At the Apparatus Room and Takoi
by M.B. Lewis
From the December, 2018 issue
My family stopped exchanging Christmas gifts, except for the tykes, some years ago. But many of us still want to engage in the holiday spirit and enjoy bringing family together in ways that might spark new conversations, intimate moments, and warm memories. So we look for shows or concerts, a new museum exhibition or an educational hike, or maybe a special restaurant to which we can invite everyone--make it our treat, we say, and Merry Christmas to all.
Two restaurant dinners I shared this fall, though not inexpensive, suggested themselves to me as perfect venues for such an adventure. Both the Apparatus Room and Takoi are in Detroit, where an evening's itinerary can be enhanced with a tour of the reanimated city. And both offer chef's dinners, where diners put the meal's makeup entirely in the hands of the kitchen--a potentially marvelous avenue for celebrating the season of giving, sharing, and, yes, maybe even excess.
Chef's dinners, at least as done here, differ from similar "tasting menus" by presenting multiple courses family style, with bowls and platters set on the table for people to help themselves. Diners can dig directly out of the bowl, or heap a bit onto their own plate, or pass the platter from person to person--an informal, generous, and convivial way to eat. And the less formal presentation means the server interrupts conversations only for a quick description, elaborating only if asked, rather than effectively killing it with the regimented scripts of tasting menus.
The Apparatus Room takes up much of the first floor of the Detroit Foundation Hotel, situated in the shadow of the Cobo Center. Barely a year old, the hotel was fashioned from a former firehouse. The restaurant is in the old equipment room, with expansive windows fitted into the space's fire-engine red bays. The decor is stylish and urbane yet hospitable and inviting. A large U-shaped marble bar, draped with a curtain of hanging vintage-style light bulbs, centers the room.
Outfitted with plush seating and a pendant fireplace, a casual lounge faces the street, while the dining area sits between the opposite side of the bar and the open kitchen. Here, cozy easy chairs grace many of the two-tops, and deep, comfortable banquettes--with pillows and throws--line the sides of long, polished wood tables. Creamy subway tiles and Persian rugs warm the room. The space can be noisy, but I've never found conversation there a problem. Servers are uniformly knowledgeable without pretensions, gracious, and very good at their jobs.
The restaurant's executive chef is Thomas Lents, a Battle Creek native who, as chef de cuisine at the eponymous Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, helped that restaurant maintain three Michelin stars and then later earned his own two at Sixteen in Chicago. His move back to Michigan has brought him to a more casual, less pricey venue that serves breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner. His changing dinner menu is bold, inventive, but approachable, sprinkled with sly references to the city--a fabulous "coney-style" Bolognese sauce made with beef heart and a J.L. Hudson Maurice salad--with prices typical for fine dining in the area. (The wine list, though, offers no bargains, with wines-by-the-bottle listed under categories of $55, $75, $95, and the three-figure "Commissioner's List.")
Lents's "chef's choice"--not to be confused with the much more expensive "chef's table"--is a family-style multicourse meal served to an entire table for market price--approximately $85 per person without tax and tip. The chef's choice is always available for as few as two, though it can run out early on busy nights.
I've enjoyed several meals at the Apparatus Room, twice as part of this family-style option. Both times I found the meal extraordinary and an incredible value in quality and quantity. Lents is a chef not to be missed.
One evening in September, two friends, who split their time between a home in Ann Arbor and a riverside apartment in Detroit, accompanied my husband and me for their first visit to the Apparatus Room. After surveying Lents's menu, they declared the tempting options too numerous for easy decisions and were delighted when I suggested the chef's choice. We all settled back into our cushions to catch up on news--a son recently married, city living, the nearby grandchildren--and enjoy a well-orchestrated feast of six courses, some with multiple options.
Highlights included elegant, creamy Willapa Bay oysters, piqued by a daring foil of icy cherry-horseradish granita, and a compressed cantaloupe salad, the orange ovals dressed with a sprightly watermelon relish, goat cheese, pine nuts, sliced caper berries, dried hot peppers, and fried garlic. The latter plate offered such an intriguing juxtaposition of sweet, piquant, salt, sour, and toasted that we all leaned forward to sneak yet another forkful.
The pasta dishes elicited similar reactions: our friends exclaiming over the semolina cavatelli, dressed with braised suckling pig, kale, Fresno chilies, and cheese, while I found the rigatoni, smoky with cured whitefish, suavely rich in its pea puree and egg yolk jam, pure heaven.
The main course--and the one that had finally sold us on the chef's option that evening--was a braised pork collar (the meaty portion of the neck near the shoulder) of Mangalitsa pig, a hairy heritage animal, exceptionally fatty and therefore exceptionally flavored and succulent. Originating from Hungary, the pigs are raised in Michigan at Utica Farms. Our waiter said it was the best part of the best pig he had ever eaten, and none of us disagreed. Accompanying the meat were lovely vegetable sides, including Lents's version of Joel Robuchon's famous potato puree, as much butter as tuber.
With dessert to come, we saved some of the main course for take-home boxes. Cherries being a personal favorite, I was particularly pleased by our prudence when presented with a "Black Forest torte." Oaty, chocolatey, fruity, creamy, and not too sweet, it put the feather on the cap of a fabulous meal, one to appreciate again as we later admired the sunset over the Detroit River from our friends' living room windows.
Equally excellent, Takoi might be best suited for family and friends truly primed for adventurous dining. Brad Greenhill, a self-taught chef, is the driving force behind Takoi's Thai-inspired menu, first presented out of a Detroit food truck, then honed at Ann Arbor pop-ups and a temporary gig at the old Jerusalem Garden space on Fifth Ave. Having endured some rough patches since leaving Ann Arbor for Detroit, including controversy over the restaurant's original name, Katoi, and an arson fire, Greenhill and Takoi have garnered national recognition, including a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in 2017. His way with food is intuitive, inspired, and sure.
Ensconced on Michigan Avenue near the old train station, Takoi looks more like a candidate for urban renewal than an inviting place to dine: Punctured at the front by a recycled corrugated steel shipping container, the cement-block building sits in a gravel patio surrounded by a sixteen-foot high cyclone fence. Newly planted maples do little to soften the hard edges. Inside the meat-locker entrance door, polycarbonate plastic walls glow like a saltwater aquarium at the bar, and simple tables, chairs, and banquettes crowd the small dining room beyond, bookended on the other side by an open kitchen.
I was rather grumpy when five of us, loaded with coats and bags, were shown to a narrow, three-sided banquette meant--at the most--for four. I grabbed a stool and sat myself on the fourth side, admittedly in the aisle but willing to get knocked by a server's elbow rather than eat squeezed tight between my friends. As it was, I survived the evening untouched and we enjoyed service that was casual and hip but knowledgeable, friendly, and efficient.
Takoi's "chef's dinner"--available only for parties of four to twelve--requires preregistration and prepayment. Moreover, the reservations, $65 per person before tax and tip--which are also prepaid--are final and nonrefundable, though they can be transferred to others. A $35 drink package, which pairs alcoholic beverages to the meal, can be ordered in advance or added at the restaurant.
Our group, primed for dinner after an afternoon at the Detroit Institute of Arts, sat down hoping to be entranced and found ourselves utterly seduced. Asked first about food allergies, spice levels, and how hungry we were--and then repeatedly as dinner continued so the kitchen could gauge what to send out next or to end the meal--we never gave in to satiation, too afraid, as the incredible meal continued, we might miss out.
Thirteen courses were sent out, all from the regular menu. And though we were contemplating waistlines when dessert arrived, we weren't overwhelmed; vegetables constituted many of the courses, and portions were judicious. Our sole--very minor--reservation involved the beverage package, about five different cocktails and wines that evening, which we found less compelling than the food and not always the best match for what we were eating.
With some in the group's last visit to the DIA a decade or two previous, excited impressions dominated the conversation, punctuated often, however, by exclamations about the food. Eager agreement flew around the table--"this is absolutely the best egg roll I've ever eaten"--after we finished a couple of genre-defining specimens, stuffed with succulent braised beef brisket, the crispy shells wrapped in soft leaves of Bibb lettuce. A fabulously authentic som tum thai--the fiery shredded green papaya, long bean, and peanut salad--followed. Charred greens with a dusting of curried puffed rice, though complex in flavor, offered a temporary reprieve from chilies; silky yellowtail crudo, enhanced with local tomatoes and herbs, gently returned us. Only the wedges of stir-fried Persian cucumbers sparked debate, some finding the texture disagreeable, others of us pleasantly intrigued by the combination of Szechuan peppercorns, crispy shallots, pureed tofu, and warm, salted vegetable.
Were we full yet? No? Out came sea scallops, suavely enrobed in a dressing of satiny young coconut, lemongrass, and mint, followed by two more sizzling plates.
Were we full yet? No? Individual pork ribs, fried crispy and drizzled with a fish sauce caramel and watermelon cubes, gave us serious bones to gnaw on.
Could we stand one more? We could. And out came the whole fish, the last and most majestic course in many Asian cuisines--here, a whole fried snapper in tamarind sauce, delectable in its simplicity.
To finally end the meal we were presented two desserts--a comforting banana pudding and an entrancing cardamom-laced nectarine ice cream sandwich--and left as captivated by the art we had tasted as that we had seen on the museum walls.
The best part of both dinners? Each restaurant gave us an evening to remember--not just an enjoyable meal or exceptional service or appealing surroundings, all memorable--but the space and leave to sit back and share with friends and family well loved and appreciated. What better gift to give this season?
The Apparatus Room
250 W. Larned, Detroit
Mon.-Sat. 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m.,
Sun. 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Regular dinner menu starters $8-$16, mid-course $17-$19, main courses $22-$38.
2520 Michigan Ave., Detroit
Mon.-Thurs. 5-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat.
5 p.m.-midnight, closed Sun.
Regular dinner menu snacks $6-$12, larger plates $10-$39.
MVegetarian and vegan items indicated on menu
[Originally published in December, 2018.]
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