by Mel Small
Generations of Detroiters used to rendezvous at the Kern Clock. The Woodward, a three-month old restaurant at the corner of Gratiot and Woodward avenues, permits diners to eat in the shadow of that romantic vestige of the past, which they can see from the picture windows fronting our main drag.
Woodward Avenue is still something of a sad shell of its old self; shoppers used to pass the Kern Clock on their way to Hudson's (For younger readers, now Marshall Field's and soon to become Macy's). But the street is being rejuvenated and the Woodward, a moderately upscale restaurant in the impressive Compuware Building, is symbolic of that change.
Owned by William Cartwright and Thomas Donohue, along with investors former Detroit Lions Charlie Batch and Ron Rice Jr., and managed by the Southern Hospitality Restaurant Group, which is also responsible for four other restaurants, including the wildly successful Seldom Blues, the Woodward is off to a promising start. The kitchen is run by Dan Hogan, while the capable Laura Strum is out front presiding over her handsome, brown-toned, 80-100 seat room, cleverly designed with hints of Detroit's street layout and the Great Lakes.
If you are fortunate, the knowledgeable and opinionated Pablo will be your server, an exuberant veteran of three decades in downtown restaurants. He knew what he was doing when he urged our table to sample the flash-fried calamari appetizer ($5.95), which features not just rings but most other parts as well. Although a tad too heavily breaded, the generous portion of calamari is enhanced immeasurably by the accompaniments feta, peppers, tomatoes, olives and lime. As a proselytizer of the wonders of those tentacled creatures, I was pleased that a tablemate, who had adamantly eschewed calamari his entire life, bravely picked at a few and found them "not bad at all." Another convert!
The near-flawless, hot-but-not-fiery white-bean chili ($5), with chunks of chicken and vegetables, enlivened by a dash of cumin, and topped off with cilantro relish, is another of Pablo's favorites. With large Parmesan shavings, the well-constructed Augustus Caesar salad, perhaps overpriced at $8, is a tribute not to the fabled emperor but to Augustus Woodward, who laid out not only the street that bears his name but the rest of our sometimes difficult-to-navigate downtown. It was his brilliant idea to bring such avenues as Gratiot and Grand River into town on a diagonal.
Other appetizers include Cajun-grilled shrimp, tempura chicken tenderloin and JLH (Joseph L. Hudson, of course) Maurice Salad. Hudson's was once known for its Maurice Salad. Detroit is also the theme of the restaurant's striking logo, a minimalist take on the RenCen with the Ambassador Bridge in the background.
The Woodward is a bit schizophrenic, occupying a niche between upscale and informal no tablecloths but rather formally attired waitstaff, elegant furnishings but the dozen entrées average about $16. Only the splendid 12-ounce New York strip steak, gently dotted with pepper, cracks the $20 barrier.
More unusual is the imaginative, vertically presented braised pork shank, flying a sprig of basil. Considering the pork's slightly chewy and dry consistency, one understands why lamb shank is more common on area menus. No complaints, however, about the wonderful tangy and sweet red cabbage that surrounds the tower of pork.
Nor should there be any complaints about the simply prepared and deftly seasoned roasted Amish chicken, which, unlike the pork, falls away easily from the bone. Barbecued catfish, Southwestern chicken tenderloins, herb-roasted turkey breast and Atlantic salmon are among other fairly straightforward entrées. Vegetarians will be pleased to find wild mushroom ravioli, seasonal vegetable strudel and a meatless pasta dish in oil and vinegar.
At this stage in its development, the Woodward sends out for most of its baked goods, including merely serviceable rolls. Like the rolls, dessert seems to be an afterthought. The only two desserts concocted in-house are devoted to local icons Sanders and Vernors, which lend their names to a gooey creampuff and a float, respectively.
As might be expected with 3,000 captive workers in the Compuware Building, lunch is especially popular at the Woodward. Also available at dinner, sandwiches range from muffuletta to tavern-battered salmon and, of course, the square-shaped Kern Clock burger.
The wine list, which is a work in progress, offers sufficient variety and enough bottles in the $25 to $35 range to satisfy penurious tipplers. It would be nice if a restaurant taking Michigan's largest city as its theme offered more choices from the ever-improving vineyards outstate, but even most restaurants in Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties, for example, serve only a token bottle or two of local origin.
Complimentary parking is available in the Compuware structure on Farmer.
So what would the great Augustus Woodward think of his namesake restaurant? Although he would most likely be dismayed by the lack of traffic on his grand boulevard after the workers go home at 5, he would have to be impressed with the solid performance of the Woodward and the confidence its owners have shown that downtown is coming back.
Mel Small, who reviewed restaurants for MT from 1982-85, is distinguished professor of history at Wayne State University, and has very good table manners. Send comments to email@example.com.