Every so often along comes something so eye-catching, so fresh, and so new that it spins an entire industry off its perch and sends it in another direction.
In the 1950s and ’60s, GM designers Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell did just that by putting tailfins on the Cadillac Coupe de Ville, drawing the first muscular Corvette Stingray, and designing sleek elegance into the Buick Riviera. Everybody took notice, and those designs forged a new and enduring change throughout the auto industry.
Today, perhaps on a much smaller scale, the gears are changing in Detroit’s restaurant scene. A similar kind of radical thinking is going on about what’s coming out from ovens, stovetops, and pans at a small number of restaurants where young chefs are taking fine dining to a stratospheric level and off to new horizons.
It is there that we find our Restaurant Of The Year selection for 2015: Torino, a little gem in Ferndale, the masterpiece of chef Garrett Lipar, a 27-year-old culinary genius who creates a sublime dining heaven at a level rarely — maybe never — seen before around Detroit.
Lipar and Torino’s owner, Noah Dorfman, have brought something truly unique to the city’s fine dining scene, blending traditional dining concepts with totally topsy-turvy ideas that thumb their nose at old formalities.
For one thing, Torino is open only four days a week, Wednesday to Saturday.
Second, there are only nine tables and a total of 24 seats, plus 12 at the bar.
Third, they don’t “turn the tables over.” Once you book a table you also pick when you want to arrive. The table is yours for the evening. Just give them a little notice of when.
“We don’t want people to feel rushed,” says Lipar. “They come when they want and can pace themselves. Stay as long as they want.”
Fourth, no decisions. You eat what Lipar has prepared that day. (However, vegetarian and dietary restrictions can be honored with 48-hour notice.)
The meal itself is a continuing string of 10 or 12 (or more) small, intensely intricate bite-size items, spaced a few minutes apart, but organized as a traditional evening of appetizer, salad and soup, main course, and dessert. Except that there are sometimes three to five items per course, depending on the day.
Personal Attention, Chef-Delivered Dishes
Pretty much everything served is directly farm to table at Torino, the culmination of days and weeks of care that Lipar has put into personal relationships evolved with those who supply everything that he cooks.
The pork, chicken, lamb, or beef have likely been inspected by Lipar or his staff when it was a live animal, and certainly when it is delivered whole to the restaurant, where they butcher, prepare, cook, or package it into cuts and portions.
On some of the days that Torino is closed, Lipar is off wandering the Michigan countryside, foraging for wild greens and aromatic herbs that will be used either fresh or preserved — and later supplement his dishes. Or he is visiting purveyors on farms and in their fields in search of how to make products even better.
“I love the wild herbs that you can cook with,” Lipar said in January. “The sweet woodruff is in right now. We’ve been using a lot of birch bark flowers, those pithy flowers in the layer between the bark and tree. We’re seeing wild mustard greens, wintergreens, and moss. At other times of the year, it’s assorted wood mushrooms.
“I want my staff to have the same appreciation; if you only see the food going off the stove and out through the window, you miss so much,” Lipar says.
So Lipar expects his cooks — not the servers — to deliver the dishes they’ve prepared in person to the customer.
“Only then, as a chef, can you truly realize fully what you are doing,” Lipar says. “When you see the beginning of that cycle out in the fields, and you cook it, and then you see people smiling at the tables, you get both ends of the scale. I think that’s very important.”
Lipar brings a freshness, intensity, and reconnection to fine dining — and a serious examination to what a restaurant is and does.
Bringing ‘Tastings’ to Detroit
Lipar is from Waterford Township, but worked in top restaurants in New York, Chicago, and Sweden before returning to Detroit.
He started cooking at 14 and also worked as a dishwasher in a nursing home. He then moved to Arizona and went to Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
His résumé includes an internship at Public, a New York restaurant, followed by jobs at Alinea and Boka in Chicago, which in turn led to a position at Frantzén, one of the top restaurants in Stockholm, Sweden.
He returned stateside three years ago and became Torino’s first chef after connecting with Dorfman, who is in the real estate investment business.
Torino’s menu is far away from anything traditional. It is a nightly tasting menu — all guests get the same dishes.
“No other choices here,” Lipar explained one recent night. “You get whatever I create today.”
Tasting menus have been in existence for a while, but very few restaurants serve them exclusively (it’s more often seen as an option alongside a regular menu). But offering a full service menu would make it very difficult to produce the intense and varied level of dishes served at Torino.
Interestingly, Lipar says he decided to do a tasting menu rather than the standard-style menu because Torino’s kitchen is so small, about the size of a closet plus a couple of extra feet. “The space is so confined that we ended up not having any option,” he says.
But the upside is that a tasting menu also allows Lipar to plan well in advance, and it provides time needed to spend on the intricacies of making certain dishes. It also takes out of the picture that unending raft of orders a traditional menu forces restaurants to handle.
The shift toward tasting menus began in Europe and arrived in this country about a decade ago. It is an outgrowth of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement in the 1980s and ’90s that popularized multiple smaller, more intensely flavored courses.
It was enamored also of the French amuse-gueule, tiny hors d’oeuvres used for pre-dinner and cocktail gatherings, and adapted that concept as the central theme of a new dining style: a flow of tastings rather than courses.
The Opening Curtain
On a recent visit, we were seated at 6 in the evening for a two-and-a-half-hour walk through the food equivalent of a lush botanical garden. We lost count of the number of courses served plate by plate (was it around nine or 10? We estimated later there must have been about 15).
The evening began with an “appetizer course” of four small plates, accompanied by a glass of dry, crisp, pink sparkling wine, a Spanish cava.
The first plate was a tissue-thin, crisped, and translucent sliver of dried cod, looking like an irregular potato crisp. It arrived astride a dense dab of house-made “ketchup” (a fresh tomato-honey sauce) accompanied by tiny baby red ribbon sorrel leaves that looked like some sort of variation of watercress. The combination was a refreshing blend of salt and sharp greenish flavors sweetened up and balanced by the sauce.
The second plate held a pair of carrot meringue “cookies.” Each was the size of half dollar, and cooked extra slowly at low temperature to remove moisture and make an airy shell. A chicken liver parfait filling was spread between the layers. The shells were topped with spicy crushed black cardamom seed. The effect was rich spiciness and a little wintry heft.
Third was a cube of dried wild forest moss. “We gather it by hand in a forest, and it takes roughly 10 to 12 hours to process because it has to be washed about 100 times and picked through with tweezers to get the rest of the debris,” Lipar says. “Then we cook it several times and serve it with a jelly we make out of wild ramps.” It is also topped with a slice of house foie gras.
Fourth was a single braised Brussels sprout cooked in duck fat and then grilled, topped with a variation on hollandaise sauce and sprinkled with shavings of black truffles.
And those four single items were just the first course; the mains and desserts were still to come.
The Main Events
First up in main courses were ember roast onions that had been cooking gently overnight in a small Japanese charcoal oven. Sweet and delicate, and with light char marks, the onions were soft and a little tangy, and translucent to the consistency of a pearled glass. They were served with a pour of Bret Brothers Saint-Véran.
Next came a miniature “bone marrow parsnip” — a parsnip sliced down the middle and cooked sous vide in chicken stock and milk, to the point of softness. Its center was given a narrow hollowed track from top to bottom, much like the trough of a bone when split open, and filled with a “marrow” made with white truffles from Alba pureed with garlic and shallot and an aromatic jelly. It was topped with fine sea salt. (Alba truffles cost about $1,600 a pound.)
Then came Torino’s marvelous 100-day rib-eye: a small slice of beef crusted and blackened, followed by a wholly imaginative “cheese” course of crumbled cheese frozen by nitrogen and sprinkled on top of pureed parsley.
Desserts included a dense birch bark flour “quick bread” (served on actual birch bark) with a decadently sweet maple syrup-cured egg dip and a slices from a whole cooked Meyer lemon stuffed with a frozen custard/Brazil nut filling.
An Emotional Experience
“The experience is what’s so different,” Lipar says. “Most people dine to fill themselves. Here, there is an emotional experience in the sense of excitement.”
Lipar likens eating at Torino to going to a sporting event and not knowing what will happen or who will win.
“It’s exciting,” he says. “Some people [might be] a bit nervous even. You begin to anticipate what’s going to happen next. Will you like it? What will it be? And, then there’s the joy when it does happen. We want this dining experience to have those kind of emotions.”
Our dinner certainly did. It continued with a dozen more bite-sized dishes served sequentially, at carefully paced intervals.
In all its aspects, except the food, it is a disarmingly and purposely simple restaurant, says Dorfman, who wanted a more casual style. There are simpler table settings, and the place is almost dismissive of traditional necessary trappings formerly expected in gourmet eating.
“Everything here is about the food, the food, the food — and is technique driven, “ says Lipar. “We want less of the frilly, over-the-top stuff, less pretentiousness.”
Gone also is the expensive plate ware and the epistle-size wine list that suggest that perhaps the original Fords and the Dodges knew the cellar here.
Butcher-block and Formica tabletops with stark, simple utilitarian settings send a low-brasserie feel, counter to the starched linen and fussy flatware, sparkly crystal, and cushy paddings used to plump up some tables.
No dinner-jacketed waiters. No hushed silence. No whispering assistants.
There is a spirit of confidence and mission about this new-style dining that supports the intricacy and precision that are the hallmark of Young Turk restaurants.
Despite the differences, it was interesting to observe what has been retained from that former era of butler and manor house: A serving staff member was resetting a table using a ruler to set the exact distance of the plates from the edge of the table, and to correct the spacing of silverware to glasses, just as the “downstairs” staff does on PBS’ Downton Abbey.
Timing is Everything
Service is central to the tasting menu. From beginning to the end of a meal there is a palpable intensity, a sense that this is the last important step after the huge effort of the preparation that took place in back of the restaurant.
The tasting menu is dangerous. It relies on so many varied dishes and falls back on impeccable timing and only a slight lull before the next arrival. If the timing between dishes is off, the theme and pace break down, leaving the diner to eventually feel like he’s riding a mechanical food-driven assembly line that stops and starts. It takes a skilled serving staff to pull off that pacing, which Torino did consistently and crisply with a staff that is knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
Pacing is essential to a tasting menu, Lipar says. If it isn’t just right, served at continuous comfortable intervals, it all falls apart. “It took us two years or more to get the pace right,” he says.
What defines Torino most is that it opens the window of traditional fine dining in Detroit, and blows in the fresh breeze of new ideas, tastes, and ways of presenting and serving food.
Lipar is a genius in the kitchen. His food is exquisite, and his skill is easily on par with counterparts in major cities around the country. As such, he single-handedly takes Detroit a notch higher from the past, and sets up a big challenge for others to match or beat him.
201 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-247-1370. D Wed.-Sat. torinoferndale.com