Restaurant of the Year 2011: Iridescence
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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.