COVID-19 UPDATE: Our April issue, which features this review on Magnet, went to print before the coronavirus pandemic hit in Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order went into effect. In compliance with this order, all local restaurants have stopped dine-in services, many offering carryout and delivery options only, others closing altogether — possibly for good. Learn how to support local restaurants, here.
It’s not lost on me that Magnet, the restaurant well regarded for its wood-burning oven and grill and impeccably charred vegetables, is a former radiator repair shop. The 20th-century edifice opened in 1917 under the name Magnet Radiator Works. For a century, mechanics there repaired automotive radiators, the essential component that keeps vehicles from overheating. Yet today, from the same unassuming space in a now-developing enclave of Grand Boulevard, Executive Chef Brad Greenhill and his brilliant team of cooks rely on primitive heat sources to transform simple ingredients into crispy, smoky, caramelized masterpieces.
Shadows of the restaurant’s past are reimagined in its current iteration. Neon lights, which resemble infrared heaters, trace the rectangular ceiling, casting a red glow on the restaurant’s dining room. The blend of primary colors creates a purple, almost galactic, hue on blue square-tile walls, and a sheen coats wooden tables without concealing their ornate natural marbling. The neon lighting, boxy layout, and refurbishing of historically auto-related establishments have become signature elements for Prince Concepts, the real estate development company behind Magnet. Such details are fixtures at other venues established by the company, including Takoi and most recently Santo Santo, a car wash-turned yoga studio near Indian Village.
Sparks fly erratically, while curls of smoke rise gracefully behind Magnet’s hazy open kitchen. Though the restaurant is predominantly vegetable-forward, a range of meats and vegetables are prepared in the kitchen. It’s where bread is baked to puffy, chewy perfection, then dusted with a medley of musky Middle Eastern spices or topped with tender lamb and bubbly cheese. It’s where fresh carrots are smoked and heads of cauliflower are roasted. It’s where whole red chickens are impaled and vertically rotisseried.
To fully grasp the mastery on every section of the menu — broken into Beginning, Middle, End, and Sides — do this: Opt for the Feast.
Also called the Chef’s Selection, the Feast at Magnet is a six-course meal, featuring menu standouts chosen by the chef. At $65 per person, it’s economically your best bet for savoring Magnet’s marquee dishes, including sides and additions that may not otherwise accompany a dish. During a recent visit, the Salatim, Magnet’s chewy, charred, spice-rubbed flatbread served with an assortment of spreads and salads — miniature basins of marinated feta, sweet green olives, and Israeli couscous salad — included a bowl of hummus topped with a spoonful of rich olive oil and a handful of crispy chickpeas. On the à la carte menu, the hummus would otherwise be served separately. On the à la carte menu, our meal would otherwise have run us $123 — each.
Unlike many restaurants with tasting menu offerings, Magnet’s Feast accommodates allergies and dietary restrictions. Our server notes our table’s pescatarian diet, and for a moment, when presented with our trio of Middle dishes, I confront my failure to mention my only culinary aversion: beets. My face writhes at the idea of the bittersweet, antioxidant-rich root vegetable, but Magnet quickly makes a convert of me. Three thick slices of beet are charred then smashed and plated with a dollop of a light avocado cream. Like flanks of rare steak, the beets are meaty — and unlike a steak’s often tough nature, they’re as tender as softened butter — and emit a delirious red jus with every slice. I reach for seconds, and eventually find myself calling dibs on the last round.
Among the Beginning dishes there’s an apple and celery salad. Julienne apples and celery are topped with paper-thin slips of mushroom caps, nearly translucent and freckled with cracked black pepper. Roasted sweet potatoes are also served, topped with invigorating cilantro, pickled red onions, and balsamic vinegar, which, when blended with silky olive oil, creates a tie-dye effect. The smooth potatoes team up nicely with beautifully charred edges, building a wonderful contrast of textures.
You’ll be inclined to tap out by the End course, already filled up with hearty bread, milky cocktails, and a crop of vegetables that alone could satisfy your appetite. But a whole trout, grilled and topped with buttery pine nuts, cannot be neglected. Its moist white flesh is mild in flavor, seasoned only with a briny, crispy skin. Creamy lentils are a decadent side and a firm reminder that there’s still dessert. You’ll ask to bag the lentils for tomorrow’s lunch.
When our server shares that dessert will be a pair of milkshakes, I’m relieved to learn they’re of the vegan variety — the idea of a heavy, ice cream-based shake is more than I can handle. Still, the chocolate tahini and coconut-based treat is an indulgence just the same. Served in a frosted glass and topped with crunchy candied cocoa nibs and delicate pieces of crumbled halva, the shake is the perfect finale to an impressive experience. After a series of singed, scorched, and seared dishes this cool, luxuriant frosty extinguishes the heat without dimming the experience.
FYI: Before You Go to Magnet
Don’t be deterred if you can’t nab a reservation. Due to Magnet’s popularity in recent months, securing a reservation can be challenging at times. But reservations account for only 70% of the dining room seating. If you arrive shortly after opening, there’s a chance you could nab a spot reserved for walk-ins.
Parking is limited. Though there is a parking lot out front and a shared lot at Ochre, Magnet’s sister bakery just a stone’s-throw away, plan to arrive about 15 minutes in advance of dinner to account for your time spent circling the block.
Gratuity is included for parties of all sizes. A champion of workplace equity, Executive Chef Brad Greenhill is working to close the pay gap between front and back-of-house employees with a no-tip policy. All Magnet staffers are offered fair wages, so no matter your party size, gratuity is already included in your bill.
Magnet, 4842 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-656-2640; magnetdetroit.com