Lady of the House, the sharp new venture by Chef Kate Williams in Corktown, has a self-confident and original menu, good service, and a sassy décor that hits the eye and the imagination.
The lovely, lively, and inviting eatery in the former St. CeCe’s space offers a very Irish warmth and hospitality, and joins the parade of terrific new restaurants in Detroit.
These days, it is hard to miss the national press attention focused on Detroit, topped on a recent story in the travel section of The New York Times that posed a question with the headline: “Detroit: The Most Exciting City in America?”
The main culinary beltway runs a couple of miles between Wayne State’s campus and downtown and is now home to some of the better new names in local dining: Selden Standard, The Peterboro, Chartreuse, Republic, Parc, Wright & Co., Townhouse Detroit, The Apparatus Room, and more.
At its current pace, the culinary beltway certainly needs to be let out a few notches. And it has been, expanding into Corktown with places like Takoi and Red Dunn Kitchen. Lady of the House, which we visited only a few weeks after it opened, is sure to become part of that new Detroit lore.
Chef Williams is already a known entity. She made waves a few years ago, after a group of young entrepreneurs bought the castle-like Grand Army of the Republic building at Cass and Grand River and brought in Williams to develop Republic Tavern.
Williams lives in North Corktown now, but her connections there go way back. Her great-grandparents met at the nearby Gaelic League, and a grandfather grew up on Vermont Street.
“My dad’s family immigrated through Canada and ended up on Trumbull,” Williams says. “My mother’s family came over in the early 1900s.”
The families eventually moved away, and Williams grew up in the Detroit suburbs, where she became an Irish dancer while attending Catholic schools and took part in parades down in Corktown.
She entered Michigan State University’s food science program, and then went on the road and worked in restaurants in Chicago, New York, and Copenhagen before returning to Detroit.
The look of Lady of the House carries through with those roots. It has a whimsical Irish feel, with a blend of traditional lighting from brass sconces with twinkly candle bulbs and green tufted banquets lining the back wall. There are chest-high spindled dividers marking off an area of the dining room. Tables are varnished wood tops, and the chairs have comfortable padded seats and backs. The bar area has been lightened up considerably from when it was St. CeCe’s.
The restaurant reminds me very much of one in Belfast, Northern Ireland, named Molly’s Yard at which I ate a good half dozen times earlier this year.
The crockery is a floral mish-mash of the type of assorted flowered, delicate English country China our grannies used to buy with filled-up S&H Green Stamp booklets, which add even more charm to the atmosphere.
Lady of the House’s website states they want to provide “an unforgettable dinner party every night.” Upon entering, guests are served a cup of tea with a biscuit — their take on Irish rarebit, and made with cheddar and mushroom powders.
The local flavor extends to the rest of the menu at Lady of the House, which is seasonal. And as with most serious restaurants today, it buys locally, which means largely from the plethora of new urban farms inside the city, such as RecoveryPark Farms and Brother Nature. They also source from outside the city including Tantré Farm, an organic produce grower in Chelsea, and Guernsey Farms Dairy in Northville. The bar serves a special gin developed with Detroit City Distillery.
More serious restaurants show their flair by emphasizing small-bites tasting plates. Lady of the House not only follows that model, but expands on it. There were only two full main courses: a prime rib for two served with cauliflower and horseradish risotto, and a whole roasted chicken with challah migas, a scramble of eggs, green pepper, tomato, and maitake mushrooms.
A dozen-plus small plates encourage sharing and ordering multiple bite-sized courses. And that’s where Williams truly flexes her culinary muscle.
Starting with oysters with green peppercorn and hot sauce, the menu then moves to an interesting steak tartare, made fairly traditionally, but garnished with charred leek and an oyster aioli, as well as toasted rye sourdough. Likewise, a tuna tartare, which we ordered, takes a diversion with tomato, anchovy breadcrumb, and a raw egg.
Anything called “Corn Dog Rillette” is, first off, a great big oxymoron, and second, deserves to be tried. So we did. It arrived with what appeared to be a breaded exterior, deep fried but not on a stick. But pick it apart and the inside was very much a pork rillette. Dunk the dog in the accompanying béchamel with mustard seed and apple relish, and there was the counter-balance to the pork rillettes.
The hit of the evening was Parisian ham served with Dijon butter and fermented honey. Deeply grainy and reddish in color, delicious in flavor, it is indeed a ham style, but is made from leg of lamb, rather than pork. We couldn’t get enough of it.
The plate of greens from local Detroit farms makes a fresh and tangy salad, and is also recommended. Mixed with tarragon, pistachios, buttery Ossau-Iraty cheese from the French Basque country, and thinly sliced apple, its flavors are multi-faceted.
There was only one slight disappointment, the shrimp butter toast. It came in a novelty serving dish — an aluminum sardine can, complete with the key and lid peeled back. Cute!
The problem was that when you dipped the sourdough rye toast in the melted shrimp butter, what came back didn’t taste like shrimp. Rather, it seemed dominated by a paprika-like butter flavor.
Lady of the House places a large emphasis on a very smart wine list, an extensive number of beers, and an array of exotic cocktails that are all the rage these days. The bar program is the purview of General Manager Christian Stachel, who moved over to Lady of the House from the team at Wright & Co., one of those signature restaurants in the humming culinary rebirth around downtown.
The takeaway is that Lady of the House is very good. I did find that a couple dishes seemed to have a clash of spices that detracted from their overall direction. But still, this is a highly skilled kitchen and service staff, offering really delightful dishes that pretty much defy being pigeon-holed. That in turn creates an unusual dining experience.
By all means, go for an assortment of the small plates, and you’ll find yourself immersed in an unusual and enjoyable evening.
1426 Bagley Ave., Detroit, 313-818-0218. D Wed.-Sun.