Restaurant of the Year 2013: Tre Monti
A tucked away northern Italian outpost keeps special-occasion white-linen dining alive.
In an increasingly casual world, there are still keepers of tradition and the high standards of fine dining. And few do it better than Tre Monti, the restaurant occupying the striking, sand-colored brick-and-stone building with the look of a European country estate, tucked away behind the more flamboyant, castle-like San Marino Club in Troy.
The club launched Tre Monti in 2008, lavishly investing some $4 million in the hopes of creating a signature destination restaurant. At first, it was designed to offer the cuisine of tiny San Marino, the sliver of a republic nestled amid the mountains of north-central Italy. Today, just one dish from that cuisine, lasagna verdi al forno — a 15-layer creation of fresh spinach pasta, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Bolognese sauce — remains on a bill of fare that’s become classically northern Italian.
The high-ceilinged dining room and adjoining cocktail lounge — where there’s a cocktail hour, not a happy hour, from 5 to 7 Tuesday through Friday — offers white-linen–swathed tables and impeccable table appointments, including white English china and large linen napkins, with nothing extraneous on the table, not even salt and pepper, save for a small matching china vase of fresh flowers. Salt, when requested, is brought to the table in three sea-salt variations — pure flakes, smoked, and roasted garlic — each sprinkled from a tiny salt spoon by the waiter, who also deftly wields a pepper mill.
The handsome setting is augmented by ensemble service from a well-dressed staff in dark business suits. Even the waiters’ assistants sport dress shirts and ties as they go about their business in the burgundy-carpeted dining room and the bar with its striking rust, black, and white marble tile floor.
The indirect light level is the kind that not just women of a certain age appreciate. It casts a soft glow over the room, where two fireplaces, one set off by a framed San Marino crest and the other against a wall gleaming with gold leaf, add baronial touches that include colorful brocade and sheer panels drifting from the ceiling.
Some will be surprised that the décor is by Ron Rea, better known for some less formal settings.
The Tre Monti dining experience is orchestrated by operating partner Zharko Palushaj, a Montenegro native who studied culinary arts in Europe before jumping the pond. Prior to coming to Michigan, Palushaj furthered his education at an Italian restaurant in Yonkers, N.Y., under the tutelage of chef Giuseppe Pretarelli. In 2000, he opened his own restaurant, Mezzaluna, in Sterling Heights, but closed it soon after because of lease difficulties. In 2009, Palushaj brought his recipes and much of his well-trained staff to Troy.
That’s when Tre Monti began its ascent in earnest, and today, it culminates in the coveted Hour Detroit Restaurant of the Year award.
With the exception of one American-born waiter, Mario Martinez, the wait staff is all of European heritage — each with an impressive résumé. Two were on the staff at the romantic Italian eatery Il Posto (itself our 2006 Restaurant of the Year), and another was lured from the Townsend Hotel’s Rugby Grille. All are full-time employees, as are the rest of Tre Monti’s 16 front of the house staffers, which has a significant impact, as none of them have to arrive late from another job or dash off to work a shift elsewhere.
They are professionals who serve correctly, but not pretentiously, and in ensemble fashion. Plates are not brought from the kitchen until everyone at the table can be served at once. Nor do they use clattery trays. When the plates are ready, as many waiters as necessary pitch in to carry the plates so that each dish arrives at the table at the same time. (A minute detail, perhaps, but an important one.) Think about how uncomfortable it can be when one diner must wait while the others at the table have already been served.
Another crucial element that distinguishes Tre Monti is that its diners are never rushed. Palushaj says that when a party is seated, the table is theirs for as long as they wish to stay. And on the occasions when I’ve dined there, it’s been obvious that people take him at his word, lingering at their tables with coffee and dessert. One afternoon, a lunch group barely relinquished its table in time for the cocktail crowd to arrive.
That kind of comfortable ambience is hard to achieve. Perhaps Tre Monti’s location is one reason why the atmosphere is so serene. Although on a major thoroughfare, Tre Monti is set far enough back from the road that the casual passerby might not even glimpse it.
Although the lunch menu is simpler than the dinner selection, it’s possible to get the full Tre Monti experience at midday. There’s more emphasis on pasta dishes and salads, such as a red-and-golden-beet and goat-cheese combination, and an unusual take on the Caesar served in a lacy Parmesan basket with tomatoes and smoked prosciutto.
Still, under the direction of chef Marc Casadei, who was recently promoted from sous-chef, dinner is where the kitchen shines. Regulars sometimes like to start with an appetizer that’s not on the menu (but it is always available). It’s a deep bowl of melted Beemster cheese, a Holland cheese made once a year from the milk of cows after the first week of grazing on the fresh spring grass. The cheese is dappled with truffle oil and honey, and served with small rounds of bread toasted with olive oil; it’s a fondue-like treat that’s meant to be shared.
Other interesting antipasti include breaded jumbo shrimp in a white wine, garlic, and lemon cream sauce; and carpaccio made with beef tenderloin, served with a poached quail egg and a scattering of spicy micro arugula and porcini mushrooms. The beef tenderloin is certified Wagyu naturally raised beef, dry-aged for 55 days, as are the two steaks on the list of second courses, char-grilled filet mignon in a wine reduction, and bone-in New York sirloin encrusted in smoked pepper.
All the main dishes are completely garnished, and each comes with different accompaniments. “I hate seeing all the plates look the same,” says Palushaj. The filet is served with trimmings of Gorgonzola, spaghetti squash, and roasted garlic, while the New York steak’s accompaniments are truffled potatoes au gratin, grilled baby carrots, and zip sauce. Each is $55, the top of the price scale here.
Given the quality of the ingredients, the price structure at Tre Monti is remarkably moderate, with a beautiful dish — chicken of all things — at the lower end of the scale at $23. It’s an organic chicken breast filled with spinach, cheese, smoked prosciutto, and wild mushrooms, with a splash of Marsala and porcini butter.
Pastas, all on the primi piatti (first plate) list, are served in reasonable portions, not in overflowing platter style. Especially appealing is the strozzapreti Emiliana, diminutive pasta twists in a creamy Bolognese sauce served in one of the deep pasta bowls that characterize the Tre Monti approach. This and the other primi piatti dishes are also available in larger entrée portions.
Second plates always include a fresh fish, a veal, and a beef dish, as well as Tre Monti’s 11 standard dishes. Some of the favorites, Palushaj says, include whole baked sea bass and a sturdy char-grilled veal chop in a sauce of Madeira, mustard, and demi-glace.
Wine service echoes the style of the food service. Wines are poured at the tables through an aerator into a handsome glass decanter. The extensive list includes a preponderance of Italian and American reds, as well as a few from Spain.
Tre Monti’s dessert list is accompanied by a number of coffee and espresso variations, French press coffees and teas, and dessert wines, as well as a delightful twist on the tiramisu theme. Berrymisu, in the restaurant’s vernacular, teams ladyfingers with fresh raspberries, a robust red berry Rooibos tea, Chambord, and mascarpone cheese. There’s also traditional tiramisu with espresso, Sambuca, and cocoa, along with Zabaglione, the warm Marsala custard made tableside. Gelato Balsamico, a concoction of honey vanilla gelato, fresh berries, and 12- year-old balsamic vinegar, is a rare treat for the most sophisticated of palates.
With its soothing atmosphere, finely prepared fare, and admirable service, Tre Monti is a hideaway that deserves to be discovered.
Tre Monti, 1625 E. Big Beaver Road, Troy; 248-680-1100; tremontitroy.com. L Tue.-Fri., D Tue.-Sun. Closed Mon.