"Why would someone who lived here go to a hotel to eat?" mused my companion on the way into the downtown Marriott. It wasn't hard to think of two reasons why: for the 270-degree river view and for really good food, if it were. Dining economically would not be a motive, and that fact, sadly combined with the hit-and-miss quality of the fare, just about cancels any incentive to make Forty-Two Degrees North a local's destination.
The views are striking through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the third floor of the Ren Cen (though I would give a lot to expunge Caesars from the Windsor skyline). Outdoor seating exists, and that might forgive almost any other flaws, but we were driven inside by the wind, and our server told us the terrace was always too gusty to enjoy.
A restaurant has to be pretty spectacular to warrant charging $28 for meatloaf and $36 for rib-eye. My companion ordered the Midwest meatloaf, a dish he makes often at home, and found he could take a lesson from its moistness and richness (that's the bacon); it did taste higher-class than homemade, but not $23 higher. It could be a guilty pleasure for a lonely traveler, I suppose. But here's a hint to chefs with pretensions to grandeur: Undercooking the vegetables is not a shortcut to panache. Yes, home cooks do often boil the flavor out, but cutting off the flame after two minutes won't win you any friends either. On our two visits, the vegetables were consistently undercooked, with little taste.
I will praise certain dishes to the skies, however. Our helpful server warned us that $12 would get us only two small crab cakes, but they were so scrumptious, so elegantly dressed, that they felt like plenty. Their crust was crisp and their interior was soft to just the right degree — crab cakes can feel like baby food. A piquant mustard sauce and a caper relish (not caper berry as listed on the menu — that's something different) added excellent contrasts — to each other and to the cakes, which were actually delicious enough to eat plain.
Other appetizers were also fine: crinkly gnocchi in a creamy morel sauce would make any mushroom-lover happy, and beer-and-cheddar soup was strong, with the two flavors competing cheerfully (perhaps an odd choice for June, but it was cold this June). French onion soup was strong, dark and beefy, and if the bread was too dissolved and the cheese too rubbery, those are sins committed by almost all American attempts at this soup. There are also other appetizers that sound intriguing, such as leek and forest mushroom broth and goat cheese fritters with lime remoulade.
We had an excellent warm cherry bread pudding for dessert, which though light on cherries made up for it with a creamy vanilla sauce.
It was on the entrées that Forty-Two Degrees North fell down, and because I'm worried about travelers who will go home and talk about Detroit, I can only hope that I simply chose the wrong dishes or the wrong night. Butternut squash ravioli — which I'd recently had in a fabulous version elsewhere — came with a one-note cider sauce and some still-dried apple slices, the ravioli themselves unsweet. A huge, chewy prime rib was singularly lacking in flavor. Given all beef's ecological and nutritional demerits, you need some justification for ordering it, like being a real taste phenomenon. This one fulfilled only the function of keeping the diner from going home hungry.
Chicken Marsala was just as disappointing, with a sauce that wouldn't have been out of place in a school cafeteria. I nearly never order chicken in restaurants, and this experience was a reminder why.
To be fair, those last two dishes were ordered on a night when the National Baptist Convention had filled the Marriott. Forty-Two Degrees North had changed its menu and lowered prices substantially for the week — it was all about catfish and coleslaw, ribs and fries. Most of the diners — and it was a pleasure to eat among such glad and tranquil people, I must say — were going through the line at the special $16 buffet — which included crab cakes, thus proving conclusively that there's nothing scientific about how a restaurant sets its prices, or "price points."* Expense accounts are taken into account. Once the Baptists left, a manager said, the original menu and its $28 meatloaf would return.
At lunchtime, Forty-Two Degrees North offers a $12 buffet. Wednesday is Italian; Thursday and Friday are typically Southern; and Monday circles the Mediterranean. The restaurant is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
* If anyone can explain to me convincingly how "price points" means anything different from "prices," I will invite you to be my guest at my next dining-out experience.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.