There hasn’t been anything quite like it in the Detroit area for many years: a restaurant with food so superlative, so distinct and different, yet with one of the briefest menus imaginable.
Just seven items a day. That’s it. Everybody gets the same thing every night: seven sublimely lovely little courses. The menu lasts just one week, and then changes. What you get this week will be gone next — and may never reappear.
It’s called a chef’s tasting menu and, while it’s new here, the formula has launched restaurants to the top of reviewers’ lists in major cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, and Paris.
Here, this sublime newcomer is Torino, on East Nine Mile Road in Ferndale, and its chef is Garrett Lipar — a total unknown in Detroit, and nothing short of brilliant.
This is gastro gone astro. Lipar’s menus are at once imaginative, skilled, subtle, and edgy, offering a choice of three or five courses ($34-$52), plus a starter and a dessert.
“We took a risk on whether Michigan was ready for this kind of dining,” says Lipar.
Perhaps, but what Torino and Lipar are doing will reshape Detroit’s top-end dining. They’re opening a whole new chapter.
Not since 1980s and the arrival of the Golden Mushroom, the Lark, and Jimmy Schmidt’s Rattlesnake Club — and in the last decade when Luciano del Signore opened Bacco Ristorante — has there been anything this extraordinary and exquisite.
“We’re trying to redefine the dining experience in Detroit,” says Torino’s ambitious owner, Noah Dorfman. “But we want to do it without the white tablecloth and overly fancy setting.” And that’s certainly what you get at Torino.
Torino is a relatively unobtrusive little place that recently morphed from a struggling coffee shop off the Woodward corridor into a restaurant and bar of just nine tables, plus a dozen seats at the bar.
The food is unrivaled anywhere in Detroit.
Shortly after taking our seats, a little ceramic espresso cup arrives at our table. Inside sits a mini slice of a black tomato with just a snippet of frisée, under what looks like a pea-green cream.
Next to the mousse cup is a small, low-stemmed beer glass with about 2 ounces of a malty, earthy smelling, orange-colored Dortmunder beer with a thick froth: an Ayinger Jahrhundert.
With my teaspoon, I tuck into the cup that the menu describes as an “amuse-bouche,” French for culinary foreplay.
Under the tomato and leafy frisée and up from the bottom of the cup comes a most sinful, luscious cold mousse that’s been whipped almost to the consistency of a Chantilly cream. It is culinary sex, a coital union between smoked tofu and avocado. The interruptus is a palate washing from the beer, which goes with it immaculately. The combination is stunning. I just sit back and look.
Torino’s little thimble of food has just smacked me around, leaving a startling, joyful sensation. But it’s only the opening salvo of one of the best meals I’ve ever had in a Detroit restaurant.
The service is attentive and careful and the staff fully informed on every aspect of each dish each week at special session with the chef and sommelier Ian Redmond, who select the optional wine pairings for each course.
The next five courses build to an unbelievable evening of dining.
The official first course arrives: a tiny salad of various beans, tiny bits of squash, frisée in dill cream, with what appears to be the yolk of a quail egg but turned out to be a glistening, dime-sized dab of an emulsified orange pepper.
The combination is divine. The accompanying wine Redmond and Chef Lipar have added is a small pour of a 2010 Bull & Giné Rueda Nosis, a little known Verdejo white from Spain.
The second course is a panned scallop on a bed of watercress and yuzu, served with small glass of 2010 Couly-Dutheil Les Chanteaux, another white wine from Touraine in the Loire Valley of France.
We taste. We analyze. We groan. We stare off into the distance.
Each course is about the size of a silver dollar — light as air and more of an assembly of flavors and textures designed to leave a pleasing sensation.
The third course is delivered. This time it’s a panned wreckfish, a deep-water Cape Cod–area fish with firm, sweet flesh, something like a more delicate version of monkfish. It’s served with clams and wild boar meat, and paired with a 2009 Luigi Einaudi Dolcetto, a smooth and supple Italian red.
Now we’re getting into deep, uncharted culinary waters. But it works.
Someone at the table remarks that Lipar’s food just absorbs you, as opposed to you absorbing it.
Next comes a heritage pork cooked sous-vide, served with grits and cannellini beans and a glass of 2011 Airfield Estates Syrah from Washington state. After this, we’re on approach for landing.
Finally, we get to the coffee and desserts, topped off with a glass of Mas Amiel Maury, a port-like dessert wine from the south of France. None of the wines served are over $20 by the bottle, and many are on sale in the adjoining espresso shop.
A departing first-time visitor who was seated at a nearby table tells the waiter she’s astounded by the meal and asks how she could not have ever heard of the place: “Well, we only had stealth opening a few weeks ago,” she’s told. “We haven’t done any publicity yet.” That was in July.
Years ago, there was place called Benno’s in downtown Detroit, and then another in Indian Village called the Harlequin Café, both of which tried to do something similar. But neither reached this level.
Lipar, a 25-year-old from Waterford Township, started cooking at the age of 14. “I worked as dishwasher in a nursing home,” he says, then went to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona.
From there, Lipar got an internship at the New York restaurant Public, followed by stops in the kitchens at Alinea and Boka in Chicago, which in turn led to a position at Frantzen, one of the top restaurants in Stockholm. Along the way, he got a lot of experience with the chef’s tasting menu concept.
Lipar opted for the tasting menu at Torino, in large part, because “we have a tiny kitchen,” he says. “The space is so confined that we ended up not having any option.”
A tasting menu also allows Lipar to buy only the best in the quantity he needs for that week. And it clears the kitchen staff of the traditional encumbrances of five or 10 different orders flying in and out at a time. It allows the chef to dictate both what will be made and the pace and timing of when it’s made.
My one great worry about Torino is this: that Lipar and Dorfman won’t be able to sustain the pace or resist the pressure to go bigger and then not be able to deliver what they do now.
And if I was ever certain of anything, it’s that Torino will become well-known and the pressures will become enormous. For however long it lasts, enjoy what’s here. It’s great.
201 E. Nine Mile, Ferndale, 248-247-1370. D only Tue-Sat.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org