It's heartening to see a downtown restaurant and its bar buzzing even on a Wednesday night, full of folks spending $12 apiece on cocktails. We're supposed to cheer any type of money coming into downtown these days — are we not? — even for that most ephemeral of experiences, dinner and a pomegranate martini.
The Book Cadillac's 24 Grille is a less formal, though no less expensive, alternative to the acclaimed meat-eaters' paradise in the hotel's opposite corner, Roast. It has a somewhat shorter, American menu, with just a couple of steaks and four seafood dishes. While some of those are delectable, there are also too many misses to justify a $135-per-couple tab (not including one of those cocktails).
The Book Cadillac's history and resurrection are pretty well-known: tallest hotel in the world when the Book brothers built it in 1924, shuttered for 24 years in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, restored and reopened at a cost of $200 million as a Westin in 2008. Here's a historical side note you won't find in the official brochure: the Book Cadillac was the scene of a short sit-down strike in March 1937, when 150 of the night staff sat down in solidarity with an action touched off at the Hotel Statler — one of 30 strikes in progress in the city at that moment. Life magazine reported that some stars were inconvenienced by the absence of room-service staff: Tyrone Power walked up 17 flights to bring Sonja Henie her lunch. No signs of restless workers today.
24 Grille says that its ingredients are preservative-free and sourced locally when possible. Each menu item tells where it came from: filet mignon from Creek Stone Farms, Arkansas, tuna from the Sea of Japan. I had to wonder what it meant that crab cakes came from "Michigan Foods, Detroit" — are we harvesting crabs in the D now? Most of the dishes' main ingredients come from afar, so it's not clear why local sourcing should be mentioned.
I couldn't discern any pattern of the hits and misses at 24 Grille: Out of six entrées sampled, four were good or excellent, two not well prepared. One appetizer was great, one not bad, one so-so. A salad and a side veg were terribly disappointing.
As at many places these days, 24's calamari are crisp and wonderful, served with capers, lemon beurre blanc and chili aioli. The dressings make the dish. Duck confit is just not as rich as it should be — this is one of the richest products of the French repertoire. It tasted closer to a regular duck drumstick than to a confit. And tuna tartare wasn't as special — not as fresh tuna-y — as it could have been, though it was dressed up with seaweed. It reminded me of an ordinary ceviche. (For the best tuna tartare, go to Saltwater.)
The salad of which I spoke was a roasted tomato Caesar — tiny, made with very pale lettuce, with a dressing that looked and tasted like orange "French." It was served with some very salty marinated caperberries. brussels sprouts, a $6 side dish, were undercooked — and the hard, inedible stems had not been trimmed away! It's really not hard to roast brussels sprouts to perfection.
The chef did a sublime job, though, with melt-in-your-mouth scallops, sweet and smoky and served with clams in the shell. Also luscious was a giant, moist pork chop, which tasted strongly of the braised apples it was cooked with, as well as a cinnamon-cognac sauce.
My vegetarian friend enthused about her Himalayan cabbage rolls, stuffed with grilled tofu, mushrooms and some nutty Himalayan red rice.
A delicious veal meatloaf came as a tall tower — layers of meatloaf and bacon, interwoven with layers of potato purée. It would be hard not to be moist with that degree of luxurious larding.
I was less thrilled with an overcooked piece of salmon — an insult to a lovely piece of fish. And the spices of my blackened swordfish were strong enough to overwhelm the taste of the fish — only a virtue if the chef needs to hide something, which I'm sure he didn't. It did come with some wonderful jasmine (Thai) rice.
For dessert we tried a selection of housemade ice creams, which change continually, and liked the chai and the white chocolate coconut raspberry.
24 Grille has a happy hour from 4 to 6 on weekdays, when wine and appetizers are half off. (Wines by the glass are normally $8-$16, with house wines at $6.) Sounds like a good way to keep the money flowing into downtown.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.