Mansion Makeover

A new owner and a new chef put a fresh face on an old classic — The Whitney
Mansion Makeover
Jumbo shrimp with grilled pineapple, reduced coconut milk, cilantro, and roasted macadamia nuts. Photographs by joe vaughn

Well, well, well! New ownership does sometimes spur change for the better.

At The Whitney, they’ve thrown out seven Dumpsters of stuff, pulled up carpeting and replaced it, repainted rooms on the main floor, opened the doors and windows to let the dust out, dumped the drapes and curtains, and washed the windows.

“We needed to get a little light in there,” says Arthur “Bud” Liebler, the new owner of the stately old manor house.

And it has a new executive chef, Michael Lutes, and food that is extraordinarily good for the first time in years — certainly the best I can remember.

The Whitney, hands down Detroit’s most stunning restaurant venue, is a vast 113-year-old lumber baron’s mansion on Woodward Avenue with gabled roof lines and a pink-stone exterior. But as a restaurant it’s a place that, like some people we all know, had been living too long on great looks and not much else.

Not that The Whitney didn’t try. It has seen a few good chefs come through its doors since opening 21 years ago, and it received its share of accolades. But the good ones went on to shine elsewhere, and The Whitney was mostly a stop in their careers.

It’s too early to make firm pronouncements, but with all the changes still in progress, it seems to have a chance at becoming a great restaurant, and not just a great bus stop for the blue-haired set.

I ate at The Whitney only days after Lutes took over, and I returned later that week on a busy Friday night. On both visits the food was extraordinarily well executed, despite a banal menu that Lutes had just inherited, and that he had planned to radically change. The food turned out to be anything but banal.

What is immediately noticeable is the vibrancy of each dish. It’s alive, it’s brightly flavorful, and cooked just so. One dish after another showed little touches, and much imagination and skill.

On the first visit, an utterly simple starting dish of several fresh shrimp, fried until they just barely showed a yellow-golden color, came on a white plate with tiny diced pieces of avocado, corn, and a tomato coulis, each distinct and coaxing the shrimp with its own flavor. Another first course was a delicate crab spring roll with ginger and coriander sauce that created a lightly tangy robe of flavor around the crab.

A main dish of five large scallops was prepared in a New Orleans style — reflecting the city where Lutes worked just before The Whitney. They were pan-seared, placed on grits, and surrounded by tiny pieces of okra and little cubes of andouille, with a wine reduction.

A sage-roasted chicken with bread stuffing that sounded very ordinary on the menu was a surprise when it arrived. It came to the table as rectangular block of pan-baked stuffing, on top of which sat the chicken, the joined breast and leg of a roasted Cornish game hen with a piece of sage stuffed in its dark, golden skin. It was moist and light. An assortment of micro-greens sat on one side and a rich, brown and clear demi-glace sauce on the other. And so it went, one pleasant surprise to the next. Each different, each interesting.

Since then, Lutes has added many items, including a chicken roulade stuffed with pork and pistachios, served with a wild-rice risotto. There’s also a filet of beef with a wild-mushroom gratin and truffled twice-baked potatoes with a red-wine reduction.

The new menu is a work that will change continually, says Lutes, who claims the British bad-boy chefs of London kitchens — Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White — as his models.

Stylistically, in dishes I tried, Lutes resembles a bit of Charlie Trotter and a little of the old Golden Mushroom with the polish and subtlety of Takashi Yagihashi before he left Tribute for Las Vegas. That’s not too surprising, since Lutes worked for all three.

“He’s all about freshness and flavor, and he wants to see a lot more Michigan produce on the menu,” says Liebler, a former Chrysler public-relations executive.
“Essentially, my approach to the menu is to keep it simple, keep it fresh, and no more than three or four moves on a plate. Let the ingredient speak for itself,” Lutes says. “Last week, I took whitefish [a standby dish] off the menu. The fish wasn’t any good. So, it’s out of here until I get something I can use…. I saw some beautiful Brussels sprouts the other day. I’m adding them. I’ll build something around them.

“I want this menu to reflect what’s seasonal when it’s here. When I worked in Chicago, that’s what I learned. I got to the market in the morning there and picked out produce. You don’t dictate the food in a restaurant. It’s the growers and the season that do that.”

The change of ownership at The Whitney is a bit of a story in itself. Liebler says that he was looking for a location in town to which to move Liebler!McDonald Communication Strategies, his marketing business in Rochester Hills. He discovered The Whitney was for sale, and looked at it as a possible office location.

One thing led to another and, before long, Liebler found himself owning a restaurant. He plans to turn the large carriage house behind the restaurant into Liebler!McDonald.

The elegant interior of The Whitney.

For those who haven’t been to The Whitney recently, there already has been quite a bit of freshening up to the 21,000-square-foot home that has 52 rooms, 10 bathrooms, 218 windows, and 20 fireplaces. It also has priceless Tiffany stained-glass windows, and some of the most ornate and intricate woodwork anywhere. It is both grand and formal, but warm and welcoming.

In addition to the seven Dumpsters, Liebler says the grounds have been cleaned up. Dead bushes and shrubs in the front that he says “made the place look like a haunted house” have been removed. The iron fencing around the property was rotting and has been replaced. Along with the fresh paint on the main floor, carpeting on the second floor and the grand staircase has been replaced. Soon, new dining-room chairs will be in place.

Plans are also under way to turn one of the rooms on the main floor into a lounge, where people can wait for tables instead of having to traipse up to the third floor, where the bar is now.

But there are other areas of the restaurant that need help. On both my visits, there was a very evident service disconnection between the kitchen and the table that went totally ignored by a manager who should have moved in to solve it immediately. A tray of food was brought from the kitchen, placed on a stand by a server, who then hurried off to serve in another room. The food, which turned out to be ours, sat almost five minutes as a manager wandered around the front area, looking rather bored.

The server, who was quite efficient and trying to work two rooms at once, came hurrying back and finally served us. The food was lukewarm. No chef — or customer — should have to deal with that.

We saw it happen again later in the evening. The manager again let it stand unserved. On the second visit, we saw it happen a third time, though not with our food. Such service problems are solvable and hopefully will be.

This new incarnation of The Whitney is a work in progress. And Lutes is clearly a chef who can bring a fresh attitude and drive to The Whitney, as much as Liebler has already done a lot to freshen the place itself.

But it remains to be seen whether this new Whitney can negotiate successfully the obstacles ahead and to finally get to where it deserves to be: the top dog among restaurants in Detroit. Let the watching begin.

4421 Woodward, Detroit; 313-832-5700. L Tue.-Fri., D Tue.-Sun.