by Mel Small
If you think trying to find your way to a RenCen restaurant is difficult, prepare for even more frustration searching for the Signature Grille & Bar, an eight-month-old restaurant tucked away in the Riverfront Towers off Jefferson near the Joe Louis Arena. First you must stop at the security gate to obtain permission to enter the complex and then you have to master the rapidly presented oral instructions about where to park and how to find the Signature on the third floor of the shortest tower. Signage is minimal to nonexistent.
But when you finally make it to your destination and marvel at the magnificent view of the Detroit River and Windsor available from every table, you'll know the trek was worth it. It is surprising that so few Detroit restaurants take advantage of our waterfront setting. And in the case of the Signature, the food more than complements the view.
With its handful of tables seating only 57 diners scattered about the large bar that dominates the room, the grille seems to be primarily a hideaway for the swells in the towers and only secondarily for interlopers. It would be a shame if more of those interlopers did not get an opportunity to sample the interesting fare that comes out of chef David Nelson's kitchen. Shawn Mac, formerly of the shuttered Boocoo, came on board early this month as executive chef.
Several of the eight appetizers ($7-$12) are Asian-accented, including lumpia [FLC] from the Philippines, tiny crispy egg rolls with a mild mandarin-orange dipping sauce, and yellowfin tuna served over seaweed salad. A selection of crunchy, perfectly grilled vegetables with a roasted pepper coulis is another option. The creamy tomato-basil soup will please those who are more interested in tomatoes than basil, which in this preparation is barely noticeable.
Speaking of noticeable, there is no avoiding the anchovies that appear in their glorious entirety atop a traditional Caesar salad ($3 with dinner). Our dinner partners, who have eaten Caesars around the world, gave their stamp of approval to Signature's rendition, which boasts an especially nippy dressing.
The disappointing warm rolls, which appear with the appetizers, are not house-made. Although it would add a bit of cost to the meal, owners Bert and Steve Sugayan could also add a bit of culinary distinction by hiring the Avalon Bakery in the nearby Cass Corridor to fill their breadbaskets.
If you drop in at Signature for lunch or a light supper, you can choose among eight sandwiches ($8) with the Archer roast-beef vying with the Coleman ham sandwich for City Hall's honors. The Coleman, incidentally, is stacked with Dearborn ham, an ironic ingredient considering long-time mayor of Dearborn Orville Hubbard's legendary resistance to integration.
Heartier eaters will find much to satisfy themselves among the 10 entrées. The nicely seasoned, char-crusted tenderloin ($25), served with roasted garlic and shallots in a cognac demi-glace, was so tender that it could be cut with a butter knife. And the pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($19), with fennel, tomatoes, shallots, carrots and wild rice, easily passed muster as well.
On the other hand, although the garniture with the chicken Marsala ($15), juicy breasts of chicken sautéed with asparagus, roasted yellow peppers, and portobellos was well-conceived, the sauce was somewhat heavy. No complaints, however, about the diver scallops ($19) that appeared over linguini flecked with spinach, except perhaps that four of the mollusks, despite their imposing size, may not be enough for the average diner.
The six other mains range from elegant Australian rack of lamb or broiled Norwegian salmon to earthier barbecued baby-back ribs or beer-battered fried shrimp. Whatever you order, your experience will be enhanced if the smoothly professional Ian is your server.
The short West Coast-dominated wine list is well-selected with bottles of house pours BV cabernet and chardonnay fairly marked up at $20. Characteristic of the pricing as well is a Simi sauvignon blanc at $26.
Desserts, which currently are not house-made, include crème brûlée and apple or chocolate tortes.
Helping out front is the amiable Chuckie, a veteran restaurateur formerly of the Encore and also the mother of the owners. Chuckie takes pride in her own honey-tarragon vinaigrette that dresses the Signature salad. The family is also proud of its musical offerings on weekends and hopes to soon open the Signature Market at street level below their eatery.
The Signature Grille & Bar is off to a good start, providing well-prepared dishes in attractive surroundings at a relatively moderate price. Perhaps the Sugayans will be able to figure out a way to make their establishment more accessible for those who are not fortunate enough to live at the Riverfront Towers. At the least, a sign or two would encourage wayward diners trying to find this promising addition to the downtown restaurant scene.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.