by Mel Small
When national men's magazine GQ recently rated Detroit the third best pizza city in the country, many found it gratifying to rank higher than overhyped and overstuffed Chicago — yet it was somewhat mystifying to come in behind San Francisco. (And in a second-hand tribute to our town, GQ judged former Detroiters Nick Lessins' and Lydia Esparza's Great Lake Pizza in Chicago to be best nationwide.)Although we earned our laurels primarily for "Detroit" style, square deep-dish pies, Taste, which opened in January, contributes to our reputation with its round, thin-crusted designer 'za.
Located on the second floor of an old brick building on Times Square, Taste is not the easiest place to find. Situated in a somewhat barren area, its otherworldly landscape is made all the eerier by its view of the monochromatic concrete walls of a massive parking garage across the narrow street. Periodically, however, the People Mover hurtles by at eye level to add a bit of urban bustle.
Seating as many as 175, Taste sprawls through two rooms, with the dining area separated from the even larger lounge. Simply decorated with wooden tables, paper napkins and bare walls constructed of some of the original brick and a few obligatory flat-screen TVs, the informal pizza bistro is a noisy and lively destination for a drink or a full meal. An added bonus for night owls is its 2 a.m. closing time.
Although first-rate 10-inch pies are Taste's raison d'être, chef-owner Dale Daniel offers diners a wide variety of starters, soups, salads and grilled sandwiches. For example, "Three the hard way" is composed of three tender corned beef and cheese sliders ($9) that come with Daniel's signature treat, old-fashioned tater tots with a hint of garlic butter and parsley. These are not quite the tots we remember from the frozen dinners of our youth. The crunchy nuggets also accompany the sandwiches.
Thick-battered fried shrimp with a sharp house-made barbecue sauce ($13.50) is another pleasing starter, as are the amusing deep-fried pickles ($5), served with a gentler horseradish sauce. Fried appetizers such as chicken wings and tenders, mozzarella sticks, and vegetarian spring rolls are also available, along with the most expensive first: roasted New Zealand lamb chops with basil-pesto ($15).
The dressings for the simple salads are not made in-house, a fact that does not diminish the quality of the interesting blueberry-pomegranate vinaigrette.
Vegetarians should enjoy the thick "Adian" (named for the chef's godson), a grilled sandwich ($7) crammed full of mushrooms, roasted red peppers, mozzarella, goat cheese and caramelized onions in a balsamic vinaigrette. Many of the ingredients in other sandwiches (barbecued chicken, prime rib), as well as those that adorn the pizzas, are top-of-the-line.
But all of this is merely a prelude to a consideration of Daniel's pies. When I asked him about his ovens and their temperature, he responded that, contrary to many pizza makers who boast about their special equipment, stones or high temperatures, he considers the dough to be more important than the devices used to cook it. He experimented for quite a while before he was satisfied with his dough, which, the menu contends, produces a crust that is "simultaneously thick and thin" — thin in the center and thicker and crispier toward the edge.
That is a neat trick if you pull it off but some patrons may find the thick crispy part not as distinguishable from the soft underbelly of the pizza as it should be. Nevertheless, the admirable toppings on the 20-odd pies present combinations that should please picky pizza mavens. Most of the pies cost $13 or less — the upscale outlier is the "Ocean 21" ($21), with lobster, scallops, and shrimp.
The "Shrooms" pie excels in good measure because of its four mushroom varieties — cremini, portabella, shiitake and oyster — along with loads of mozzarella. More elaborate is the "Wiseguy," with, not surprisingly, Italian sausage, grilled onions, smoked mozzarella and roasted red peppers. The crime-family theme encompasses the "Capo," featuring Sicilian cherry tomatoes, bacon and salami, and the "Silvio," a combination of ham, mushrooms, olives and mozzarella.
Many of the pies reveal the ingredients in their names. Thus, the "Hula" flaunts pineapples, the "Cajun" a spicy sauce, and the "Detroit Red" the barbecued chicken wings that make an earlier appearance among the starters. And simple classics such as the "Bianco" and "Queen Margherita," along with the veggies supreme, will satisfy vegetarians.
As in most pizza parlors, you can also build your own pie with toppings that range from artichokes to Gorgonzola to zucchini.
Kudos to the sommelier for selecting bottles from solid but relatively obscure small vineyards and for establishing a no-nonsense simplified pricing system of $24 for ordinaire and $38 for reserve. Beer is reasonably priced as well at $3-$5 and several of the cocktails come in small ($6-$7) as well as large sizes.
Caramel apple pie, cutesy cheesecake cupcakes, and a sinfully rich warm brownie covered in caramel and chocolate sauce with vanilla ice cream constitute the dessert list.
With its high-quality pizzas, late-evening hours and urban cool, Taste is a splendid addition to the downtown dining scene. Moreover, in these daunting economic times, its moderate prices should prove attractive to those whose limited budgets preclude frequenting more formal, white-tablecloth restaurants with greater culinary pretensions.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to email@example.com.