Serving up some of his best
Published: October 20, 2010
As we've noted before, after sharing his meals with Metro Times readers off-and-on over three decades, Mel Small is folding up his napkin. But when we listened to WDET's Craig Fahle interview Mel on that subject the other day, we thought a) that we wanted to share some of that conversation with readers and b) that we might mosey back into our archives and excerpt from some of Mel's favorite reviews spanning the time from the early '80s to recent years.
Mel, a longtime professor of history at Wayne State University, told Craig — and you can read the full interview transcription online, or link back to the show at WDET.org — that for a "grizzled old retiree," he was looking forward to being done with deadlines in ending his food reviewing, and that he was worried that he might slip up and use a word that he'd avoided in all his reviews: "delicious." He reflected on the way the national media consider metro Detroit part of "flyover country" when it comes to things culinary. But even though we might lag behind hipper locales in adopting, say fish tacos or beet salad, Mel told Craig, "I think we have had a vibrant and especially diverse series of restaurants over the years — especially diverse in ethnic restaurants." He talked about fabled restaurants of yore — the immortal-in-some-memories London Chop House and such.
His reviews chart changes, culinary and more broadly social over these years. In the early years, 313 covered all of metro Detroit, yuppies were an invasive species and "tapas" had to be explained to readers. Of course, we suspect that, one way or another, Mel's off-and-on writing for us will be on again. Until then, we have this sampler:
"A Grand European Experience," Oct. 14, 1982; Royal Eagle, 1415 Parker St., Detroit; Now gone.
Open the door of the Royal Eagle, on the ground floor of the Parkstone Apartments in Indian Village, and you are in the spacious dining room of a Central European hotel of the late '30s that is sliding most gracefully from the deluxe to the first-class category. Thick carpets, heavy armoires, ornate chandeliers and walls crammed with large pieces of art overwhelm the senses. Could that be Helmut Dantine conspiring with Akim Tamiroff over in the far corner? If the Royal Eagle didn't serve food, the room alone would be worth the trip. But chef-owner Daniel Kozak does serve food — Polish haute cuisine, which is to kielbasa as Peking Duck is to chow mein.
"You Don't Have to be a Polish Yachtsman ..." Feb. 3, 1983; Ivanhoe Café, 5249 Joseph Campau; 313-925-5335; Still going strong.
You don't need to own a boat or even pay a membership fee to eat and drink well at the Polish Yacht Club, less widely known by its proper name, the Ivanhoe Café. In fact, proprietor Agnes Senkiewicz frowns upon her patrons trying to approach by sea, since the PYC is several miles from the nearest body of water. It is difficult enough to approach by land, as it stands virtually incognito in a residential part of Poletown that escaped the wrecker's ball. ... Just about everyone comes in for the fabled perch dinners that are served for lunch on Wednesday through Friday and for dinner on Friday night.
"West Meets East," July 18, 1986; West-East, Ethnic Restaurant (WE), Pontiac; Now gone.
After putting together $200 worth of food stamps as capital in 1977, Vietnamese refugee Nguyen Huy Han opened his West-East Ethnic Restaurant, or WE, in a former A&W root beer stand in downtown Pontiac. Since then, the former lawyer, economist and self-proclaimed honest tax minister in the South Vietnamese government has presided over one of the most unusual restaurants in the region. Along the way, he has turned out the best Vietnamese food this side of the Detroit River. ...
WE is not just an acronym; it reflects the fact that the tiny restaurant is a co-op as well. More than 7,000 registered customers receive rebates on their yearly accounts, the amount varying with the restaurant's profit margins. Han, who is writing a book about his unique brand of Christian humanism, sees his restaurant as belonging to the community that greeted him so warmly when he came to the States in 1975.
"Salud!" Oct. 21 1987; the Bagley Café, 3354 Bagley Ave., Detroit; not to be confused with today's Bagley Grille.
The Bagley Café has reopened! For those who enjoyed the homey storefront's spicy Turskish fare and rock-bottom prices, this is good news indeed.
Everything seems the same — the handsome framed posters, the large window providing views of bustling Bagley in Mexicantown, the high ceiling, even most of the staff. But the Bagley Café is now a Spanish restaurant, Detroit's only one at that. It's a complicated story, so don't ask why that happened. ...
Alas, the yuppies will soon discover the Bagley Café, since it features tapas, one of the staples of New York and Los Angeles yuppiedom. Tapas are little plates of appetizers, which, when ordered in sufficient number, often take the place of an entire meal.
"The Roar of the Hot Dogs, the Smell of the Crowd," May 11, 1988; Tiger Stadium, Michigan at Trumbull; not to be confused with today's Comerica Park.
This is the problem with any attempt to evaluate the quality of the food at Tiger Stadium. Everything tastes just a little different inside its homey confines. Leaving aside the unmatched ambience, what can one say about the variety of edibles offered by the Bismarck Corporation, purveyor of tons of fast food to Tiger fans for the past five years?
First, one should begin the nibbling with peanuts bought from one of the vendors outside the stadium. Their little brown bags (usually from Rocky's in the Eastern Market) contain three times as many peanuts as the plastic-wrapped Kars version sold for the same $1 inside. ...
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