Chef knows best

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The odds are high, in chef-owned restaurants, that the kitchen talent is sizable, the food can be quite creative and prices are often moderate. It’s a genre that rarely fails to please. Chef’s Cuisine, owned and operated by Michael and Cathy Hall, is in the majority.

Chef Michael, a graduate of Schoolcraft College’s culinary arts program, has worked in many acclaimed restaurants and hotels. He opened this little place with his wife, and with help from three sons: Andrew as a server, Gregory in the kitchen and 14-year-old Oliver pitching in as a dishwasher. “We’ve all put our hearts and souls into this place,” chef Michael says.

It’s a long drive from Detroit, but a very pretty one (there are three state parks in the area). The 44-seat restaurant is a surprising lime-green on the outside with hand-painted grapevines around the front door. Inside, the single dining room has a classic feel, with long floral curtains, candles on the tables, comfortable wooden chairs and white-on-white embossed linen.

With most entrées priced at less than $20, including a choice of soup or a lovely house salad garnished with dried cherries and pine nuts, the menu includes both old favorites and some very unusual dishes, all presented with a sophisticated flair. All entrées include hand-cut, freshly steamed seasonal vegetables. One evening the soup du jour was watermelon gazpacho. The recipe was true to the tomato base of a traditional gazpacho — a cold Spanish soup made of finely diced uncooked vegetables — and to its traditional spiciness, but lightened and sweetened by the watermelon. The soup is garnished with diced Granny Smith apples and cucumbers.

Walleye is offered in two forms: sautéed with leeks and served with a fricassee of lobster and crab on pasta. I chose the simpler preparation: encrusted with herbs and pine nuts. Here the walleye is deboned and pan-fried until the crust is crisp, making it the perfect foil for the mild, buttery fish. It’s topped with brown butter, capers and lemon juice, and served with oven-roasted Yukon Gold potatoes. Since I was going with a Great Lakes specialty, I matched it with a crisp and fruity Pinot Gris from Chateau Fontaine, a Leelanau winery.

Eggplant “lasagna” — there’s no pasta involved — was a favorite at our table. The lack of noodles in no way diminished the quality of this dish. The eggplant, which is coated in panko — a Japanese bread crumb that’s very dry and produces a very light crust — is pan-fried in olive oil and layered with dense tomato sauce, plenty of basil, as well as Parmesan and fontina cheeses, all piled on top of a portobello mushroom.

Another vegetarian entrée used portobellos again, this time finely diced as a filling for ravioli, served with mild cream sauce spiked with garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil and Parmesan.

Our one disappointment was the crab cake appetizer. Too much bread overwhelmed the crab. But the presentation was stunning — a swirl of three different sauces encircles the crab cake, looking like a jeweled necklace. A balsamic reduction is overlaid with Dijon mustard sauce and sweet red pepper puree.

One of the most popular menu items is sirloin steak cooked a la plancha, on a cast-iron grill. Chef Michael says the grill is heated until “super-hot, almost white,” then the meat is seared and presented with sautéed mushrooms, shallots and crisp-fried Vidalia onions.

Of specials, a favorite is New Zealand elk tenderloin medallions. The venison is marinated in crushed juniper, garlic, peppercorns and olive oil, and served with red wine-horseradish sauce.

Desserts are all made on site and include warm carrot cake with caramel sauce, chocolate mousse, crème brûlée and an ice cream-filled cream puff.

Chef Michael does not describe himself as a creative soul who chafed at working in other people’s restaurants. His restaurant was born of pure pragmatism.

He was downsized out of a job, and rather than relocate — both he and Cathy grew up in the area — they decided to open their own business.

Fortunately, there was the talent to back it up.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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