Identity Crisis?

The Crowne Plaza’s Jefferson House restaurant fare deserves attention — and more customers
JEFFERSON HOUSE /// A hearty short rib risotto (left) is on the short list of six entrées. Salads include a Michigan spinach with dried cherry dressing or a chopped Caesar salad with an option to add beef (right), chicken, or shrimp.

You certainly can’t fault the food or drinks. But most nights, you won’t need a reservation at the Jefferson House restaurant.

That’s too bad, because the meals being turned out by Executive Chef Justin Vaiciunas are worth a visit. But unless there’s a convention in town, the restaurant on the main floor of the recently remodeled Crowne Plaza Detroit Downtown Riverfront is largely crowd-free.

Maybe it’s an identity crisis. When it first reopened last summer after a $5 million renovation to its rooms, lobby, restaurant, and meeting spaces, the former Hotel Pontchartrain called itself Crowne Plaza Pontchartrain. Drawing on the legacy of the “Pontch” might work for locals, but for out-of-towners, not so much. So after a few fits and starts, it’s now called the Crowne Plaza Detroit Downtown Riverfront. But that doesn’t mean much to locals.

A bit of lore for the unaware: P’Jazz on the Pontchartrain’s terrace was wildly popular in the 1980s. But back in 1937, a restaurant called the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars created a drink called Cold Duck — a mix of burgundy wine and champagne. It was so popular that in the 1970s, Baskin-Robbins named an ice cream after it. The new hotel’s bar attached to Jefferson House is called Urban Cellars. And while Cold Duck is far from sommelier-worthy, it would be a nice addition to the menu — if only as a nod to history.

The rest of the wine list and drinks are quite good. On a recent visit, the “New Fashioned” take on the Old Fashioned included Cherrywood Smoked Michigan Dried Cherries muddled at the bottom of the bourbon, orange, and bitters concoction. Another interesting beverage was a Fall Sangria made with Jack Daniel’s, cider, red wine, and cinnamon. The result was like a liquid version of a cinnamon-roasted almond.

On to the food. It’s described as American fusion, but draws on plenty of influences. One appetizer stood out: a Japanese pancake called “Okonomoyki” made with bacon, cabbage, blue crab, and a spicy mayo topping. The short list of six entrées included a hearty short-rib risotto, rainbow trout, smoked lobster mac and cheese, and a seared filet with wild mushroom butter. The desserts were imaginative, as well, including a chai-tea-based bread pudding.

Another restaurant on the hotel’s 25th floor is slated to open late spring/early summer 2014. It will offer a “distinguished dining experience” — overseen by Vaiciunas — with tiered seating to allow views of the riverfront, Cobo Center, Hart Plaza, the Ren Cen, and Windsor.

One name being considered is “Top of the Pontch.” We hope they choose it, and not just for old times sake. Perhaps it will be more of a draw for the locals rather than just those staying in the hotel.