by Mel Small
Last February, the Tearoom at the Eleanor and Edsel Ford estate at Gaukler Point on Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Shores became the Cotswold Café. In May, armed with a tavern license, the café began serving dinner on the weekends. Cotswold, however, applies more directly to the Albert Kahn-designed living quarters, outbuildings and dramatic entry gates, not to the café's home in a modern, brick Activities Center built in 1990 a quarter mile from the mansion.
There is, however, an architectural connection, since the original building on the café site served primarily as the greenhouse for the rambling estate, a theme evoked in the café's glass ceilings. Traditionalists also will be pleased to know that some sections of the old building have been integrated into the new one.
Cotswold or not, the informal café's airy, solarium-like space is an attractive dining venue. The café seats 54 at its white-clothed tables and an additional 20 at a lovely outdoor patio. Its colorful, wild-animal wallpaper reflects the fact that the Activities Center is the starting point for many nature walks on the magnificent grounds, which were designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen. A grounds pass costs $5, but restaurant guests can explore the forests and lush greenery at no charge.
Chef Erik Ziegenbein, who works for Continental Services, the outfit that handles the food at the estate, offers the same menu for lunch and dinner, at cafeteria — not café — prices. Many of his very traditional preparations suggest an earlier era when the Pointes were a culinary wasteland where the gentry took their meals at their private clubs.
This retro approach is evident in the crusty Parker House-style rolls and the range of appetizers ($3-$9), including a wheel of baked brie vaguely warmed with Grand Marnier, a quite pleasant smooth smoked whitefish pâté that is less fishy than most, and a surprisingly dense underseasoned mushroom bisque. Much of the fare is safely underseasoned.
Ziegenbein offers five large dinner salads ($7-$11), including the classic Maurice, with mounds of iceberg lettuce, turkey, ham, Swiss cheese, relish, olives and chopped eggs washed in a rich, creamy dressing that is best ordered on the side. It is a replica of the Maurice served for generations to white-gloved matrons at the Hudson's department store restaurants and pays tribute to Eleanor Ford's uncle, J. L. Hudson.
Nostalgia aside, you can order the more adventurous salmon-cakes salad with a honey-mustard dressing or the petite filet mignon salad that comes with a gorgonzola quesadilla, both of which do not rely on iceberg for the foundation.
Among the substantial sandwiches are a Portabella mushroom melt with roasted vegetables, hummus, Swiss cheese and aioli served on a Kaiser roll; a Monte Cristo, egg-battered grilled turkey, ham and Swiss cheese with a raspberry dipping sauce; a Reuben; and a ground Angus beef burger. Several half sandwiches are available with a cup of soup or small salad for $7. Redolent of an earlier day are the mini tea sandwiches (chicken, tuna or egg salad) accompanied by a scone and fresh fruit, which one can imagine being served to the Fords on a silver platter back in the late 1920s.
Five of the seven regular entrées are $10 or less. On Friday and Saturday evenings, Ziegenbein adds options such as a lasagna — unusually rich in vegetables — whitefish, and a pork chop. As for those regulars, the angel-hair pasta laced with a roasted tomato sauce and a hint of pesto is one of the chef's more lively creations, but don't be surprised by the diminutive nature of the shrimp that add $3 to the modest cost of the dish.
Quiche, chicken Cordon Bleu, grilled salmon, very old-fashioned potpie, a macaroni du jour and a 5-ounce filet mignon with mashed potatoes round out the mains.
The Cotswold Café's signature dessert is a luscious, warm cobbler of cranberries, pears, cinnamon, ginger, crumbled oats and brown sugar, and, contrapuntally, cool vanilla ice cream, caramel and whipped cream. On a recent occasion, although our table of four ordered one cobbler to pass around, the considerate server presented us with our own individual little treats.
Among other desserts are conservative standbys like carrot cake, a brownie parfait and an English cheese and fruit plate.
The new wine list is gently priced with a handful of interesting bottles.
Despite its tavern license, however, the Cotswold Café has not become a wild and crazy place. Dinner on Friday and Saturday is served from 5 to 8 p.m. only, while lunch is available from Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with brunch on Sunday.
The presence of the full-service Cotswold Café means that visitors to the Ford Estate can linger for quite a while on the grounds and in the buildings, knowing that a solid meal and adult beverages await them when they feel like eating lunch or dinner. In addition, its approach to classic American cuisine fits well with the experience of immersion in an important period in 20th-century U.S. social and architectural history.
Mel Small has been dining for MT off and on for three decades. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.