Puck is in Luck at MGM

In contemporary cuisine, Wolfgang Puck Grille holds a strong hand
Wolfgang Puck
Crab cakes with marinated tomatoes and basil pesto aioli. Photo by Joe Vaughn

By their nature, casinos are odd places for high-end restaurants. Certainly, people who gamble need to eat, but there is something contradictory about a highly polished, very hip place sitting right in the middle of a sea of slot machines.

The Wolfgang Puck Grille in downtown’s new MGM Grand Detroit is one of the latest arrivals on the casino scene. I doubt that there has been anything as subtly sleek and cosmopolitan to open in Detroit recently as this beautifully designed, well-run restaurant offering very solid, contemporary California-style food.

Just getting to the restaurant is an experience. Everything about the interior of the MGM complex and its approach outside has been designed to impress. And it does. Lit up at night with a glittering façade and neatly manicured front, the new MGM sports a new divided boulevard that looks more like Las Vegas than Detroit. Attached to it is a well-lighted, large parking structure from which, just steps away, is an elevator that delivers you to the main floor of the casino.

Like all casinos, it’s impossible to avoid being pulled into the vortex of the main hall and its sea of thousands of slot machines that emit an eerily inharmonious, undulating cacophony of electronic notes and light.

Follow the edge of the great hall around, through the slots, the bars, and cigarette smoke, and eventually you wind up at the entrance to Wolfgang Puck Grille, just steps up and away from the casino floor. A group of crisp and efficient hosts at a large sculpted-wood stand are there to welcome you.

Walk inside, and you enter yet another world, one quite divorced from the casino. The ceiling soars some 17 feet up into blackness, and several gigantic faux-granite pillars dominate the hall leading down to the bar at the back. The softly lighted dining area flanks one side of the hall, while the other looks into the massive kitchen through a long glass façade, providing a view of frenetic stirring, whisking, and tossing as the chef directs the sous-chef on sautéing and then plating food, while others direct runners to deliver the plates to diners.

In the back, the bar is quiet. It’s simple and modern, an equally tall soaring room, with a ceiling strung with hundreds of deer antlers dangling at different angles. Around the room are several long high-top tables with bar-height stools, and across the back wall is a contemporary minimalist  “fireplace,” a vertical series of chest-level gas jets with about two dozen dancing gas flames, set into a wide and shallow hearth. Oh, and check out the restrooms. Eight-foot doors, luxurious white marble floors, and some of the biggest stalls — in Manhattan they’d call them studio apartments — you’ll ever see.

From the softly lighted dining room, the only hint of being in the casino is a peek through a few skinny arrow-slot windows.

Oversize versions of those rectangular pool-table light shades are suspended over serving stations and other areas of the restaurant, adding a simple, clean, elegant look, and casting a wide but soft yellow light.

The restaurant opened in October. I visited first in early November, and everything about that visit went well — great, actually. At that time, there did seem to be more managers and table captains, telling people what to do, than there were runners and servers, and clearly every aspect of food and service was being managed, observed, and critiqued.

On my second visit a month later, things were more relaxed. Service was just as good, although one order got confused, but the bosses weren’t as prevalent.

Overall, the food is exceptional, and the responsibility of 15-year veteran of the Puck organization, executive chef Marc Djozlija, who has worked at the Atlantic City restaurant, and Puck’s Spago in Las Vegas, among others.

Djozlija grew up in Madison Heights and left to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New Hyde Park, N.Y. “Since I’m familiar with Detroit, I think that’s one reason the company wanted me to come back here for a while,” Djozlija says.

On two visits, everything we ordered was generally well prepared and beautifully presented, but one of the combinations struck me as somewhat odd, though I admit this is largely a matter of my personal preference.

For example, the preparation of the Colorado lamb chops with escarole, Parmesan polenta, and Niçoise olives was fine. But it also came with a very dense, overly sweet fruit sauce that was not listed on the menu or announced by the waiter. Lamb and jam? Not my taste and, had I understood that, I would have ordered something else. But since the lamb was sitting right in the sauce, there was no way of avoiding it. Yet, the Parmesan polenta, which arrived in its own little silver saucepan, was one of the best things on the table that evening.

Another diner at our table ordered the seafood risotto with gulf shrimp, Maine crab, poached lobster, and micro basil, which would have been delightful, but it was marred a little by flavor that some people call iodine-like. It seems to happen randomly with seafood frozen in their shells, a reaction much like what cork taint does to wine. Yet, the preparation and texture of the dish were right on.

A Wiener schnitzel with warm potato salad, arugula, and pumpkin-seed oil was perfection. “It’s a classic Austrian dish, and a total reflection of Wolfgang Puck,” Djozlija says. A great orange-golden breadcrumb crust, not too thick, surrounded a large, delicate piece of fresh, thinly sliced veal that was distinct in flavor and cooked to a point of such tenderness that it cut almost effortlessly with the side of a fork. Delightful.

Every restaurant today is doing a main course of braised beef shorts ribs. They have become a barometer by which to judge one restaurant against the next. Puck Grille gets a B+. The flavor of the ribs was a little flat, and the meat was a tad on the dry side.

From the first-course menu, don’t miss the Crab Louis, that old American standby, reinterpreted here with lovely, luscious, fresh chunks of lobster. “Crab Louis was one of the original signature Grille pieces, so we brought it here,” Djozlija says. It’s mayonnaise-based, but served here with a horseradish flan and tomato glaze.

I also loved the beef tartare, served with toasted Italian bread and a tiny, raw whole quail egg placed atop with its speckled little shell sitting on the side. On this dish, the kitchen gets a big thumbs-up for getting the texture right, which most restaurants do not.

How ground beef mixes with other ingredients in a raw beef dish very much governs how it will taste. It’s one of the best tartares I have had in Detroit since Lester Gruber’s old London Chop House closed about 20 years ago.

The biggest drawback to Wolfgang Puck Grille is the noise level. On the first visit, the place was half full, and we found it somewhat loud, but not nearly as noisy as our second visit, during which our table of four found it was nearly impossible to carry on a conversation without shouting at one another.

Overall, this is a very good restaurant. My guess is that Wolfgang Puck Grille is going to do well with the business crowd, and it should because it’s very much the kind of place the Detroit area lacks and needs. Puck is big-city cosmopolitan, and while some people will always find its location in a casino strange, others will undoubtedly love it.

In the MGM Grand Detroit, 1777 Third St., Detroit; 313-465-1648.  B, L, D daily.

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