Why would anybody in this day and age invest $2 million in an upper-end restaurant, even if it is in Birmingham?
Given the recent closing of Tribute, one of metro Detroit’s top-five restaurants for more than a decade, such thoughts come to mind at the elegant, new starched-white-linen Quattro Cucina Italiana, on Hamilton in Birmingham.
Check out the high ceilings, the glass-walled room with shimmering-gold sheer draperies. The high-backed, oyster-colored velvet banquettes. The Dale Chihuly-like Murano yellow-orange glass chandeliers. The plentiful wait staff in white chef jackets, and the constantly patrolling managers. Impressive, yes. But how do they expect to survive in this economic climate and at these prices?
On the other hand, Quattro’s investors — the name came about because there are four of them — may well know something the rest of us don’t, because it has been very difficult to get into the restaurant since it opened in September in the space formerly occupied by City Cellar and Blue Martini.
Then there’s the food. Quattro is excellent. It steps comfortably into a gap created last year when Il Posto, the grand northern Italian restaurant off Northwestern Highway in Southfield, closed. Quattro is easily Il Posto’s match in level of style, service, and food.
Yet, being another Il Posto was hardly the plan, general manager Zoran Smolcic says. “No, we didn’t want to make it that way. We wanted to give people options, because we know what a tough market it is out there today.”
As expensive as Quattro looks, feels, and can be, you can also eat reasonably, because they have been very smart in how the menu is priced. Along with the $70 Branzino cooked in a salt shell, and a $48 rib-eye, there are several very reasonably priced dishes.
You can dine on a $9 salad and $12 pizza or terrific vegetable lasagna for $18, and several like-priced dishes. The range is impressive.
Add to that a very large by-the-glass wine pour — a hefty 6 ounces — and you can actually get in and out of Quattro for about $35 per person.
But there’s something broader at work here with the arrival of Quattro, more than just another restaurant opening. Periodically, there’s a significant shift in the restaurant business, and this is one of them.
In the 1970s, downtown Detroit was the restaurant epicenter, dotted by the London Chop House, Pontchartrain Wine Cellars, and Money Tree. By the 1980s, dining had shifted and split between Southfield and Windsor, thanks in part to a cheap Canadian dollar. More recently, everyone wanted to dine in Ann Arbor.
Now, Birmingham is becoming the latest high-end dining center of the metro area. And why not? The city has done everything right for this to happen: maintained its downtown as walkable, pleasant, and easy to use, with a variety of stores, theaters, and entertainment spots, all of which amounts to more than just dining; it’s an evening out.
In the 1980s, Phoenicia and the Midtown Café were the dining draws in Birmingham. Then came Rugby Grille, 220 Merrill, and Streetside Seafood. A recent mini-explosion of good new restaurants has brought high-end nationals, plus Chen Chow, Forest Grill, Café Via, and now Quattro.
And it’s no wonder that the food is exceptional. Manager Smolcic, executive chef Benjamin Meyer, and chef de cuisine Joseph Cosenza were all previously at SaltWater, the Michael Mina restaurant in the MGM Grand Detroit, and left when the menu was simplified last spring.
The service at Quattro is superior, friendly, and attentive. When a little salt was requested for a pasta dish (they don’t put salt and pepper on the table) our waiter appeared with a salt grinder and then returned with it as each dish was served, asking if we wanted salt. Very thorough, but almost a tad too much.
Quattro also has an exceptional wine list. Markups on most wines appear to be far less than most restaurants. For example, there’s a hard-to-find Chateau Montus, a Madiran wine and a jewel from southwest France made from the tannat grape that sells for about $35 retail, and $50 here. Or a Moris Farms Morellino di Scansano for $32. From the list, we picked a superb small-production Umbria red blend for $54.
On the first visit, the meal began with an unusual appetizer, shared by five people, an excellent Salsiccia per la Famiglia, a traditional “rope” sausage the thickness of a breakfast sausage that arrives grilled in one long, snake-like coil. It’s presented with roasted peppers, grilled cippolini onions, and a sweet, fresh tomato sauce. Since this is a traditional Italian restaurant, a second course of pasta (there are four choices) seemed in order. We tried two on the first visit, a Tagliatelle Bolognese and a plate of wild boar gnocchi. Both were excellent.
The Bolognese sauce is a simple, traditional meat sauce ragout with no tomato, almost dry and non-saucy, made of ground veal, pork, and beef — with just a hint of onion and the spices with which it had been cooked — slathered lightly across the broad noodles.
The Gnocchi al Ragu di Cinghiale (wild boar gnocchi) was somewhat more interesting, a denser consistency from the meat braised in red wine and tomato. It’s served with fontina cheese.The vegetarian lasagna is superbly delicate and light, made in-house entirely, with light béchamel sauce, leeks, eggplant, and porcini mushrooms, as well as a thin layering of fresh spinach, and a touch of puréed tomatoes.
Likewise, a squash ravioli was also light and delicate with just a hint of nutmeg.
There’s also good salad selection, including an Insalata di Asparagi, a tangy asparagus salad with burrata — fresh, airy, light mozzarella that has an almost whipped consistency — and unsmoked Italian bacon. The Insalata di Finocchi, or fresh fennel salad, is delightfully tarted up with orange, mint, and walnuts.
In main courses, we tried all five meat dishes. The best was unquestionably the most succulent rib-eye steak I’ve had in a long time. It sounds odd raving about a steak in an Italian restaurant, but the preparation here is so vastly superior to most steakhouses. The rib-eye is adorned with sautéed fresh porcini mushrooms (when was the last time you had them fresh rather than reconstituted?) and bone marrow, and a red-wine reduction sauce. Sublime.
The osso buco is a perfectly cooked veal shank, braised in a mirepoix to fork-tenderness, moist inside and accompanied by a saffron-based risotto.
There are a few seafood items, the best and most dramatic of which we found to be the Branzino al Sale, an entire fish cooked in a sealed salt crust, and then boned at tableside and served with two olive oils, one slightly nut-like and the other fruity, and a half-grilled lemon, the grilling of which intensifies the juice and neutralizes the lemon’s acidity somewhat. Also recommended is the Halibut Acqua Pazza, with tomato broth, red pepper, crostini, and Swiss chard.
I have two complaints about Quattro. First, cigarette smoke. On our initial visit, we were seated in a banquette on the other side of the divider to the bar. Three times during our meal, blasts of cigarette smoke drifted heavily over the divider. These days, allowing smoking anywhere near this level of food, service, and quality is bewildering.
The second is lighting. I know that dull illumination is hip right now, but the place has the feel of a Gothic cathedral. Everybody looks gray, and menus are hard to read. When we asked for a candle or light, we were told there weren’t any.
A woman at our table nailed it. Women, she said, feel prettier in candlelight. I’ll add that diners like to read the menu, too.
203 Hamilton, Birmingham; 248-593-6060. L & D daily.