MAC 'N' CHEESE
It’s not simply pasta, powdered cheese, and milk anymore. There are as many ways to make this classic comfort food as there are to make chili. Here are eight takes on a dish that can be a side or the main event
You’re at a restaurant in the mood for comfort food. You order macaroni and cheese. If it comes to the table looking like the neon-orange stuff you and your college roommate used to share, run. The rest of the meal isn’t destined for greatness.
That won’t happen, however, at any of the following eight restaurants, all of which offer exemplary treatments of macaroni and cheese. In the hands of their respective chefs, the favorite dish is truffled, herbed, gussied up with lobster, dressed down with cracker crumbs, multi-cheesed, heavy-creamed, and American styled. In each case, the results are perennially popular with patrons.
//PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE VAUGHN
Mac & Cheese
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge
20510 Livernois, Detroit; 313-345-6300
During its early years, the jazz club Baker’s Keyboard Lounge didn’t have a kitchen. It added one 15 years ago by taking away the performers’ dressing-room space, says chef Daniel Watts, who inherited the macaroni-and-cheese recipe when he arrived 12 years ago. He makes the traditionally sturdy soul-food version in large hotel pans, using cheddar and sharp American cheese with elbow macaroni, butter, and milk, using a cheese topping without breadcrumbs. Four of the big pans are made every day to satisfy the demand.
Mac & Cheese
Clarkston Union/Union Woodshop/Vinsetta Garage
Clarkston Union, 54 S. Main St., Clarkston; 248-620-6100
Union Woodshop, 18 S. Main St., Clarkston; 248-625-5660
Vinsetta Garage, 27799 Woodward, Berkley; 248-548-7711
The macaroni and cheese at the Clarkston Union and Union Woodshop restaurants on Clarkston’s Main Street in north Oakland County is so popular that one chef, Mark Lawrence, prepares it full time — with the help of a couple of assistants. “We call it the Mac Lab,” says co-proprietor Curt Catallo, who just opened the Vinsetta Garage in Berkley, where it’s also served. It’s still made from the original recipe that dates to the 1995 opening of the Clarkston Union, when then-chef Bill Fortin concocted the recipe and “hit it out of the park on the first pitch,” as Catallo remembers. He also recalls that it was unusual to find macaroni and cheese on a menu other than a diner at that time. The dish includes penne pasta in a sturdy béchamel sauce with sharp cheddar and mild Pinconning cheeses, giving it a nice balance and a crunchy top.
Mac & Four Cheese Gratin
1521 Broadway, Detroit; 313-963-0702
What may be a record number of cheeses — four — goes into the black skillets of mac and cheese at the new Small Plates Detroit near the Detroit Opera House and Comerica Park. They include Gouda, pepper Jack, white cheddar, and Parmesan, along with cavatelli shells, heavy cream, and breadcrumbs — all baked in the Wood Stone brand pizza oven. “In Detroit, you have to have a great mac and cheese,” says Small Plates General Manager Theo Oresky, who helped put together the menu with proprietor Todd Wenzel. “It’s part of our culture.”
Truffled Mac & Cheese
In the Westin Book Cadillac, 204 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-964-3821
Chef Christian Borden credits Thomas Jefferson for the version of macaroni and cheese served at 24grille downtown. “It’s a simple yet flavorful dish that we serve as a special entree with lobster or as a side dish with a spritz of Italian white-truffle oil,” he says. Borden notes that Jefferson’s adaptation called for the use of a tangy and bold American sharp white cheddar, muted by the use of butter and heavy cream. “We use a curled noodle, trottole (we affectionately call them dilly buttons), that has a curled edge through the middle that helps hold and trap the cream reduction inside the noodle. This ensures that every bite is creamy and flavorful,” Borden says. The mixture, which is baked in a cast-iron skillet, also includes a topping of panko breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and a sprinkling of parsley and chives.
Macaroni and Cheese
Beans & Cornbread
29508 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-208-1680
A very traditional, homestyle macaroni and cheese is what Beans & Cornbread dishes up from a recipe devised by its original chef, Willie Jackson, in 1997. There’s “no crunch, no frou-frou,” says proprietor Patrick Coleman. “It’s not designer mac and cheese.” Rather, it’s baked Southern style, and it’s the creamy variety, made with slices of American cheese, shredded cheddar, macaroni noodles, and just half-and-half, salt and pepper, and a mix of butter and margarine. It’s served in a mound via an ice cream scoop in a monkey dish and is the most popular side offering on the menu.
Lobster Mac & Cheese
Town Tavern/Roadside B&G
116 W. Fourth, Royal Oak; 248-544-7300
Roadside B&G, 1727 S. Telegraph, Bloomfield Township; 248-858-7270
You could describe Town Tavern Chef Patrick Roettele’s macaroni and cheese as elegant. With its luxurious ingredients, it doesn’t resemble the comfort food most of us recall from childhood. It includes lobster meat cut from the claw and knuckle, ditalini pasta, mascarpone, Pecorino Romano cheeses, shallots, garlic, a touch of chiles, and thyme — all wrapped in Mornay sauce. Topping the concoction is Ritz crackers, a little lemon zest, and pepper and sea salt.
It’s been a leading seller since the tavern opened in June 2007, and it’s also served at the Roadside B&G in Bloomfield Township, another in the Roberts Restaurant group.
Mac ’N’ Cheese
Slows Bar BQ
2138 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-9828
Slows To Go (Midtown), 4107 Cass, Detroit; 877-569-7246
When chef Brian Perrone and his partners at Slows Bar BQ in Corktown put together their opening menu in September 2005, Perrone says he already knew his version of macaroni and cheese was going to be a hit. He had been experimenting with variations of it since completing culinary school in Chicago five years earlier, often making it for backyard parties with friends. He was right; the dish, which he describes as “cheesy and creamy,” is one of the offerings that put Slows on the map. The preparation includes medium shells, cheddar cheese, salt and pepper, and a dash of cayenne, as well as spices he won’t enumerate. The dish is served in 8-ounce portions in a two-handled Welsh rarebit dish as a side, or in a 15-ounce portion as an entree.
House Specialty Mac & Cheese
2030 Park, Detroit; 313-961-2543
Even though he tweaked their recipe a bit, Cliff Bell’s chef Matthew Baldridge credits his grandmother and mother for the macaroni and cheese he put on the menu “on day one.” That was nearly four years ago, when the Art Deco gem put in a kitchen and added a menu to the music. It’s the macaroni and cheese he loved as a child, right down to the crushed Ritz crackers on top. Baldridge uses cheddar from Vermont, domestic Brie, and elbow macaroni with a dash of freshly ground nutmeg, black pepper, and sea salt. It’s served in the crock in which it’s baked and each one is made to order. Attesting to the popularity is this, he says: “We buy Ritz crackers by the pallet.”