by Mel Small
If a house guest or out-of-town visitor announces, "I want to take you out tonight to a very special restaurant, perhaps with an interesting view of the city," how would you respond? The first choice would have to be Coach Insignia, perched spectacularly on the 71st and 72nd floors of the Marriott Hotel in the Renaissance Center but you would probably bite your tongue because you wouldn't want to stick your host with an exorbitant dinner bill.
Yet the three-year-old flagship of the Matt Prentice chain is not as pricey as rumored, despite the fact that there is no such thing as a cheap lunch at Coach since it is only open for dinner and parking may cost as much as $10 with no validation.
Whatever the price, the unsurpassed view, which begins with the always-thrilling ride to the top in the restaurant's private elevator, is of considerable value. Unlike the Summit, the previous occupant of this grand space, Coach Insignia does not "do a 360" which should please those prone to vertigo. In fact, the dining areas, which can seat as many as 400, take up only 270 degrees of the circular room that no longer spins.
A closed-off banquet area, the missing 90 degrees, offers Detroit-only views while the rest of the ceiling-to-floor windows look out at the city's shoreline, the river, and especially Windsor. Urban sociologists may be disappointed with the restaurant's choice of table placement.
The comfortable lounge above the dining area on the 72nd floor is not the top floor of the iconic building floor 73 is reserved for Homeland Security. But don't worry, you do not need a passport to gain entry into the lofty showplace below.
Decorated tastefully with automobile memorabilia, Coach Insignia takes its name from the RenCen's major tenants, GM and its Body by Fisher, as well as from the same Fisher family's California winery where the "body" appears in its fine vintages under the Coach Insignia label.
Unlike other restaurants in the clouds where the food is sometimes an afterthought, chef Beau Burnett's cuisine would be worth sampling in the windowless RenCen basement. Incidentally, because of lack of space upstairs, his working kitchen is, in fact, in the basement of the building!
For starters, along with the consistently excellent Prentice sourdough, budget-minded patrons might choose the short-ribs tidbits ($8) that come playfully in a martini glass with assertive horseradish-accented whipped potatoes. The multicolored, self-proclaimed "exotic" mushroom ravioli ($9) in porcini cream is another keeper, although the portion is only about two forkfuls.
The rest of the appetizers, which include lobster corn dogs and PETA alert foie gras, rise into the stratosphere of $15. But have no fear, Coach's generously proportioned salads ($6-$8) offer another way to launch the meal. Baby spinach with apples, Maytag blue cheese, and praline pecans in a subtle port vinaigrette or Bibb and brie with almonds and blueberries in a sweeter honey-mustard dressing are two nicely conceived options.
Three soups ($5-$8), topped by a silky lobster bisque, are also available.
Several of the mains come in at under $30. The lone genuflection to vegetarians, a grilled vegetable Napoleon ($19), consists of gently charred portabellas, eggplant, bell peppers, mozzarella and roasted tomato coulis. The thrifty gourmand can also select simple pan-roasted chicken Provencal ($25), accompanied by sautéed eggplant with caperberrries, kalamata olives and potato gnocchi in a citrus buerre blanc or a New Orleans shrimp dish ($28) featuring large, crunchy shrimp, andouille sausage and corn over pappardelle awash in a creamy smoked-tomato sauce, or even a small center-cut filet mignon ($29).
Chef Burnett's often unexpected garnishes, such as the goat-cheese gratin with the budget-busting rack of lamb ($46) or the coconut-curry broth with the hefty helping of seared Ahi ($36) are an added attraction.
Madeline Triffon, our region's most celebrated sommelier, has constructed a long and versatile wine list. As is the case in Prentice restaurants, she includes a handful of bottles in the low- and mid-twenties for those of limited means. The markup, which on such modest wine may be a bit more than two and half times retail, happily shrinks as her list moves into more refined areas.
Desserts, which average around $8, might include a luscious mousse-laden chocolate torte or an inventive sampling of three different cheesecakes.
So how to respond to your host who offers to take you out to that very special restaurant with a view? With careful managing of your food and beverage choices, and perhaps skipping dessert, you should be able to finance a visit to the top of Detroit's world for a bit more than $50, tax and tip included. That may sound like a lot of money to those who limit their Detroit dinners to Greektown. But for the special occasion, for showing off our town at its best to visitors, it is difficult to resist an evening at Coach Insignia. I know that our economy is in terrible shape but as Ecclesiastes advises, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow ..."
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.