Cruisin' for Cuisine in Detroit

No, the Motor City isn’t all cars and casinos. Not with Michael Symon’s new restaurant, Roast, in the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. It alone is what has drawn me to Detroit. I want to find out if the place embodies the Iron Chef’s signature flair.

Symon’s distinctive mix of fine and fun is immediately apparent. It shows up in the hip elegance of the décor; a wait staff dressed in vests, ties and jeans; the carnivore-centric menu and a rotisserie positioned so that diners can see and smell what happens when beast meets fire.

I eat slices of spit-roasted suckling pig topped with golden brown cracklings —crunchy bits of pork fat — while watching the next day’s porker do flips over hot coals. The sights and smells are inspiring.

My meal lasts a leisurely two hours as my husband and I make our way through courses that include bacon and pickled tomatoes atop melting halloumi cheese, smoked duck cassoulet, spinach and feta au gratin, rosemary fries and warm pineapple crisp with mango sorbet.

After all that, we’re glad our room is only an elevator ride away. But first we wander around the hotel, a gem from the 1920s, to admire the just-completed renovations. The Venetian Garden and a pair of ballrooms retain their original architectural opulence, but other spaces are pure 21st century posh. Our suite is outfitted with two 42-inch plasma screen TVs and a bed so comfortable I am tempted to spend our days as wells as nights in it.

But since Symon was the primary reason for this expedition, it seems only right to check out a couple of his favorite downtown haunts. Cliff Bell’s is his watering hole of choice. The classy jazz club, originally opened in 1935, oozes history and atmosphere. After being boarded up for two decades, the building’s owners and three entrepreneurs restored the place to its glory days, reopening in 2006. I feel Hollywood-glamorous sipping cognac by candlelight at a stageside table amid gorgeous Art Deco surroundings.

And when Symon is hungry for somebody else’s cooking, he heads to Slows Bar B-Q. So I do the same. Entering, I am immediately seduced by the aroma of smoked meat. The place is packed, and no wonder — the half ’n’ half platter delivers hearty portions of tender, dry-rubbed chicken and ribs infused with the flavor of slow-burning apple and hickory woods.

There are five bottles of different house-made barbecue sauces on every table, so I splash my Texas-style brisket with the bold and spicy version. The hot corn bread, split pea and okra fritters and mac ’n’ cheese are also not to be missed.

Our server tells us Symon’s drink here is Leelanau Whaleback White, an oak-aged lemony lager with an intriguing note of coriander.

Saturday morning is reserved for exploring Eastern Market, 43 acres of cavernous sheds, outdoor arcades and turn-of-the-century warehouses filled with produce-sellers, meat markets, spice vendors and bakery stands. Wholesale buyers and food shoppers have been coming here since 1891, and the area has both old-time character and a gritty urban ambience.

Anyone who likes to set a special table should stop by Pewabic Pottery, another local landmark on my itinerary. Arts and Crafts-style vases, vessels and tiles created by Mary Stratton, a pioneering ceramicist and businesswoman, are displayed in the tiny museum. She’s renowned for her innovative, iridescent glazes. Though her pieces colored in lustrous shades of blue-gold, rose, copper-red and jade look astonishingly contemporary, the museum was actually designed and built by her husband in 1907 and served as both her home and studio. You can tour the production facility that still operates here. Reproductions are sold in the museum’s shop, along with pieces by contemporary ceramicists.

Goldfish Tea in the suburb of Royal Oak is another great find. The cafe sells Buddha’s Eyebrow, Sparrows Tongue, Honey Phoenix and other unusual teas by the pot or the ounce, plus tea accessories. Everything, even the carved wood and rattan furnishings, are imported from China. Tea tastings led by owners Jim and Janice Girling help you find your favorites from among the long list of choices. The couple uses traditional techniques to extract full flavor from the white, green and black leaves for an experience far different from my own home-brewed cup.

I can’t leave without Sunday brunch at Detroit’s Breakfast House and Grill. As cool and stylish as it is as a nightspot, it’sthe place for morning eats, greets and grits. After fueling up on fried chicken and waffles, I’m ready to hit the highway.

If You Go: Roast, 1128 Washington Blvd.;; Cliff Bell’s, 2030 Park Ave.;; Slows Bar B-Q, 2138 Michigan Ave.;; Eastern Market, 2934 Russell St.;; Pewabic Potter, 10125 E. Jefferson Ave.;; Goldfish Tea, 117 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak, Mich.;; Detroit’s Breakfast House and Grill, 1241 Woodward Ave.;

Pit Stops:
Touché is the new wine and martini lounge at Chez Francois, the acclaimed French restaurant on the river. Stop on the way home for a sip or two. 555 Main St., Vermilion, Ohio;

Tony Packo’s Café has the atmosphere and fare for a perfect midtrip chow-down. Try one of its signature Hungarian hot dogs. The humble local landmark attracts celebrities, and the walls are covered with autographed buns encased in plastic boxes. 1902 Front St., Toledo, Ohio;

MexicanTown Bakery is a must for anyone looking to make their own molé — and an even greater place if you’re craving churros. The panaderia and market in this Hispanic enclave features a mouth-watering selection of traditional pastries and hard-to-find spices. 4300 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit, Mich.; (313) 554-0001
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