Good to know that after many years spent and countless meals eaten exquisite, really good, so-so and I-barely-kept-it-down as a food critic, I can still be surprised. It happened in downtown Detroit. And, of all things, it was wings.
There's plenty more to commend Lola's, the jazzy, comfortably friendly bright spot that opened last September in what's been a cursed location just inside the Gratiot gateway to Harmonie Park. But, when I stopped by last week for a first-impression lunch, the chicken wings came to the table first. You always remember your first time.
Chef (and general manager) Phil Jones is a man to watch. I don't know his bona fides, and hung up the phone when I started to call for a chat. For now, anyway, I want to hold on to the mystery. In photographs, and as he ate at the bar while we enjoyed lunch, Jones has what seems to be a perpetual hangdog look on his round face. Is he thinking about something amazing to do with stuff as prosaic as mac-and-cheese or chicken soup? Does he have a vision for combining seemingly disparate, mundane ingredients into a show-stopping feed? Did he get a flat on the way to work?
Last occupied by home-of-the-slider Hunter House (it moved across the street into the newish Hilton Garden Hotel), the space shares a short block with a few spots that promised not long ago to be a rebirth for Harmonie Park, somewhat hidden between Gratiot and the theater district. There was the aggressively hip Intermezzo, a white-tablecloth Italian outfit with one of the coolest bars in the metro area. It closed in the summer of 2004 "for renovations" and, as that phrase often foretells, now is just a darkened memory. Next door is the Rhino @ Harmonie Park, a spiffed-up version of the old Rhinoceros Club in the warehouse district. It replaced a noisy but otherwise forgettable snacks-and-booze operation that never came close to getting its act together.
If there's anyplace in downtown Detroit that has the potential envisioned by the governor's "cool cities" gimmick, Harmonie Park is it. Maybe Lola's can get it on track.
The contrasting red, blue and bittersweet chocolate walls are enlivened with huge canvases by local artist Gigi Bolden, who uses bold colors, whimsy and a vaguely cubist style to capture scenes of African-American nightlife. They're framed by borders painted on the wall.
Let's start with those wings, which I would have said were too pricey for an appetizer, until I ate them. Meaty and juicy, they carry a thin coating of just enough spice to show through the ingeniously complementary sweet-hot sauces drizzled on the plate glistening, golden pineapple honey mustard (with sinus-clearing Chinese brown mustard, if I'm not mistaken) and faintly smoky roasted red pepper ranch. (Jones prints wine pairings on his menu, and the crisp, bright, fruity Bonny Doon "Pacific Rim" Riesling he suggests here is dead-center perfect.)
Sautéed "barbecue" shrimp, New Orleans style, seem to be on menus everywhere but McDonald's lately, so I passed over that for the third app, tender fried fritters full of crabmeat, yellow corn kernels, some chopped New Mexico chiles and farmer's cheese. That wonderful pineapple honey mustard sauce is used again here, plated with spicy Jamaican relish. Get into it, and you won't dip, you'll sop.
Though sturdier entrées such as char-grilled rib-eye steak with the Argentine green herbal sauce chimichurri; sautéed salmon crusted with cornmeal and green chiles; and Catalan seafood stew, Jones' interpretation of the Spanish take on bouillabaisse, with saffron-tickled shellfish, squid and fish promise a fine dinner, we were at lunch and let the sandwiches do the talking.
The house burger is an herby, half-pound beast served on a grilled organic onion roll with baby field greens, fine-sliced red onion and tomato (bad time of year for them). It's much more than a bar burger, but fills the same gut-bucket craving. It can be had with cheese and applewood-smoked bacon, or as a patty melt with both grilled red onions and red onion string, Swiss and another appearance of red pepper ranch.
There are also grilled chicken with Muenster, onions and other fixings, dressed with the pineapple honey mustard; a southwest-style turkey Reuben with green chile mayo; and "Parisian" grilled cheese white American, white cheddar, Swiss and Muenster, grilled tomato, spicy marinara (it also comes with the bread basket, along with basil olive oil) and roasted red pepper ranch.
But, for me, Jones' BLT, made with generous chunks of sweet lobster, green chile mayo, applewood bacon, lettuce and tomatoes. With all that, it's a surprisingly gentle flavor combo, both refreshing and solid fuel for the remainder of the day.
Had Lola's not turned out to be the sort of place it is, I might have faulted our server, a genuinely friendly young woman named Essence, for greeting us at the table with, "I'll give you a couple minutes to scope out the menu." But there's no snoot factor at Lola's, and her lively service was great. (I would suggest she bone up on the menu a tad. She didn't know what makes the confidently named dessert, Aphrodisiac, worth its 30-buck price tag Amore Chocolate Port is drizzled on molten chocolate cake. Even so, that's a weighty price for a little something sweet to end your meal. Must be aimed at horn-fraught showoffs.)
There's live jazz on Kind of Blue Tuesdays, with the Gerard Evans Quartet.
You should think about getting to Lola's fast, before word gets around: The long-awaited, frustrating, aborted explosion in Harmonie Park may finally have found its spark.
Ric Bohy is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.