Moving Target

Café Muse’s highly skilled and adaptable kitchen injects energy into a constantly changing menu

Café Muse in downtown Royal Oak is one of those restaurants that whatever it does, it seems to do it well. The food shines above all else, and signs and stamps it as a good little restaurant.

In dining style, Café Muse follows today’s preferred trend to a briefer menu: starkly less items but constantly changing and prepared in new and interesting ways.

It succeeds in making more with less in an arena in which many restaurants have flopped.

Café Muse is the product of owners David Smith and chef and partner Greg Reyner, who learned his trade attending the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago.

The place itself is an assemblage of two side-by-side storefronts connected by a hole in the wall, and as different from each other as a double yolk egg that has yielded contrarian fraternal twins. Same parents, but you’d never know it.

The main Café Muse dining room is dressed in calm orange colors and given a Euro-café feel with small four-top tables, some joined for larger parties, and soft low-wattage lighting. Chairs are a modern functional Eames knockoff design.

The other half of Café Muse’s double yolk is decidedly different, a modern bar and dining scene done up in soft grays, low lighting, and an overall sleeker and more urban feel.

“Our whole thing was we wanted an Old World feel,” says Smith. “But we also wanted something different. So what you see was done by design.”

We found this combination somewhat confusing. Do we get different food on this side than on the other? Is the bar side drinks only? What side do we want to be on? But the menu is the same for both.

Then we say to ourselves: Ah, yes, well this is Royal Oak, after all, where all kinds of confusion and a little trompe l’oeil are part of the town’s hip and edgy culture.

The menu is decorated with gauzily clad ethereal Botticellian females who have floated in from the Italian Renaissance master’s painting Primavera.

Café Muse began in 2006 as a tiny breakfast place with seats for just 20 some people, but served food that set it apart from the corner muffin shop with odd coffees and teas. It did it with little details that elevated its reputation and gave it distinction: orange juice squeezed fresh in-house, blueberry maple syrup, and ricotta lemon pancakes among the offerings, in addition to assorted egg dishes.

So, when the opportunity came up in late 2009 to move to a bigger spot nearby, Café Muse grew into a full-service restaurant, adding larger lunch sandwiches and dinner also, which really sets it apart. Yet, the quality has lived on as the menu has grown with the restaurant.

“Describing what we do has always been a little difficult,” Smith says. “I would say it’s European with New American flair. But [Chef] Greg says it’s comfort food with a twist.”

Café Muse still does breakfast seven days a week, offering dishes that include stuffed French toast with mascarpone and a five-spice pear “nage” (pieces of poached fruit), buttermilk pancakes with an apple and pear compote, or the unique ricotta and lemon pancakes with house-made blueberry maple syrup.

On the other end of the breakfast scale there is a smoked salmon scramble with Gruyere cheese and chives, or go Italian with scrambled eggs with tomatoes, basil, garlic, olive oil, and fresh mozzarella cheese. Or try the exotic mushroom scramble with Boursin cheese and truffle oil.

Lunches are tuned up a notch or two with variations on such old favorites as macaroni and cheese; duck ham and white cheddar on orecchiette (little ears) pasta dusted atop with crunchy panko crumbs. Sublime. On an earlier visit, it had been made with Cotswold cheddar macaroni with crabmeat.

Lunch also offers a lighter green salad with warm goat cheese and poached pears. For variety, how about a sandwich of toasted peanut butter, jam, and mascarpone? Or try the grilled cheese sandwich with three cheeses — fontina, mozzarella, and havarti — but also with tomato, basil, and honey, which made its way onto the Oprah Winfrey Show a few years ago to great kudos.

The dinner menu changes both with the seasons and with what is available. Much of it is purchased off Michigan’s ever-growing farms producing fresh products, free-range chickens, and specialty products, such as from the famed Zingerman’s Bakery in Ann Arbor.

On one visit, one of the best dishes was game hen grilled with fresh herbs and served with pureed cauliflower and roasted fingerling potatoes. On a later visit the hen became an Otto’s Farm chicken in a spicy tajine, the North African style of cooking in a clay pot. This version came with green olives, apricots, preserved lemon, pepper, and fluffy quinoa and baby peas — a distinctly exotic treatment.

The fish special was a delightful fresh northwestern sturgeon, accompanied by fresh roasted root vegetables. And on another visit, the lamb chops came glazed with hoisin and sautéed asparagus, while the arctic char was grilled and dressed with olives, capers, and grapefruit.

Likewise, on one visit the kitchen produced traditional French cassoulet-style grilled duck breast and a confit leg with flageolet beans and sausage. The next visit, the duck breast was there again, but with cauliflower, wild rice, red pepper, a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, and topped with a small egg yolk.

The desserts at Café Muse are also very well-executed. There is a soul-warming bread pudding, a comforting butterscotch pudding with crumbles of chocolate, and a nicely done crême brulée.

What all these dishes add up to is a highly skilled and adaptable kitchen where everything is always in flux. It also speaks to a chef with a lot of skill and capacity to take food in all kinds of new directions, all the time.

There is nothing wrong with a having a menu that is a moving target, as it is at Café Muse.

In fact, the ability to handle such variety speaks ample to a whole new and different attitude and skill that has been evolving in Detroit’s restaurant scene that we first noted in this magazine more than a year ago, calling it the arrival of the “Young Turk” chefs. They bring an entirely new and energetic view, a fresh generation of chefs and restaurant owners willing to shed the safety and stability of the older style of dining and inject energy and whimsy into what they do.

Café Muse certainly is on the edge of that group.

418 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak. 248-544-4749. B & L daily, D Tue.-Sat.

Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic.