The obvious question about Randy Shallow and Brad Johnson’s new Starving Artist restaurant is, “What starving artist can afford $15-$23 entrées?” This is not the sort of café where the impoverished garret-dweller orders a bowl of soup for a buck and fills up on the bread. The answer is that the restaurant comes to the aid of struggling artists, impoverished or no, in a more lasting way — by selling their work.
The restaurant’s pale blue-gray walls are lined with prints, paintings and weavings, all available to be taken down and taken home at your request. When I visited, prices for the pieces, which were more tasteful than audacious, started at $45 and topped out at $1,000. That should keep the wolf from the weaver’s door for a spell.
Artists featured on the walls thus far have been from California, Florida, Virginia and West Virginia, but Shallow is interviewing Detroiters and plans to display a mix of locals and out-of-towners. Maureen Petruccio’s chalk drawings, for example, should be on exhibit soon.
Starving Artist is located along one of the more interesting couple blocks in the metro area, so it’s a double bonus that the proprietors have gotten permission to set a few sidewalk tables out front. By the end of June, they hope to be serving outdoors on the back terrace as well.
The small, oblong place (frontage is at a premium on Nine Mile) has a small but long-enough menu, with five appetizers, eight entrées and five desserts, plus some specials. All recipes are the owners’ own.
One of their specialties is chimichurri sauce, which is served with both beef and free-range chicken. This reminded me of my visit a few years ago to Brazil, where waiters bring big skewers of grilled meats and sausages to your table and you’re expected to eat gargantuan amounts so as to not offend your hosts’ national pride. Chimichurri at Starving Artist, a sauce of olive oil, garlic and parsley, was not to my taste — too oily — but could tens of millions of Argentineans and Brazilians be wrong? You can also ask for a Cuban version, with cilantro.
I enjoyed ravioli stuffed with crimini mushrooms, served with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce and decorated with leaves of basil. The coq au vin was rich, with whole baby carrots, pearl onions, some nontraditional asparagus and, of course, bits of bacon. I could have sopped up a gallon of the dark wine sauce. Thai pork tenderloin was lighter than you’d think meat in peanut sauce would be.
For appetizers, I found the broiled artichoke bottoms and the lobster ravioli pretty decent, but not worth $10 and $9. The ravioli are great to look at, though — striped red, green and pasta-colored. Maybe the Italians should modify their flag accordingly.
I tried three of Starving Artist’s four house dressings (what is ranch doing on the list?), and I highly recommend the orange-ginger-sesame. The flavors of ginger and sesame zing against each other and on the greens. Balsamic is fine too, but the pink raspberry-walnut is on the sweet side.
When you’re actually seeking sweets, though, look no further than the first item on the dessert list, which is a fantastic molten-chocolate volcano cake. Fresh raspberries, raspberry sauce, dark chocolate and whipped cream — it’s hard to go wrong.
Those watching their budgets, artists or no, have been taken care of on the Starving Artist wine list. Almost all of the 18 bottle choices are in the $19-$22 range. Johnson says that he and Swallow thought about what kinds of wines would go with their dishes — Chilean or Argentinean for a Brazilian steak, for example — and worked with their wine merchant to find affordable bottles not available at supermarkets.
A result is that you can pass the time chortling at the wine descriptions; one Bordeaux, for example, has “approachable tannins.” Once briefed that my syrah featured “notes of smoke and violets,” I thought I could detect them; no luck with the bacon or black cherries.
Starving Artist is open for lunch and has a full liquor license. Before too long, Sunday brunch will be served. It’s hard to think of anything finer than to sit outside on a summer morning with a mimosa. Buy those starving artists’ wares and perhaps they’ll be able to join you on the terrace.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.