Restaurant Of the Year 2012: Joe Muer Seafood

At dusk, the dining room sparkles with the panorama of the Detroit River. Pink light from the sunset bounces off glass buildings on the Windsor side, sending the rosy glow shimmering back across the water to Detroit. The red Caesars casino sign dominates the Windsor night skyline, as commercial boats slowly ply upriver toward Belle Isle.


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Inside, the room with the view has a hushed energy. The tinkle of silverware on dinner plates rises above the quiet movement of servers in white dinner jackets and red bow ties who de-bone fish and shell lobsters tableside, and deliver ceramic bowls of the famed stewed tomatoes, creamed spinach, and scalloped potatoes to diners.

The wait staff, who seem to outnumber the guests, move as if choreographed in and out of one another’s range, carrying plates quickly to tables, never colliding or even brushing against one another.

With the polite ceremony of a formal restaurant, a host leads a casually dressed couple and their two pre-teen children to a table where they take their seats.

“Is this where you used to come with your father when you were little, Daddy?” the girl asks as she settles into a cushioned seat.

“No,” the father answers somewhat wistfully, “that place is gone now, but it was something like this.”

“This” is the new Joe Muer Seafood, back in business 13 years after the old Joe Muer’s on Gratiot closed and now, also, Hour Detroit’s 2012 Restaurant of the Year.

This new version — with its full sushi bar and menu items that sound like the next Asian import — may not be the old-school Joe Muer, but it’s very good.

LEFT: Miguel Hernandez de-boning Dover sole. RIGHT: A server polishes a wine glass.

Don’t be surprised if, on occasion, you run into Joe Muer himself, who turns  76 this month and is still nattily dressed with his signature shaved head and bow tie. “I’ve got to tell you, this is absolute fun,” says Muer, who admits he had to be pried out of retirement to be a part of the new restaurant. “I am just enjoying it so much.”

The opening last September of the new Muer in the Renaissance Center space where Seldom Blues was housed is a story of redemption, rebirth, and hope — a big dollop of something good on what has been a long, tough, and often gloomy stretch of time for Detroit.

Not that things haven’t been improving. They have. Midtown, for example, has undergone the most significant revitalization inside the city in decades, with coffee shops, small restaurants, new living spaces, and the expansion around Wayne State University and the medical institutions. That optimism is also being felt downtown.

The return of Joe Muer’s is a dazzling new embodiment of that hope. It’s a place that straddles Detroit’s culinary past and future, with a menu that does much the same.

“The classical dishes will never go out of style,” Executive Chef Jim Oppat says. “Dover sole meunière will always be on the menu.” When the restaurant opened, Oppat says, “We knew that the first six weeks would be all customers nostalgic for the past, so we emphasized the traditional Joe Muer experience.”

There was also a realization, Oppat says, that much had changed since the ’90s, in addition to the fact that “people today expect a whole different style of seafood. It can’t be swimming in butter.

“And when you talk about Nantucket clams or oysters or sable from the Northwest, people get that. They travel much more, they watch the Food Channel, and they know what they’re eating.”

LEFT: Server Michael Yowell at work.  RIGHT: Crab Claws

Oppat has steered a course right down the middle of new and old and, fortunately, neither has run away with the menu. The food is admirably solid.

The old Muer restaurant was a Detroit touchstone, a place to which parents did indeed take their children, where marriages were proposed, golden-wedding anniversaries celebrated, business deals made, and even a few labor contracts settled.

“When our firm won a big case, Joe Muer’s was where we would go to celebrate,” says Leonard Niehoff, a former partner at the law firm Butzel Long who now teaches at the University of Michigan Law School.

Robust cities spawn historic eateries that become part of their culture. And most have at least one great fish restaurant. In New York, it’s Le Bernardin and the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. Philadelphia had Bookbinder’s until it closed in 2009. Chicago has Shaw’s Crab House. And in Boston, it’s still the Union Oyster House. All are must-visit stops, all deeply entrenched in the identity of those cities.

In The Detroit of the 1950s, Hudson’s was the place to shop and Joe Muer Seafood on Gratiot dominated the fish-restaurant trade. It was the best place for stuffed flounder.

But in 1998, Muer’s closed, another victim of hard times. Joe Muer Seafood was the last of the downtown high-end, expense-account dining places remaining from the 1920s and 1930s. By the time it closed, the London Chop House, Pontchartrain Wine Cellars, Jim’s Garage, and others that once fed the old Purple Gang guys, union bosses, judges, journalists, auto and ad executives, and generations of names that populated newspaper society pages, had also shuttered.

LEFT: The menu is a blend of old standbys and new additions. RIGHT: Serving a hungry dinner crowd.

It had been a good ride for the Muer family. Three generations had grown up with the restaurant that began with the original Joe Muer, Joseph F., who had a cigar factory at the Gratiot location where Swift Cigars were made.

The 1929 stock-market crash that precipitated the Great Depression wiped out the cigar business, so the elder Muer converted his place to a seven-table oyster shack.

As the years passed, oysters did very well and then so did other fish. The walls were blown out, the place expanded and, by the 1950s, Muer Seafood had become Detroit’s top fish emporium, renowned nationwide.

The grandfather passed the place to his son, Joe W., father of Joe III, whose younger brother, Chuck, branched out and started the Charley’s Crab brand. Charley’s Crab eventually grew to 20 restaurants in Grand Rapids, Palm Beach, and elsewhere in Florida and around the South.

By 1993, Chuck was sitting atop a fabulously successful business. That March, he set sail from the Bahamas to Florida in his 40-foot ketch named Charley’s Crab. On board were his wife, Betty, and another couple.

LEFT: Chef Oppat cooking on the line. RIGHT: The Raw Bar Platter: A selection of raw oysters on the half-shell, shrimp cocktail, king crab legs, split lobster tail, and fresh seafood ceviche.

Tragically, they didn’t know that they were heading into what became the storm of the century. They died in 30-foot waves. No traces of the boat or its occupants were ever found. A little bit of Detroit died with them.

“I miss him so much to this day,” Muer says. “We were very close. We did everything together.”

Joe Muer Seafood had done well through the decades, but as the city’s population declined in the 1970s and ’80s and the suburbs flourished, fewer and fewer people were coming back into Detroit or to Muer’s.

Muer soldiered on for the next several years, but the writing was on the wall, as they say.

Nearly 70 years after his grandfather opened the oyster house, Muer cast one last bitter, tearful eye at the place and closed the door.

“It was a wake, a long wake,” Muer says. “It was an extremely sad day.”

Muer decided to hang up his signature bow tie and kitchen apron in favor of a quiet life on the Lake Michigan shoreline, and retired.

Fast-forward about a dozen years.
Muer says he wasn’t looking for a new chapter, nor did he imagine a rebirth of his eponymous eatery. In fact, he had to be coaxed slowly into considering it. The idea came from Joe Vicari, president and CEO of Andiamo Restaurant Group, which already has a restaurant in the RenCen.

LEFT: A Whole tilefish. RIGHT: Cioppino alla Calabrese: Roasted red peppers (center), Lake Superior whitefish (bottom center), Atlantic skate wing (top right), Great Lakes perch fillets (center right), and George's Bank sea scallops.

Vicari clearly has a knack for picking winners, as his own restaurant group shows. After the demise of Seldom Blues, which had a brief fling as a restaurant and nightclub at that location, Vicari was approached by General Motors, which owns the Renaissance Center. They asked Vicari what kind of restaurant might work in that spot. Several well-known restaurants were considered. Then, “I said, ‘You know what might really work is a great fish house, like Joe Muer’s.’ And they said ‘Do you know him?’ ”

GM liked the idea. Vicari asked Muer what he thought.
“Joe laughed and said, ‘Hell no — I’m retired!’ ” Vicari remembers.

Vicari said he would handle the financing if Muer would agree to put his name to it and partner as a consultant on the style and the food. Slowly, he persuaded Muer to take a shot at another seafood restaurant.

The third ingredient to make it work, Vicari says, was a chef who could help bridge the explosion of change in American tastes that had occurred in the years since Muer had been out of the business. Sushi and chopsticks were barely on the horizon when Muer closed his doors.

The Key Was going to be incorporating the traditional Muer dishes with the expectations of today’s savvier restaurant-goers who like lighter, brighter, visually pleasing dishes — many with Asian influences.

“Today, people eat with the eyes,” Vicari says. The food has to have visual appeal.

They hired Ron Rea, who has designed some of the most elegant restaurants in Detroit, to visually straddle the old Muer’s and the new, and incorporate the fabulous river view. Seldom Blues was gutted, the kitchen redone, and the dining areas reoriented. Muer contributed several pieces that he’d stored away when the Gratiot restaurant closed, including old oil paintings, one of which depicts his grandfather chomping on a cigar that now dominates the entry.

LEFT: Executive Chef Jim Oppat with Joe Vicari. RIGHT: Dover sole a la meuiere, a holdover from the old days and still popular.  The sole is prepared with herbs de Provence, lemon, brown butter, and is filleted tableside.

The restaurant cost about $2 million, Vicari says.
About half the menu is nostalgia on a plate, a trigger to the past for Detroiters who remember the old place. Chef Oppat has had his work cut out for him, trying to incorporate the fondly remembered former menu while addressing changes in taste.

The familiar white-bean relish dish and smoked-fish spread arrive when you’re seated, as they always did. The menu also has several famous side dishes: stewed tomatoes, scalloped potatoes, and creamed spinach, but the cottage cheese and frog legs are gone.

The lobster bisque seems to me to have never left, and is very much as I remember it: a dense, orange-brownish color, with deep lobster-stock flavor, a creamy texture, a touch of sherry and lumps of lobster meat.

Old standbys, expertly cooked, include such appetizers as deviled-crab balls of blue-crab meat; oysters Rockefeller finished in Pernod; Shrimp Ilene (jumbos baked in toasted almond casino butter); and Muer
Sea Scallops, with cracker meal, lemon, butter, and sherry.

Main-plate classics include crab-stuffed flounder, sautéed whitefish in herbed parsley butter, a Dover sole meunière, and fried jumbo shrimp with hot sauce. Also: a whole Maine lobster, broiled or steamed; or a full-pound plate of Alaska king crab legs. Those are the classics of yesteryear.

The newer side of the menu is lighter and refreshing, and more innovative, frankly. It includes such dishes as blue crab-stuffed shrimp
with mascarpone crème, truffle essence, and a corn timbale; miso-glazed Atlantic salmon with enoki mushroom slaw and edamame succotash; and the surf-and-turf of sea scallops and braised short beef ribs, served with whipped potatoes and sautéed greens. For those inclined to fish stews, there’s cioppino alla Calabrese (fresh fish and shellfish in a sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, white wine, saffron, and bell peppers).

RIGHT: The Joe Muer Roll: Salmon, shrimp, avocado, cucumber, crab, kampyo, tuna, spicy mayo, and tempura crunch flakes.  RIGHT: Rasberry Point Oysters with Tabasco-horseradish granite.

The daily chalkboard of fresh fish varies with what’s available and meets the freshness test — assorted choices that can be prepared in any number of styles.

For non-seafood dishes, there are three meat choices and one poultry: a filet mignon with a zip sauce, a rack of lamb glazed in Dijon mustard, a rib-eye steak with a red wine and shallot demi-glace, and a roasted free-range chicken with roasted root vegetables.

The wine list is impressive and wide ranging, particularly for whites. There are few restaurants where you’ll find such gems as 2010 Domaine Ott Les Domaniers Rosé de Provence; Dagueneaux Pur Sang Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley, Branger Le Fils de Gras Moutons Muscadet, also from the Loire; 2009 Domaine Costal Chablis les Truffières — and each in a sensible price range.

The desserts are served from a multi-tiered sweets cart that’s rolled to the table — Old World style. Most offerings are classic standards: the big white coconut cake, the dense and lightly sweet chocolate torte, the graham-cracker crusted Key lime pie, various cheesecake concoctions, and ample other choices.

LEFT: A 1978 phot taken to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the restaurant.  From left: Chef Ernie Zeltwanger, Joe the third's Uncle Bill, brother Tom, and Joe the third. RIGHT: Another 1978 photo. Joe the third is in the center, flanked by his father (Joe W.) and their fish butcher.

There’s a progression from past to present in all aspects of Joe Muer Seafood — not just in the food. The atmospherics at Muer take their cue from the past, but also blend comfortably and authentically with the modern.

In so many American cities, the pattern has been that once an icon like Joe Muer Seafood disappears it becomes part of the past, and that’s it. So it says admirable and even remarkable things about the people willing to take a risk like this, and about the city, as well, when we see a figure of Muer’s stature return. The signs are good. They point up, instead of down.

Every big city needs a superb fish house. And in Detroit, we’ve got ours back. Joe Muer Seafood is a place to make everyone proud.

Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: editorial@hourdetroit.com.

400 Renaissance Center, Suite 1404, downtown Detroit; 313-567-6837, joemuerseafood.com. L Mon.-Fri., D daily.

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