Occasionally, you run across a little place that makes you smile, a place indelibly infused with the personality of its owners, a place assembled with a very different eye, and with the skills of an excellent chef in the kitchen.
Such places tend to be the most memorable, and top my list of favorites.
On the prowl for just such a spot, I snag a parking space on a side street in Pleasant Ridge and walk around the corner to be greeted by the din of Woodward Avenue traffic, which rises to a low roar.
There, a few doors down, is the target: a single-story, stand-alone brick building that formerly housed an architectural firm. Now it’s called the Cork Wine Pub — a name that doesn’t exactly convey what’s to be found inside. Is this another wine bar, perhaps? Or is it a place with pub food?
Cork, as it turns out, has some of the most creative items I’ve seen on a menu in recent months. And its carefully chosen wine list is the kind that should appeal to people who really know their wines and appreciate the esoteric. There’s not a single usual suspect or mundane wine on this restaurant’s list.
“The main focus is to provide quality food from local farmers and support vendors in Michigan,” says owner Nancy Crutchfield. “Nothing is processed, nothing canned. Everything is made from scratch.”
So serious is Cork about this that Crutchfield says, “We don’t serve Bloody Marys because we don’t want to use processed tomatoes or spend the time squashing our own.”
Enter Cork and you’re greeted by a wash of warmth from soft colors. Welcoming you on the host stand is a ceramic elephant with its raised trunk forming the base of a silk-shaded lamp. Behind the stand, an open area rises up to a pitched roof with skylights.
Varnished wood display shelves display knickknacks, assorted pottery and vases, and an empty champagne bottle (perhaps remaining from celebrating Cork’s opening). A globe sits atop a 1950s suitcase, suggesting adventure. Three chandeliers hang side by side at varying heights. Potted orchids on a windowsill serve as bookends.
To the left of the host stand, a large rectangular opening in the wall looks into the bar. To the right is a fully stocked retail wine shop with an entire wall of bottles housed in a wooden rack.
We are led to a high-top table for four in the bar area, where our server explains Cork’s light menu of 20 or so items (some bearing the names of Pleasant Ridge streets) — from appetizers to main dishes and six desserts. We’re ready!
We decide to start the evening by taking a culinary ride through Chef Bree Hoptman’s more interesting menu items of appetizer-size servings. Hoptman, who’s definitely a rising young chef to watch, trained at the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colo., and cooked at the former Fiddleheads restaurant in Royal Oak.
We start with an order of J.M.’s Chick Peas, which have been rolled in light flour with, we guess, a touch of cayenne and either paprika or turmeric, and pan-fried. They’re wonderfully deep, rich, and spicy-hot, but soft inside. So simple, so inviting.
Next up, something called the B.L. Tart, a deconstruction of the classic sandwich, except that Hoptman has made a slightly sweet jam from bacon and spread it on phyllo pastry with fresh tomato and watercress.
We like the first two orders so much that we go for two more: the grilled-cheese sandwich, which resembles the lightness of a French croque-monsieur, but is made with prosciutto and Gruyère.
Then comes the Amherst Egg — poached, plump, and sitting wobbly on a grill-striped throne of brioche with flank-steak slices to one side and blue cheese and bacon scattered around.
We follow that with the Brick Roll, a brownie-sized savory square of wild mushroom, goat cheese, and caramelized onion — the flavor of each ingredient blending harmoniously.
At this juncture in the meal, it’s time to get serious and order main courses. But first, a wine from sommelier Jeffrey Mar’s superb list.
My eye stops on esoteric stuff that we’d love to try, but don’t: A 2008 Syroco Zenato from Morocco, or a 2001 Château Musar from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
The sparkling stuff looks fabulous, too. There’s a sparkling Vouvray from Domaine d’Orfeuilles in the Loire Valley, for example. Ten non-vintage champagnes include a Joel Falmet, a Chartrogne-Taillet Cuvée Ste. Anne, Ruinart’s Brut Rosé, and a Laurent Perrier Brut Rosé — all excellent. You’d likely have to visit several stores before finding them.
The list also includes several excellent German rieslings, six Oregon pinot noirs and two from Michigan, a red Chinon from the Loire Valley, and a 2007 Couly–Dutheil Baronnie Madeleine (which we order). The wine prices, we note, are very reasonable.
The main course menu, on the night we visited, had just five choices, all of which were more traditional in preparation than the smaller plates. The Elm Park Pork in super-light spatzele, braised cabbage, and mirepoix was a touch tangy — intense in flavor and perfectly done. There’s also a salmon filet served with white beans, roasted fennel, and crisp pancetta, and sauced with a lemon oil.
This combination of food, wine, and dining has a back story — one that’s uniquely Detroit.
Crutchfield worked for 10 years at General Motors in the design center. Four years ago, she found herself caught in the automaker’s misfortunes and was offered a buyout. She took it and, with business partner and investor Kelley Walsh, opened the restaurant. Crutchfield had formerly held various kitchen and administrative positions with Matt Prentice Restaurants and Sweet Lorraine’s.
After three years, and more than one version of a business plan, Pleasant Ridge granted Crutchfield the first liquor license it has ever issued, and Cork opened last winter.
Great restaurant architects and designers do lovely, soaring things, and we have many examples around Detroit. But sometimes, the heart and soul poured into small, owner-operated restaurants produce dining rooms done on a tinier budget that work just as well or better.
I think of these as Grandma Moses restaurants, places created by artists who are often self-trained, but have a one-of-a-kind approach that speaks clearly.
Such a place is Cork Wine Pub. It may not have the most sophisticated food in town, but it certainly has some of the very best neighborhood food. Nor is it the most elegant and grand place, but it’s very warm and personal.
What makes it work is that it’s so pleasant and so well put together that you leave it wanting immediately to go back.