Small Plates is open for lunch and till early in the a.m. A good mix-your-holidays night out might be dinner at Small Plates, followed by Scrooge Tells All next door at 1515 Broadway (opening Dec. 5), followed by rugalach back at Small Plates.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.