by Mel Small
After establishing himself as one of the area's most respected chefs at such upscale restaurants as the legendary Van Dyke Place, the Whitney, and Mac and Ray's, Jeff Baldwin decided to open his own more casual eatery in Clinton Township. Established in December 2004, J. Baldwin's is in the Hunter's Point strip mall at Garfield and 18 Mile Road.
With its simple furnishings bare and oilcloth-covered tables and paper napkins and reasonable pricing, J. Baldwin's appears to be a step down from Baldwin's previous elegant workplaces. But he brought with him scores of solid dishes, now appearing as chef's recommendations on his menu, representing a link to his culinary history.
Recently expanded, his mauve-accented dining room can seat about 135 patrons, many of whom are able to view the frenetic goings-on in the huge open kitchen that dominates the space. That kitchen flaunts a rare stone-fired oven that produces especially crusty pizzas, including an ultra-thin appetizer pie composed of pesto, goat cheese, roasted peppers and spinach ($7.99). (There is a full array of imaginatively dressed, round and deep-dish designer pizzas that can be eaten in-house or ordered in a half-baked state to cook at home.)
Another opener of merit is the coconut-battered shrimp, four plump crustaceans served with a zingy rum dipping sauce, rice and stir-fried veggies. Considering the size and number of the shrimp, the dish, which also appears among the entrées, is moderately priced at $8.99. Beyond pizza and shrimp, there are calamari, tuna sashimi, crab cakes and, especially, "southwest wild mushroom yum-yum rolls," which, despite the cutesy name, are a pleasingly complicated if inelegant mélange of sautéed mushrooms, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, peppers, onions, gouda and mozzarella in a tortilla, all bathed in a ranch dressing.
Those looking for simpler classic starters among Baldwin's eclectic offerings should turn to the iceberg wedge salad, loaded with enough crispy bacon to constitute a BLT, along with a creamy gorgonzola dressing, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers. Alas, the soft, house-made bread is not especially distinguished.
Among the mains, Brian, our accomplished server and wine maven, recommended the chef-starred sautéed lake perch, accompanied by rice, loads of capers, and al dente vegetables. The admirable fishlets were sweeter and moister than comparable preparations elsewhere. Another starred chef's choice is lemon chicken piccata, two breast sections delicately sautéed in lemon sauce, again with capers, artichokes and a mountain of angel-hair pasta.
Other entrées include six more chicken options (ranging from Southern-fried to a low-carb almond-crusted variant in tomato-basil over zucchini linguini), several steaks (with Kobe flatiron an attractive option), a good number of seafood items and several daily catches, jambalaya and, for vegetarians, portabella ravioli and mushrooms in a tomato-basil sauce.
Aside from the pizzas and counting daily specials, Baldwin presents at least 30 entrées every day along with an impressive variety of sauces and accoutrements. According to the menu notations, at least a third of the dishes are based on recipes developed earlier in his career.
Most of the non-reserve wines, which are solid standards, are fairly marked up from $28 to $34, and you can score a flight of three small pours for $9. Although only Bud Light and Bass Ale are on tap, Baldwin compensates for this shortcoming with an extensive list of quaffs by the bottle featuring most of the usual suspects from Rolling Rock to Guinness.
It is probable that many diners will be unable to go on to a final sweet course after their more than ample appetizers, salads and entrées. Nonetheless, the deserts will be hard to resist. Most of them ($6.99-$7.99) are made in-house and are highlighted by an accomplished crème brûlée and a sinful Black Forest torte overflowing with mounds of whipped cream and rich chocolate cake.
J. Baldwin's is a noisy, family-friendly place with a well-rounded children's menu. Indeed, on one late summer night, it seemed that more than half of the patrons, most of whom were clad in shorts, had several children in tow. This is not the sort of clientele Baldwin used to serve at the Whitney.
So what's not to like? For one thing and this is my own idiosyncratic pet peeve servers insist on asking, "Are you still working on it?" More interesting, J. Baldwin's is not only a restaurant but the "to go" in its formal name refers to its extensive catering business. Among the prime customers are pharmaceutical reps who purchase large quantities of prepared food "gifts" for local doctors and their staffs. Of course, we can't blame the restaurant for participating in this business.
To the contrary, Baldwin has every reason to be proud of his own restaurant. He has made it possible for ordinary folk in jeans and shorts to sample dishes he created when he labored in an entirely different gastronomical milieu.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to email@example.com.