A patron peers up at the statue of a strapping man-beast thrusting out of the wall outside the Centaur Bar. Its not a whole centaur. The butts on the inside, a helpful employee says, conjuring visions of a muscular horses ass, strategically placed to remind departing customers what not to be.
Theres no brawny equine butt within, of course, but theres plenty of other eye candy in downtowns latest swanky saloon, open since July 11 a couple of blocks behind the Fox Theatre. The 1920s building, once the Iodent toothpaste factory, was gutted by owner Sean Harrington (who also owns the Town Pump Tavern across the street) and refurbished in a 30s Art Deco style of his own design.
His centerpiece is an enormous, angular white glass chandelier that hangs from the third story, through the mezzanine and down to the first floor bar. Curvy diamond-patterned banquettes or double-sized red leather armchairs invite the tippler to feel at home. The third-floor smoking area is dominated by a wall-length mural of a centaur abducting young virgins.
Harrington is responding to the martini craze or, to be accurate, the vodka martini craze. Only one of Centaurs 13 menu drinks includes any gin, James Bond be damned. Harringtons trying to lure downtown business types who want a sophisticated setting for their after-work nip, and hes pleased that patrons are a disparate lot, both in age and ethnicity.
The martini menu is made up, inevitably, of lots of girly drinks like the Flirtini and the Girltini. I try the Ultimate Godiva Godiva chocolate and white chocolate liqueurs, Stoli Vanil, Baileys (Irish whiskey flavored with chocolate and cream) and Chambord (French black-raspberry liqueur). You may recall that in Days of Wine and Roses, Jack Lemmon used chocolate drinks to introduce naïf Lee Remick to the pleasures of alcohol, and she never looked back. The Ultimate Godiva is so creamy, so smooth and so much more interesting than chocolate milk. As Lee discovered, you could drink five of these and never know what hit you until it was the floor. Bartender Nikki will also shake it up for you with a fresh banana.
Centaurs mango martini mixes Cointreau, Malibu Mango Rum and fresh mango nectar to good effect. The Apple Pie mixes butterscotch schnapps and cinnamon. The Girltini combines the flavors of raspberries, melons, peaches, oranges, pineapples and cranberries. Other drinks are similarly complicated, and seem designed to make sure you get your vitamin C.
Although drinks are the draw, Harrington is not slighting edibles. Chef Jared Rheiners dozen finger foods are well imagined and well carried out. Theyre not just something to keep the tummy quiet till dinnertime, but well worth sampling for their own sakes, and servings are generous enough to share.
My favorites were two Spanish plates, tapas and chorizo vino. The tapas plate featured big wrinkly black olives, marinated in balsamic vinegar with Provençal herbs, and emerging rich and briny. Green olives marinated with bay leaves were almost as good, alongside sweet ham. The chorizo is cooked in burgundy wine reduction and served with toasted baguettes and a few fresh mint leaves, and the sweet-salty sauce sops swell.
Peppery beef tenderloin brochettes are served on sticks, like lollipops, echoing the cheesecake lollipop dessert (you roll your cheesecake lolly in crushed pistachios) and the bowl of Tootsie Roll pops in the ladies room. Foie gras pâté is creamy and served with sweet pickles and red grapes. Vinegary bruschetta incorporates a bit of cilantro for an appealing twist. Oysters Rockefeller in mushroom caps is a good idea, but I could taste neither spinach nor Pernod in mine.
One indication that Harrington takes food seriously is that the kitchen serves until 2 a.m. every night. After the Super Bowl, he plans to open for lunch.
Meanwhile, live jazz plays on Thursdays and a recorded mix of jazz and world beat (No techno, nothing off the pop charts) on other nights. On the first and third floors, giant TVs showing either Detroit sports or Turner classic movies compete for your attention with burgundy billiard tables, Art Deco-style drawings and fixtures, and a crowd thats glad to be there.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.