Can a hamburger master go upscale? Diner owner Mark Papazian says yes, with his all-new Hunter House in the brand-new Hilton Garden Hotel in Detroit’s Harmonie Park.
Longtime Detroit-area residents know the Birmingham Hunter House, founded by Papazian’s parents in 1950, for its cheap skinny burgers and chili fries. In 2000 Papazian opened a second Hunter House in Harmonie Park — the same food but in an urban-chic setting.
This third incarnation, across the street from the shuttered Hunter House No. 2, still does burgers and wings at lunchtime, but at 5 p.m. the duckling becomes a swan with an ambitious American menu featuring rack of lamb, scallops and macadamia-crusted turbot.
When he opened the new location in April, Papazian, an attorney and former nightclub owner, had trepidations.
“It was an obstacle in my mind, to convince people I could do more than make hamburgers,” he says. “I felt I had to go over the top a bit.”
To do so, he hired a staff from some top suburban venues, including the pastry chef from the Townsend Hotel.
“I didn’t want people to think, ‘Mark is biting off more than he can chew,’” he says. “I didn’t want people to call me over to the table and say, ‘Why don’t you go back to hamburgers?’”
Papazian can stop worrying. The new Hunter House is serving top-notch food in appealing combinations.
The menu is not long: three appetizers, three salads, three pastas, four each of meat, chicken and seafood. Top of the line is well-seared scallops with a bacon vinaigrette — rich, rich, rich — and a dollop of lemony sauce; almost too good to eat too much of.
The same can be said for risotto with smoked chicken, asparagus and wild mushrooms. It has perhaps less density than you expect in a risotto, but it’s musky, woodsy, winey and different in every bite.
Mushrooms come into play again to accompany the halibut, a thick steak served with crisp fresh fava beans. Despite any association with Hannibal Lecter, the legume — nutty and rich — should be served more often. The halibut seems infused with perfume of the gods.
I was less thrilled with champagne-colored chicken Murat, in which the artichokes, tomatoes et al. seem too chopped-up and too all-one-taste. It’s a good all-one-taste, but not a great one. A pappardelle dish had the reverse difficulty — the large grape tomatoes and whole olives on the wide pasta strips needed more pulling together into a coherent whole. Chefs need to strike a balance there.
Other choices are salmon, Burgundy chicken (this is not coq au vin, according to our knowledgeable waiter), Angus New York strip, and — for those still seeking burgers — a $16 “12 oz. Piedmontese chopped steak with potato cake, braised spinach and sun-dried tomato maître de butter.”
The best appetizer is the smoked salmon, cut thicker than usual, served on black bread toast with a mustard sauce. Crab cakes are somewhat lacking in flavor, as is the overly mild sauce.
For dessert (each $8), the chef tries to stretch our boundaries — only one chocolate treat (read: safe) is on the menu. The rhubarb parfait is something different: faintly tart, served with almond meringue and panna cotta (Italian egg custard). Lemon raspberry cake is appropriately moist, topped with a tiny cone of honey tuile filled with sorbet and served with a burnt vanilla sauce. Although both are good — and refreshing for summer — they are more creative than delicious.
Papazian wants to please his old customers too, so you can order from the traditional burger menu all day and all evening at his companion restaurant in the Hilton, the American Grill. Somewhat fancier and pricier sandwiches have been added to the menu. You can even ask for the $1.80 single burger during the evening at the Hunter House, if you’re seated at the bar.
I’ll opt to take advantage of the Harmonie Park ambience to eat outside on the patio.
Open seven days. Valet parking.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.