It’s unfair to review a new restaurant when it opens, although that’s the usual journalistic practice.
Unfair to the reader because, in its opening days, a restaurant is going to be on its toes to do its best, and it will invariably hit a different stride and become either better or worse with time, but rarely will it remain the same. And it’s unfair to the restaurant, because so much can go wrong during the opening week.
The better snapshot invariably comes after the distance of time. In the case of Roast, it’s been six months since it opened in the wonderfully redone Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit.
The place is gorgeous, although there’s nothing of the old hotel left to see on the ground floor, which has become a sleek, clean, modern mix of dark woods, smoked glass, luminously creamy marble floors, and soft accent lighting.
The original 1924 street-level interior was gutted long ago in the 1950s and ’60s, renovations done before the 1,100 rooms became cheap apartments and were finally boarded up in 1986, which is how it sat until last fall.
What the developers were able to preserve and restore of the old Book-Cadillac and have done beautifully, are the second- and third-floor ballrooms and other meeting rooms — all lovely grand neo-Renaissance rooms that truly celebrate Detroit’s past and are a must-see.
As for Roast itself, the dining room is as beautiful as the hotel. The service is excellent. And the wine list is very good, though quite loaded with pricier bottles (Chateau Mouton Rothschild is $800.)
On the menu, we found several good things — standouts, even — including one superb dessert. More than half of the offerings are basic steakhouse fare, however. Order from the rest of the menu, as we did, and you get some exquisitely well-prepared dishes, though in our case they were interspersed with a rather dull house specialty, two over-salted side dishes, and a salad we rejected.
The restaurant is a mirror of the design of the new hotel: hip, warm, and comfortable with large windows overlooking Washington Boulevard and a generous view into the kitchen in the other direction.
You enter the hotel’s gracious marble lobby and are greeted by a bellhop who points you to the entrance, down a few steps to the host stand, a glass-topped lectern with a computer sunk invisibly into its surface. Around a smoky marble panel, you’re led past an impressive long bar with maybe a dozen fixed bar stools and several dining tables. Behind them is the glassed-in wine cellar.
The outer walls of the main dining area are lined with U-shaped banquettes here, and long, straight leather benches for tables for two there. The main dining room looks into an expanse of kitchen and the rotisserie with a whole pig rotating on a spit. It’s tomorrow’s daily meat special (or “beast,” as it’s called on the menu), our waitress explains.
The atmosphere is plush and inviting; linen-dressed tables are set with simple stainless-steel flatware. The only detraction in the décor is the chairs, which swivel and basically have no backs above the lower lumbar — OK if your height measures under about 5 feet 4 inches. If you are a person of a certain size and age, and leaning back is part of your habit, as is mine, the seats are uncomfortable. We asked for — and received — two chairs with backs.
Our service was impeccable, and when we inquired several times about ingredients in various dishes, our very attentive waitress helpfully retrieved answers from the kitchen.
As for the menu, take away the predictable steaks and chops with the béarnaise and crab toppings (which, granted, many people love) and the three fish dishes found on any other 100 or so menus around metro Detroit, and you’re left with five main courses that demand greater culinary skill.
Among them were several impressive starters. Fortunately, some of those portions are large enough to be main courses.
But the size of orders is erratic. For example, a super charcuterie plate for two that comes with pâté, sausage, and prosciutto, is skimpy. Then a delicious plate of crispy chicken livers on a soft polenta with delicately cooked mushrooms arrived in a portion large enough to feed two people or serve as a main course for one.
Ditto the beef-cheek pierogies with horseradish and mushrooms.
Another unusual starter dish, which we are seeing more and more in restaurants, is roasted marrow bones. Roast serves a highly unusual version: femur bones sliced down the bone lengthwise instead of across. Chef Michael Symon adds sea salt, oregano, capers, and chilies to great effect. These are certainly the largest marrow I have been served recently, and they also have the best flavor yet, a very nice combination.
Among the main courses, the standout is the very sensible flageolet bean cassoulet, which arrives on a small rectangular pan-like dish topped with grilled pink duck-breast meat, sliced and fanned. Although the menu says it also contained duck confit, it appeared to be MIA.
Like the cassoulet, a deboned, sliced and fanned smoked pork chop served on a creamy, soft polenta was very nicely done.
But there were problems. A green salad with a creamy dressing and pickled chilies was so hot that we sent it back. Likewise, the daily beast — the restaurant’s signature dish of rotisserie lamb — arrived cold, stringy, gamey, and watery on the plate. A side dish of spinach and feta was salty and overpowering. Over-salting was also a problem with the braised rib and a side of mashed potatoes.
Happily, the three desserts we tried were all exceptional, especially the Guinness beer ice cream with pretzels, which came across as coffee and chocolate. Who would have guessed that?
Chef Symon came to Detroit with great fanfare, based on his superb reputation as one of Cleveland’s top chefs. Because of that, the glitches we experienced left me assuming that the kitchen is still working out what it does, which probably shoots in the foot my notion about when it’s fair or not fair to review a restaurant. I would have thought that six months is enough time.
Criticisms aside, Roast still gets my endorsement, qualified as it is, because this restoration is such a very fine and beautiful job that it not only should succeed, it must.
1128 Washington Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-2500 roastdetroit.com. L & D daily.
Cook is the chief restaurant critic for Hour Detroit. E-mail: email@example.com.