by Mel Small
Peter Mel is back! After making quite a splash with the Backstage Deli and Footlights Café and Salute in the '80s, he disappeared from the local restaurant scene until the spring of 2008 when he opened Pete's Place, the Broadway Café. It is really off-Broadway if we consider Woodward to be our Broadway, since Pete's Place location on Woodward Heights near Hilton is far from the glitter of downtown Ferndale.
Owner-chef Mel won that city's beautification prize for his transformation of a dreary coney island into a hip eatery. The long narrow room that seats 50 is decorated, not surprisingly, with colorful Broadway show posters on dove-gray walls illuminated by track lighting and featuring art-deco fixtures and high-backed wicker chairs at tables graced with fresh flowers.
Pete's Place is open all day, with the menu's "Act I" relating to breakfast, "Act II" to luncheon sandwiches and "Act III" to dinner entrées. Starters appear under "Auditions," soup as "Summer Stock," and desserts constitute the "Finale." The theatrical ambience is enhanced by the show tunes that dominate the playlist.
Somewhere between a trendy bistro and a neighborhood hangout, Pete's is quite reasonable, with mains averaging around $12 and appetizers and salads around $6.
Among the five starters, the warm artichoke hearts sautéed in pesto sauce served over spinach is well-conceived, although, like some of Mel's cuisine, the pesto is understated. Similarly, the savory marinara sauce that accompanies the breaded zucchini is less than robust, although the especially crusty zucchini are meritorious. The somewhat undersized serving of smooth guacamole is also unassertive. A brie and fruit plate and deep-fried calamari round out the appetizers.
Despite the season, the wintery Canadian cheese soup, chock-full of sautéed vegetables and so thick your spoon could stand erect in it, is an even better way to begin an exploration of Pete's eclectic menu. You can add a cup of soup, which might include a hearty gazpacho some nights, to your entrée for $2.
Like many restaurants these days, Mel's nine dressing options include only two — ranch and blue cheese — that are house-made. It would be a good idea to ask for them on the side, as the otherwise interesting Broadway berry salad in balsamic vinaigrette was a bit soggy on one occasion. Another pleasant option, spinach salad with mandarin oranges and cherries, was marginally light on the fruit.
As for the mains, be certain to ask for the specials of the day. For example, eggplant parmigiana, which may take the stage several days a week, is a near-perfect blend of cheese and tender eggplant slices floating in marinara sauce. As for the dozen permanent entrées that make their appearance in Act III, the "lemon chicken piccata" — which may strike linguistic purists as redundant — combines an ample portion of chicken in a subtle piquant sauce served over pasta.
In a related dish, I wished the shrimp were a bit less salty in the otherwise decent lemon- garlic shrimp over linguini. Many of the entrées are served over pasta and their vegetable garnishes are admirably al dente.
Vegetarians will be pleased with the Verdi pasta in a pesto-garlic-oil sauce and the broccoli, rigatoni and pine nuts mélange, while the generous chunk of perfectly prepared salmon (at $13.95 the most expensive entrée) rests on a bed of orzo. Chicken Marbella, ravioli, a choice among four different pastas and three different sauces, and fish and chips are other mains. For a slight extra charge, Mel or one of his line cooks will employ whole-wheat or gluten-free pasta substitutes.
Depending on the size of the side of beef in the kitchen, it may be difficult to have the prime rib in peppercorn sauce prepared rare. Redness begins with medium rare on days when the kitchen has to deal with a smaller hunk of meat. Since few of us today risk ordering a rare burger, there should be no problems with the justly celebrated half-pounder of Angus beef on a kaiser roll with bacon, grilled onion, cheese, lettuce and tomato. Juicy and flavorful, it ranks among our area's best. The thin fries that come with are not too shabby either.
Four frittata-style omelets anchor the breakfast menu, and luncheon sandwiches range from corned beef on rye to a sautéed chicken breast with spinach, portabella and Gruyere pesto mayo, to paninis stuffed with sautéed vegetables or mushrooms and goat cheese or turkey and spinach, to that venerable classic, French dip consisting of prime-rib shavings, swiss cheese, au jus and horseradish sauce.
Although the portion of sumptuous warm molten volcano chocolate cake and ice cream seems a bit skimpy, that may be the result of voracious diners scarfing down that dessert too quickly. The Bloomfield Canopy cheese cake with blueberry compote easily passes the crucial moistness criterion.
Another plus is the waitstaff. The attentive, friendly and knowledgeable servers contribute to both the conviviality and the sophistication of the café. Considering the fond memories many of us have of Peter Mel's earlier ventures, we wonder what took him so long to get back into the business.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.