I write this review knowing that most metro Detroiters aren't going to brave the border for a burger, no matter how singular. But might they for a bit part in a feature film?
When we visited Motor Burger early one Saturday evening, the Canadian Film Board was there with a camera, continuing its yearlong documentation of the makeover of an upscale Italian restaurant, Noi, into a still-cool burger joint.
You can watch episodes one and two of Measuring the Human Side of the Canadian Economic Crisis at motorburger.ca. Not an enticing title, but I'd lay money that this will be one of those "one door closes and another opens" stories — young entrepreneurs reinvent themselves and their bootstraps — not like the gloomy 52-year-old-auto-worker-discovers-company-lied-can't-find-job-but-this-is-Canada-so-at-least-he's-got-health-care chronicles.
After owners Gino Gesuale and Jay Souilliere (Jay's the chef) opened Noi in the early part of the decade, it thrived for years as a special-occasion place serving inventive dishes. The average bill per diner was $30, they say with understatement. When the economy tanked and border-crossing became more of a chore, Noi lost its well-heeled customers. "Now we're trying to appeal to the masses," says Gesuale.
Both times I visited, during Sneak Peak Week, families with (well-behaved) little kids had wandered in. The place is attracting both Noi loyalists and return customers from further back, when Souilliere and Gesuale owned coffee joints and Sam's Pizzeria, as well as random walk-ins attracted by the neon "Burger" sign, a rarity on Via Italia (Erie Street). The pair sold 700 burgers in their first couple of weeks with no advertising.
Customers found burgers striving for and achieving hipness and a fun, non-clichéd car-themed decor. Though family-friendly in the early hours, the place is clearly meant to attract a more sophisticated clientele later on for the "Lubricants" menu, a standard list of mixed drinks, "martinis," mostly Canadian beers, and seven spiked milkshakes.
One wall shows back-lit cow cut-outs knocked every which way by an automobile. Another is a blackboard with detailed car drawings. The pale blue napkins look just like the windshield cleaning cloths at a gas station. Chartreuse is a common accent, way different from the all-whiteness of Noi. Menu descriptions are silly but fun — the tuna burger is "Fishtailing," the lamb is "Lamb-orghini." "Deux Chevaux," the chef's favorite, refers to the Citroen auto, not to horsemeat.
My favorite was the ahi tuna burger, spiced up with chile and chipotle and topped with sesame oil and arugula. The classic burger ($6.50) with just red onion, tomato, pickles and "motor sauce" was a little bland, lacking a really robust beefiness. The $7.50 Autostrada, Italian sausage, is effectively rubbed with chipotle for greater spiciness; the Gorgonzola on top is oddly muted, though, unlike the goat cheese on the Lamb-orghini, which essentially takes over and blocks any lamb flavor from coming through.
All our burgers were served medium rare; speak up if you want a different doneness, because servers weren't asking.
Other possibilities, besides various ways of gussying up the classic with bacon, Gruyère, and caramelized onions, are ground turkey with a hoisin glaze; ground shrimp with coconut milk, avocado and mango salsa; or a veggie patty of mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, corn, butter beans, chickpeas and lentils.
Or go with ground Kobe brisket, adorned with a grilled portobello, truffle oil and more. Souilliere was surprised to see twentysomethings defying the recession by ordering the Kobe and then "supercharging" it — getting a double of the 7 oz. patty (an option available on all the burgers for $2 to $6). "You're ordering a $27 hamburger?" he marveled. At the other end, a 4-ounce cheeseburger for the kids is just $3.
Sides are limited thus far, though, by the time you read this, pastas and salads probably will have been added to the menu, and the credit card system will be in place (otherwise, American cash will work). We had excellent hand-cut fries, just the right degree of crispness, sweet onion rings, and blue-chip nachos with a very fresh house-made tomato and corn sauce.
I tried the seductively named Drive-In Shake, with Frangelico, crème de cacao and Amaretto in vanilla ice cream. Every girlie flavor to tempt the lady! The taste was not strong and produced little buzz. The nonalcoholic shakes were similarly mild, with both caramel and chocolate — a very pale beige — essentially tasting like very good vanilla. We advised the guys to use more flavoring — why not make malteds, if you want to go all the way with the burger theme?
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.