Getting to SaltWater, the Michael Mina restaurant inside the MGM Grand Detroit casino downtown, is like negotiating your way to the other side of a Rainforest Café full of smoking adults.
Once you get past the slightly surreal and very vast sea of slot machines, SaltWater is quite lovely. It has a rounded modern bar with high stools, behind which is the main dining room, a quiet refuge from the world outside it, a safe house where you can pause for a drink in the glass-fronted bar, look out on the sea of gamblers, and decontaminate the Calvin Kleins from the casino’s cigarette smoke for a minute before heading to your table.
The restaurant is one of several nationwide inspired by San Francisco chef Michael Mina, whose name and food took off several years ago when he became nationally known for modern West Coast cooking — specifically, his deconstructions and retro-fitting of traditional dishes.
SaltWater is well-managed and operated with an extremely professional staff who provide casual, competent service. Despite its very abbreviated menu, SaltWater is one of the better dining places in Detroit, and well worth a visit.
The interior is beautiful, soft, elegant, and dramatic, with the kind of look and feel you expect to find in a major urban setting: tall ceilings and eye-popping design. The walls are draped at intervals with blue sack-like cloth and shears that rise a good 20 feet, disappearing into a dark ceiling. Massive scalloped insets of creamy white plastered swirls are shaped into 8-foot high seashells, up-lighted dramatically from the floor, adding to the theatrical effect.
The ceiling is also a work of art, its entirety an intricately tiled mosaic design reminiscent of waves ebbing from beach sand, into which have been hung huge brushed circular aluminum crowns dotted with orange-filament lights.
The tables are square and roomy and clothed in white linen, and those along the wall are framed with two-person movable red-leather banquettes.
The menu, as the name implies, is primarily seafood. It includes the usual run-of-grill items: about six fish and a couple of steaks and chicken. There’s also an ample raw-bar list of cold shellfish, all very high quality and as fresh as can be found in the Midwest.
But what really makes the restaurant distinct and worth recommending is the rest of the menu.
A large appetizer plate of Prince Edward Island mussels marinière, cooked in white wine and parsley and with a garlic cream sauce, was sensational, mostly for the plumpness and freshness of the mussels — by far the freshest I’ve had around Detroit in a long time.
As pleasant as this restaurant is, this is not the original SaltWater menu. Until early summer, SaltWater was quite expensive with main courses alone beginning at around $35 and working up to above $80.
It turned out that a slow economy had kept big-spending diners out of SaltWater, sending the MGM and the Mina restaurant group back to the drawing board. Prices dropped. The menu was thinned. And instead of a full Michael Mina, it became Mini-Mina.
What remains is still extremely worthwhile. And not everything changed. Perhaps for old-time’s sake, or in case a high flier does show up, the $85 lobster pot pie remains on the menu, although no New England granny would ever make a pot pie like this one.
It’s something to behold, spectacularly rich and a delicious dish. A fresh 2-pound lobster in a sauce of cream, truffle, and brandy, is baked in a copper saucepan and sealed with a flour-pastry crust.
The service of the encrusted lobster is a great show. It begins with a steaming, gleaming copper pan delivered tableside, a marine version of “four-and-20 blackbirds baked in a pie.” The crust is gently cut around the pot’s interior rim and removed in one piece, then plated like a golden pastry doily. The individual pieces of Larry-the-Lobster are extracted from their shell and then reassembled on the crust, like plane-crash reconstruction: Claw over here, tail belongs there, main body goes here. The whole thing is then doused with the incredibly rich cream sauce in which it was all cooked.
Great showmanship, lovely flavors, but once the servers are out of earshot, we all agree that at $85, this is nuts — at least for just one person; sharing is advisable.
Among the first courses, there are four different fish “po’-boys,” actually three tiny two-bite size mini-rolls per serving. One set is crunchy cornmeal-fried oysters with a spicy rémoulade and a slice of green tomato. The second set of three is soft-shell crab with a tartar-like creamy sauce. A third, a full-size toasted sandwich roll in great bread, is loaded with traditional East Coast-style lobster salad tossed in mayonnaise with chopped celery. It’s served with a cup of delightful, creamy tomato soup.
Another starter of tempura-light battered and fried prawns comes with an aioli-and mustard-based slaw. A great combination. But an ahi tuna tartare, sweet and superbly fresh, was overrun by sesame oil and the only negative of the evening.
Solid and recommended among the main courses is the shrimp scampi on thin, fresh fettuccini noodles made in house, and tossed with garlic butter and herb breadcrumbs. Worth trying also is the cioppino, which has the usual combination of shellfish — mussels, clams and shrimp — and a fairly spicy tomato broth.
Ultimately, SaltWater is a corporate restaurant, but with food that is exceptional enough to lift it out of that realm. It’s really very good. Its drawback, frankly, is the abbreviated menu and a wine list with prices high enough to drive the savings of the new menu back upward. I suspect the list is partly the residue of the previous incarnation of SaltWater.
But overall, SaltWater is well-worth an evening of lighter-style dining, and a few coins in a slot machine on the way out.
1777 Third St., Detroit (inside the MGM Grand Detroit casino); 313-465-1646. D Tue.-Sat.
Cook is the chief restaurant critic for Hour Detroit. E-mail: email@example.com.