Restaurant of the Year 2011: Iridescence


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Detroit’s skyline stands testament to shifts of power and culture across the decades.

Buildings standing shoulder to shoulder — from the stunning 1920s Guardian to the ’70s-era Renaissance Center that was envisioned as a symbol of hoped-for rebirth — illustrate the city’s life cycle.

Today, downtown’s architectural huddle includes casinos, like it or not. And nothing dominates the skyline quite like the MotorCity Casino Hotel.

From whichever angle you approach downtown, MotorCity Casino Hotel stands in all its LED-illuminated glory, looking like a giant toaster with its name glowing across the top in a retro automotive-style script.

At night, up near the purple arch at the top, massive 40-foot-high windows provide a view of the high-rise beauties that came before it. Inside is one of the most posh dining rooms in town and Hour Detroit’s choice for its 2011 Restaurant of the Year.


 

 Iridescence is a sassy, white-linen restaurant with a style and flair all its own. The menu is heavily flavored with French and Asian cooking styles that emerge from a kitchen run by a 30-year-old chef whose culinary mentor was one of metro Detroit’s greats.

Perched like a crown atop the casino’s 16-floor hotel, the two-tiered dining room is flanked by massive Dale Chihuly-like glass panels that rise the full height of the interior and frame the open kitchen.

Suspended from the ceiling are glass globes of assorted sizes that seem to float bubble-like, lending a momentary sensation of being inside a glass of champagne.

The dining room’s top-tier tables face the twinkling panorama of Detroit’s night sky, while velvet half-moon-shaped banquettes and well-spaced four-seat tables with high-back padded chairs create an intimate setting on the lower level.

 

Interestingly, the hotel and the casino are in separate buildings, a blessing for anyone not into gambling, the jangle of slot machines, or cigarette smoke (smoking is legal on casino floors).

Combine the exceptional food with the setting, refined table service, and well-priced wine list, and the result is an unusual and enjoyable dining experience. According to chef Derik Watson, Iridescence has become a very popular place for proposing marriage. “At least six times a year, I’m asked to put a ring in a cake,” he says. “And those are just the ones we know about.”

Across our several visits in the last 18 months, Watson’s menu and cooking have evolved and become more focused. “In the beginning, we were trying to figure out what we were,” Watson says. “We wanted fine dining, but we also needed to fill chairs. That meant making the food approachable. … We do better selling chicken than squab.

“What we do on the menu is to try to elevate the familiar, taking dishes people know and adding new, different twists.” A chicken potpie, for example, is enhanced with truffle oil.


 

A major factor in the quality and style of the food is a connection to the former Tribute restaurant in Farmington Hills. Both Watson and Iridescence Executive Chef Don Yamauchi, who oversees all food at MotorCity Casino Hotel, once cooked there.

Tribute’s influence on many area chefs is hard to overstate. Many chefs now running top metro Detroit kitchens learned their trade at Tribute under creator and culinary master Takashi Yagihashi. For more than a decade, Tribute was one of Detroit’s two paramount restaurants. Yagihashi today owns one of Chicago’s top restaurants, which bears his first name.

“I was working at Rugby Grille [in Birmingham], and one day, Takashi gave me a call,” Watson says. “There was an opening for a sous-chef but, needless to say, at 20 years old I was way underqualified.” But he offered Watson a lesser spot and Watson stayed at Tribute for just under four years.


Above: Chef de Cuisine Derik Watson at work.

When Yagihashi left Tribute, Yamauchi, a rising star in the Chicago restaurant scene, was brought in to replace him. Watson became his sous-chef. Later, Yagihashi hired Watson again as his sous-chef in Chicago. From there, Watson went to Iridescence.

The kitchen at Iridescence sits like a high altar at the rear of the restaurant’s top level. It’s fronted by a large pass-through and workstation that looks out and down onto the dining room.

A distraction to this set-up is that the venting is not always strong enough to keep grilling smells from wafting over to nearby tables. On some visits, when seated farther from the kitchen, there was no such problem.

Watson takes a seasonal approach to his menu, which includes a three-course, fixed-price listing or a more extravagant five-course chef’s tasting. On our most recent visit, the chef’s tasting was impressive. The first course was a delicate, sweet sashimi of yellowtail hiramasa with watercress, daikon, ginger, cilantro, and sweet onion. The balance created between the sweetness and acidity of shredded vegetables and vinaigrette was perfection.

 
Above left: Chef Derik Watson and Executive Chef Don Yamauchi consult.

The second course, a fresh Hudson Valley foie gras, came with a vanilla-poached quince, huckleberry, beet-root purée, and the requisite toasted brioche. The combination of sweet fruit and foie gras mimics the French tradition of serving sweet sauterne wine with foie gras.

Next came a shepherd’s pie in which all the right parts were there: lamb, beef short-rib meat, spinach, and mashed potatoes, all laid out side by side on the plate, as a modern reconstruction of the classic.

The fourth course, a cheese assortment, was far more than that. It included several little cheese-based assemblies, a Roquefort panna cotta with pine nuts, a brie grilled cheese, walnut-raisin bread with a raspberry compote, and, finally, a salute to the French-Spanish border — petite Basque cheese with chorizo.


 

The fifth (dessert) course was one of Pastry Chef Patricia Nash’s creations — among the best anywhere: a moist, luscious pumpkin bread with cinnamon cream, enough by itself. But, surprise, it also comes with a vanilla ice cream “snicker doodle” sandwich. Enough to send you running to Grandma’s bosom.

I cannot say enough about both the flavor and artistry of Nash’s desserts. She’s nearly unmatched among pastry chefs in the metro Detroit restaurant scene. There’s a deftness to Nash’s work that’s marked by restraint in sweetness and a lightness where you might otherwise expect clunk.


Above: Pastry Chef Patricia Nash creating one of her delectable desserts.

In an earlier visit, Nash’s artistry showed in a dessert called the Peanut Butter Bar, a construction of shapes from rounds to rectangles with two columns of caramelized banana rounds stacked three high with a pool of brown caramel sauce on one side and a peanut-butter mousse. Rich, thick, gooey even, but not at all cloying.

One of the signatures, intentional or not, of Iridescence’s dishes appears in the combination-plate servings, which are reminiscent of Tribute and Yagihashi. They can be positively original. One such combo features two versions of foie gras. The first was referred to as a “Reuben,” a half-dollar size bun bearing a piece of pan-seared foie gras with micro greens, some white truffle, and a creamy sauce. The second, “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” had red-fruit preserve and a slice of foie gras “torchon” (pâté, essentially), sprinkled with granular, dehydrated peanut butter.

The hands-down favorite dish across all the visits was one that accompanied a piece of chicken. Served in a little cast-iron kettle, it’s called “lobster mac and cheese” with chunks of fresh lobster blended with a velvety creamed macaroni and a béchamel made with lobster stock, boursin cheese, and Parmesan. It was divine.

The wine list at Iridescence is also worth noting, mostly for reasonable pricing and a large assortment of many North American wines. On the way into the restaurant, check out the amazing wine cellar, a glass-fronted box that rises up into the tall room and uses a series of chain belts with slots for wine bottles, conveying them up and down 40 feet at the press of a button.

  

 

It may seem odd that one of the best restaurants in the city would be in a casino. But historically, that’s not unusual at all. The connection between casinos and top-end restaurants is a rich and long story that dates to the mid-1800s and the emergence of the most famous casino at Monte Carlo in the Principality of Monaco.

In her history of the French Riviera, Cote d’Azur: Inventing the French Riviera (Thames & Hudson, 1992), Mary Blume tells the story of a then-threadbare and impoverished Grimaldi family, an aristocracy whose fortunes later flowed from gambling. The Grimaldis produced princes and princesses and one of the great royal weddings of the last century when Prince Rainier married American actress Grace Kelly in 1956.

In the 1800s, however, Monaco was a hot and barren rock face with nothing to recommend it, except its port, until the arrival of a brilliant French entrepreneur named Francois Blanc. Blanc saw it as a diamond from which he would shape a glittering palace by the sea that would bring aristocratic gamblers and thrill-seekers from around Europe.

Blanc’s success was to persuade the neighboring French government to run a railroad to the rock face from the nearby city of Cannes. Blanc built Monte Carlo’s casino, and gambling succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. But Blanc also understood that those who lost at his tables, in particular, needed to be soothed and thanked for leaving their fortunes behind. To salve their wounds, he offered them a luxurious fine meal, and a beautiful room for the night, and occasionally a beautiful courtesan, as they were politely called. To Blanc, this was just good business.

Blanc’s theory has remained at the heart of the casino industry and explains in part Iridescence’s being — minus the courtesans.

 

It’s no secret that many of those eating at Iridescence don’t pay or at least get a big discount. And the first question asked by the hostess on arrival is if you have complimentary chits for dinner. In 1997, I went to Las Vegas seeking to answer why so many big-name chefs from all over this country were leaving their restaurants and moving to Vegas casinos.

Among them, Yagihashi of Tribute, Wolfgang Puck, and the only two-star Michelin French chef in this country at the time, Jean-Louis Palladin, who closed his famed Jean Louis in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., and moved to the Rio. Arnauld Briand, chef at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, told me a story that summed up why fine-dining restaurants are so important to casinos.

Some years earlier, Caesars had opened The Empress Court, a high-end Chinese restaurant, and staffed it by importing Hong Kong’s finest chef and his kitchen staff. One afternoon, when lunch was over and the kitchen had paused, a man walked in the restaurant and requested sweet-and-sour pork. The manager informed him that, no, they did not offer that dish, but agreed to ask the chef. The chef refused to make it. The man left, got into a limousine, and went to the Golden Nugget, where he spent the next several hours losing $7 million — and presumably got his sweet-and-sour pork.

Heads rolled at the Empress Court, according to Briand. Fine-dining restaurants don’t exist in casinos to make money, he said, they exist to make sure that someone about to deposit $7 million stays in your place, and also to thank those who do so.

When we think about the impact of economic tough times on restaurants and how hard it is for a top-end restaurant to survive without some sort of other financial underpinning, it seems right to give a nod to Louis Blanc and his foresight and to MotorCity Casino for keeping Iridescence going.

Cook is chief restaurant critic for Hour Detroit. Send letters to Editorial@hourdetroit.com.

Iridescence; 2901 Grand River, Detroit; 313-237-6732. D Tue.-Sun.

 

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