I saved my pennies to visit Seldom Blues, Frank Taylor's lovely spot on the river. I wanted to fill a hole in the Metro Times' listings, a two-year-old Ren Cen restaurant that, like Taylor's Sweet Georgia Brown in Greektown, has drawn raves.
What a disappointment to encounter food that wasn't bad, certainly, but nothing to return for.
Best I can figure, folks are attracted to the idea of Seldom Blues, and a terrific idea it is a sophisticated jazz supper club on the river, with handsome views. Celebrity owners Taylor, jazz flutist Alexander Zonjic, "executive concept chef" Jerry Nottage and retired Detroit Lion Robert Porcher III add to the cachet.
But when informed of the musicians that the restaurant hosts, my companion sniffed, "smooth jazz." On a Friday night, patrons were treating Marc's Project, deservedly, as background music.
Our waiter, though friendly, didn't conceal his disappointment that we were ordering from the low end of the menu ($28 entrées). A good-natured waitress confided that she was always looking for "that corporate card" flashed by execs from the Ren Cen's owner, General Motors. Next time you read that GM management is whining about its profit margin or lack thereof, think about the $13 starters, $30 pasta and $39 lobster Pontchartrain at Seldom Blues.
I wouldn't be pissing and moaning if the food had been outstanding. Chef Nottage doesn't commit any of the obvious sins associated with his lesser brethren; his food just isn't that ... tasty. If there was one flavor that characterized the (admittedly limited) dishes I sampled, it was salt.
Lobster and rock shrimp linguine in a cream sauce, for example, while rich, certainly tasted of the sea. A paté was generous, mild, nubbly and salty. In a dish of shrimp served with white truffle risotto and zucchini and squash noodles, the shrimp was chewy; the salty risotto had a nice texture creamy, but the grains distinguishable; and the noodles gave no hint of their vegetable origins.
Apparently not having learned my lesson on the seafood (hope springs eternal, and crustaceans can be so fabulous), I tried a crab and lobster cake with truffle aioli and found it non-truffly and just serviceable.
Before we get to the next dish, a short digression: The portobello is the fully mature form of the cremini mushroom, which in turn is a somewhat more flavorful variation of the white mushroom. According to the Food Lover's Companion, the name "portobello" was a 1980s marketing ploy to popularize an unglamorous mushroom that, too often, had to be thrown out because growers couldn't sell them. Because it's mature, its gills are exposed and some of its moisture has evaporated, thus concentrating the flavor.
Marketing ploy or no and, frankly, a bit of a cliché by now portobellos are nonetheless justly appreciated for their rich earthiness. A cream soup with portobellos, cremini and shiitake should vary more in taste from Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup.
Far tastier were short ribs, which were served off the bone but with a monster rib placed on the plate's side just to let you know where they'd come from. Their fat literally melted in the mouth, their sauce was wine-y, and crunchy onion straws complemented the smooth mashed potatoes. The meat itself gave up the essence of beef with the creamy taste and feel of lots and lots of fat.
Lesson learned: At Seldom Blues, skip the surf, go with the turf. Steak Porcher, for instance, a marinated beef rib chop, calls to mind the needs of a large, physically active person. Rack of lamb, classic chateaubriand and butterflied pork chops are available, alongside blueberry-glazed blue-b-que bass, ahi tuna and bronzed salmon.
The signature dessert is a warm bread pudding made with challah, white chocolate and dried cherries. Seeking the star-quality combo of chocolate and raspberries, we tried instead a chocolate Chambord terrine chocolate cake around a mousse but it was not layered with fresh raspberries, as promised. The flavor was pleasing enough but not the heavenly marriage one expects.
None of the regret about the food takes away from the beauty of the setting, which is even prettier at lunchtime, when the river is aqua and sparkling, than at dinner. Table settings include such nice touches as cobalt blue water glasses and a little domed cover for the butter (don't mistake it for a hotel clerk's bell). Armchairs are used throughout. Service, though sometimes slow, is affable and overstaffed. Smoking is allowed only on the patio.
As to the music, the lineup is heavy on, but not limited to, smooth jazz. August attractions include Penny Wells, the Johnnie Bassett Duo, and Alexander Zonjic and Friends. Charles and Gwen Scales play this weekend.
Seldom Blues (www.seldomblues.com) is open for dinner Monday through Saturday, for lunch during the week, and for brunch on Sundays.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.