by Elissa Karg
1440 E. Franklin St., Detroit
Eats: 4 stars
Experience: 4 stars
The best soul food restaurant in the metro area is now in downtown Detroit — as it should be. Magnolia, the latest effort of Frank Taylor (co-owner of Sweet Georgia Brown in Greektown), opened in mid-July in the former home of East Franklin, another terrific soul food restaurant (RIP).
I drove by the building on my way to Concert of Colors and saw a young woman cutting marble tile in the entry. A worker came out and told me the opening gala would be the next day.
When we came for dinner a week later, the marble-tiled fountain was still unfinished, but the rest of the restaurant was awesome, both eats and experience. The exposed-brick ambience of the previous occupants had been transformed into a sophisticated supper club.
Elevated booths line the sides of the room and overlook the main floor — great for people watching. Impeccably dressed couples mingle with those in T-shirts and jeans; romantic twosomes sit alongside big families bowing their heads and saying grace before they eat. Most entrées are priced from $12 to $16; the portions are beyond hearty and come with the traditional two side dishes plus a basket of corn muffins and biscuits. Fantastic desserts are $4 each. Dinner for two (without liquor) should easily come to less than $50. It’s this combination of elegance and accessibility that makes Magnolia so unusual and refreshing.
Highlights on the menu include ribs, chicken-fried steak, buttermilk-battered catfish and meat loaf. There is a Cajun presence as well, with specialties like a richly textured Creole gumbo, po’boys and chicken voodoo.
All the good things about ribs apply to the baby backs served at Magnolia. They are meaty, with that distinctive smoky flavor that comes from slow cooking over coals, and the spicy-sweet barbecue sauce is both cooked into the ribs and spooned on top.
The catfish is fried in a buttermilk batter, not the usual cornmeal. This technique produces the juiciest and most enticing catfish I’ve ever had. On the other hand, the salmon croquettes were big, heavy, dry and boring to eat. Likewise, the perch “chips” in corn meal breading were remarkably uninteresting; a zippy dipping sauce or salsa might have helped.
My co-diner ordered meat loaf, which he thinks is a viable way to assess a restaurant. It is well made, not fatty, and served in gravy. The portion is as big as a brick, and we shared the leftovers for dinner the next evening.
The chicken-fried steak is a tender cut of meat, nice and juicy, served on top of two slices of country bread, and smothered with the same gravy as the meat loaf.
As with much country cooking, order carefully or you may find yourself overwhelmed with deep-fried food. The sampler appetizer is a case in point, featuring catfish nuggets, chicken wings, a salmon croquette and a fried pickle (really!).
The fun of soul food is in the sides, and you get two with most entrées: great mashed potatoes, yams baked in syrup (great one night, so-so on another), excellent macaroni and cheese, wonderful Cajun fries. The green beans were too salty for me, and the collard greens too peppery.
Both of the desserts we tried were fabulous. Bread pudding is topped with an icing made with Kentucky bourbon, which lends a sophistication to this comfort dessert. The Mile High Mississippi Mud Pie is a chocolate soufflé, creamy in the middle, cakey on the outside. A puff of smoke (whipped cream) and dribbles of raspberry sauce make this confection look like a fire-spewing volcano, albeit a delicious one.
Service is gracious and professional. Every staff member seems to go out of his or her way to greet you, thank you, make sure you have everything you need and ensure that everything is satisfactory. Our server noted with dismay that her assistant had removed our water glasses before dessert. “We’ll get the kinks out,” she said matter-of-factly, and I felt quite sure that would be the case.
One heads-up: Valet parking is practically mandatory; my co-diner compared it to a U.S. Army checkpoint in Fallujah.
Open daily, full bar.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.