The past year was certainly exciting on the new restaurant front. And while a lot of the action was downtown, one of the best places opening in metro Detroit popped up in a somewhat unusual location — Hazel Park.
Mabel Gray sits right downtown in this older, first-ring, blue-collar suburb of Detroit that’s full of small Cape Cod bungalow houses, a racetrack, and not much else.
The area became a bedroom community for autoworkers when the Highland Park Ford plant opened in 1910. The city of Hazel Park was incorporated in 1942.
At its height in 1960, the population was about 25,000. But for many years, Hazel Park saw its share of residents trickle away, in search of wider pastures, bigger homes, and a hipper social scene. Today it is has steadied out to a bit over 16,500.
Hazel Park has its pizza places (including the legendary Loui’s), some country diners, and the requisite run of Tubby’s, McDonald’s, and Burger Kings, but not much in the way of finer dining.
So chef-owner James Rigato’s decision to open Mabel Gray here gives Hazel Park something new and special, the likes of which it probably hasn’t seen for years, if ever.
The name comes from Alice Mabel Gray, a recluse and writer whose ghost is said to wander the dunes on the Indiana side of the Lake Michigan shore, a place where she lived in the early 1900s.
Rigato loved the tale and a song about Mabel Gray, which gave him the name for the restaurant. There’s also a mural there depicting the “Diana of the Dunes” legend that the writer’s life inspired.
Rigato lived around Hazel Park for several years and grew to love the area. It also lacks a corporate presence, he says. “It has grip, and while it does have a stigma, I never felt that way. … I thought it just was what it was.”
Rigato is also behind the brilliant, avant-garde menu at The Root, a New American-style dining spot in the exurb of White Lake Township. It’s been featured in Food & Wine magazine — and just about every local publication.
Rigato has been dubbed as one of the rising stars of southeast Michigan dining. He’s also appeared on Top Chef, and is one of those so-called the Young Turks or Young Guns — a group of trailblazing Detroit-area chefs who have been redefining fine dining here.
“With The Root, I feel it’s now a complete thing. I had pushed it as far as it wanted to go naturally,” Rigato says. “With Mabel Gray, I wanted to do something that was welcoming to small concepts, and I could do on a small scale.”
In a testament to truly doing everything fresh daily, Rigato says: “We have no walk-in cooler. We are totally dependent (on) daily deliveries.”
Gone also are the sumptuous surroundings, the waiters in formal dress, the starched white linen, and elaborate table settings. In their place is high energy — a casual atmosphere, the open kitchen, the repurposed wood chairs, and superb service and food on an abbreviated, tiny menu that’s handwritten daily.
The sensible, utilitarian décor was done by Ron Rea of Ron & Roman in Birmingham. It is restrained and hangs back, and is very much a reflection of the unpretentious community in which it sits.
The banquette seating, which follows much of the outside wall, has been fashioned from white leatherette that Rea has whimsically run up above the banquette and into the window wells. A long bar and an open kitchen add to the energy of the restaurant.
The chairs at Mabel Gray are repurposed from Detroit Public School desks, with the writing desk part cut off and brass and crystal doorknobs added to that side.
On a fall night, we arrived to find Mabel Gray full. But at least the restaurant does take reservations, which we had made for four.
A fair number of visitors were curious locals, some of whom said they were happy that this kind of dining had lapped their shore. A party of four at the next table turned out to be Rigato’s relatives.
Another couple — a barrel-chested man in Levi’s and a plaid wool shirt who could have stepped out of a Duluth Trading Co. denim ad on television and his starry-eyed date with tight, grandma-styled hair — smiled approvingly through their desserts.
On the day we visited, the menu had merely four appetizers, one salad, one soup, and four main courses. A tasting menu — a growing trend in which you put your evening entirely in the hands of the chef — is also available. With this option, Rigato delivers from eight to 10 consecutive small courses to your table. He changes courses daily, depending on the season and what his providers come up with.
From the moment we sat down, the meal was unusual. It started with dense gray bread made with “green” grain milled only days earlier, and chilled to keep its fresh cracked flavor, then baked that morning. The butter, churned in house, was soft and fresh, occasionally showing little flecks of sea salt when spread on the bread.
Next to arrive was a plate of house-pickled vegetables, some slightly sweet, others tart, but all delicate and none mouth-puckering. Normally, there’s not a lot to say about pickled vegetables, but the variety of flavors and the delicacy was a surprise. It included a spoonful of miniature mushrooms and crunchy sweet slices of bread and butter pickles.
Appetizers included a delightful fried banana in molé, Mexican queso (farmer’s cheese), jalapeno, and peanut sauce. We tried all four main courses offered, each excellent and highly recommended: a fried pork belly with an onion mousse, pickled slaw, and Ong Bak (a soy-based sauce with chili paste and white wine vinegar).
The other main courses were a crispy duck confit with a farro risotto, shaved endive, and a huckleberry sweet and sour sauce; a dish of mussels and clams in a spicy coconut milk sauce with fennel and onion; and a grass-fed beef hamburger on challah bread, with pickled mushrooms, Swiss cheese, and greens.
What makes Mabel Gray interesting and worthwhile is Rigato’s skilled use and combination of flavors. So often at other restaurants, dishes that look like they should be fun fall short.
Masterful cooking is an orchestration in which the use of flavors are treated very much the way a conductor uses instruments — asking a string section for more gravitas or emphasis while restraining the wind instruments.
Rigato clearly likes his role and produces some masterful dishes on this tiny menu, which did not have one item that missed a beat.
23825 John R Rd., Hazel Park, 248-398-4300. D Tue.-Sat.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: email@example.com