Restaurant dining in the Grosse Pointes has long followed what might be called the Eliot Spitzer theorem: If you want something more exciting, go find it in another city.
Restaurant owners, people in the trade, and more than a few good citizens of the Pointes themselves have openly wondered why a set of communities that’s so affluent don’t support restaurants.
The Pointes have produced very few top restaurants in the greater Detroit area through the years, a sharp contrast to the very restaurant-happy communities of Oakland County. And, it’s not for not trying. Jimmy Schmidt couldn’t make it with his Italian place Chianti in the late 1980s. Its successor, One23, went under. More recently, Sparky Herbert’s, which had been extremely popular and inexpensive, closed. As did Tom Brandel’s superb Tom’s Oyster Bar, the flagship of that group.
If anybody understands the Grosse Pointes and its eaters, it’s Chick Taylor, owner of City Kitchen on Kercheval in Grosse Pointe, one of the area’s newer efforts. “I’ve lived here all my life, and absolutely it’s true,” Taylor says with a chuckle when asked about the phenomenon.
Taylor opened City Kitchen in 2006, and has shrewdly tried to position it in the gap left by both Tom’s Oyster Bar and Sparky Herbert’s. “I wanted to have a place that was upscale, but very casual and offered top-quality food,” says Taylor, who for 18 years managed Joe Muer’s, the long-gone seafood restaurant in Detroit. When Muer filed for bankruptcy in 1997, Taylor bought Joe Muer’s second restaurant in Southfield, which he eventually closed in 2004.
City Kitchen sits in the former Moosejaw store on Kercheval in Grosse Pointe’s business district, across the street from The Barkery, a pet boutique where your dog can have its teeth and nails cleaned, and sandwiched between Village Toy and dress store Dawood.
The restaurant is a warm and comfortable-sweater kind of place that serves uncomplicated, solid, and savory food, some of it remarkably simple and oh-so yesteryear. I mean, tournedos of beef served on an English muffin with a béarnaise sauce? What an adventure for Muffy and Biff!
City Kitchen fits into the second-tier niche of restaurants, those that have predictable menu items and offer value for the money. These are places for midweek dining that have sprung up in affluent suburbs and smaller cities, places where the patrons range from the comfortably retired, to working professionals and to young families. Beverly Hills Grill on Southfield Road, or 220 Merrill in downtown Birmingham, are good examples.
On two recent visits, business at City Kitchen was brisk, and the mix of clientele was much in evidence. A little girl with Easter decals on her hands and face politely held the door for us as her family was leaving. At the table next to us, a party of 12 celebrated an event or milestone in the life of a longtime Detroit judge. Two young couples in a booth nearby chatted over the remains of a bottle of Ravenswood zinfandel, as the dishes from their meal were being cleared.
A spacious bar sits to one side of the entrance, while booths line the other side. The main dining area opens up to the back and is trimmed in dark wainscoted wood and soft lighting, giving it a restrained, clubby feel. Still life and Impressionist-style oils of pastoral settings dot the walls. Tables are set in ivory linens, with simple dishes and utilitarian glassware. In back, an open kitchen is visible over a chest-high wall open at the top so that diners can catch a glimpse of the fast pace of the kitchen at work preparing their food.
Chef Ryan Warren, a 28-year-old from Eastpointe who trained at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, and then worked at the Fourth Street Grille in Rochester, oversees the kitchen.
On one visit, we were seated at a table close enough to the fiery wood-burning pizza oven to catch whiffs of lovely, delicate wood smoke escaping toward the dining room.
I’m not particularly a fan of pizza, but those at City Kitchen are exceptional and what they do best. The crusts are “breadier” than those at most pizzerias, and in the wood oven they develop a darker, rich crustiness that retains just a little interior moistness. More often than not, pizza crusts are either way undercooked or too dry and brittle. Not these. There are six topping combinations and, while we did not try all, the spinach Gorgonzola and mushrooms is one that I highly recommend.
My first visit left me energized and enthusiastic for a second. Among first-course items that work very well are the Hearth Baked Oysters (done in the pizza oven), a City Kitchen version of the old oysters Rockefeller, with diced bacon, spinach garlic, and a béarnaise sauce that crusts over in the heat of the oven. Also worth trying are the Shrimp Casalinga, plump fresh shrimp, flash-fried and lightly coated in garlic cream. City Kitchen gets most of its seafood from M.F. Foley of Boston, a highly reputable fish company.
For those with traditional palates, other starters include smoked salmon plate on pumpernickel, and fried calamari in red-pepper sauce. There’s also a seared rare tuna with wasabi and ginger for the adventurous.
The main-course menu is equally divided between fish choices in various preparations (whitefish, pickerel, tuna, swordfish, scallops, shrimp, and crab cakes) and meat offerings.
In the fish department, the lake perch was superior, delicately pan-sautéed with capers and lemon and served with rice. But we were a little less lucky on a second visit with a salmon entrée roasted in the wood oven that was mismatched to a cherry barbecue sauce and dried cherries. The cooking was OK, but the combination was odd. One item where the cooking actually was off was a plate of tenderloin beef tips — overdone, tough, and chewy.
All the beef main courses are from certified Angus beef and include a New York strip, a rib-eye, a tenderloin filet, and hamburger. The preparation of a braised lamb shank was nicely done, yet the shank itself was huge, and in flavor it was headed out of the range of lamb and more toward sheep or mutton. But its surrounding mashed potatoes and wine sauce were fine.
Comments here on the food combinations aside, City Kitchen is highly energetic, pretty solid, and succeeds at what it sets out to do, which is to not overplay the market it serves.
The late great New Yorker food writer Waverly Root once said that it took him years to figure why the British loved to eat the way they did when they were but a few hundred miles from France, whose citizens eat so spectacularly well. He finally concluded that it was because they liked it that way. So too, City Kitchen seems to have figured out its clientele.
16844 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe; 313-882-6667; city-kitchen.com. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thur., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri., and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sat.