When I first came to Detroit in the 1980s, my outsider’s eye was immediately struck by how little curb appeal, as the real-estate people call it, there was in so many of the suburbs.
Equally remarkable was that once you figured out where to go and were inside buildings, you realized that, out of sight and beyond the curb, metro Detroit has a large variety of restaurants, theaters, and other attractions — close to par with most major cities.
The deception is that it’s all so scattered, an indistinct string of communities and commercial areas that roll endlessly one into the next. If you were to cover up all those township, city, and village signs along M-59 or across 12 Mile Road and drive east to west, you’d be hard-pressed to tell where any one community begins or ends.
This month’s restaurant selection, Tre Monti, on Big Beaver Road in Troy, fits exactly into those patterns: bewildering on the outside from a distance, impressive close up, and quite grand inside. With a traditional Italian-style menu and large portions, it’s definitely a place for people who like to eat — a lot.
Tre Monti is an elegant, modern, castle-like structure, which sits at the back of an expansive parking lot and behind the also castle-like San Marino Club, which owns the restaurant.
The club was founded in Detroit in the 1930s by immigrants from San Marino, the petite nation that borders northeast Italy. The club, or castle, has the appearance of a place where Robin Hood and his merry men might practice archery or do some wenching — with acres of parking for their steeds, of course.
Tre Monti is more upscale and run by a team — manager, chef, and many of the staff — that made its mark at the now-closed Mezzaluna Ristorante in Sterling Heights.
Manager Zharko Palushaj, a veteran of several New York City-area restaurants, says Tre Monti was built as a regular restaurant in early 2008 by the San Marino Club. By December of that year, it was in trouble and on the verge of closing. They hired Palushaj to turn it around.
Palushaj brought in his Mezzaluna team, including chef Mark Bojaj, a childhood friend in their native Montenegro, who trained at a culinary school in Austria and worked at several resort restaurants in the Alps, not far from San Marino, which is the oldest republic in the world (formed in 1600) and the second-smallest nation (population 30,000 — or about one-third the size of Troy).
Dining at Tre Monti is like stepping into a different world.
You drive up to, and then under, an impressive stone-faced porte-cochère, where a valet will take your steed to be pastured on the blacktop. From there, you are led into a lobby filled with memorabilia of San Marino — framed photos, mounted swords, and portraits — and then into a very tastefully decorated dining room done by designer Ron Rea.
Silky, sheer fabric panels in green, burgundy, and gold hang from the vaulted ceiling. Fireplaces accent each end of the room, the crest of San Marino over one, an oil painting over the other. Soaring, arched windows fill another wall. Two-person booths and tables look out onto groomed grounds, which are reached through tall French doors at each end of the room.
Pleasantly surprising are the terrace and gardens, which certainly are among the prettiest in the metro area for summer dining. The patio is complete with a gazebo-style bandstand where live music is performed on summer evenings. The grounds also include a quite elaborate set of manicured bocce courts.
“In summer, we do a lot of smaller events out there,” Palushaj says. “We can handle 100 — 200, even — out there.” The table service is friendly and old-Europe style, all-male professional waiters in tuxedos who mostly, we noticed, have Italian or Eastern European accents.
The food at Tre Monti is, as one guest remarked, “not for the faint of heart.” Sturdy and plenty would be my description of chef Bojaj’s cooking. Despite the San Marino theme, it’s basically Northern Italian, urban cooking, Palushaj says.
Be prepared to stuff yourself. We could easily have made a meal for two of the very rich and impeccably fresh shrimp appetizer: butterflied, breaded, pan-fried, and served in a pond of creamy butter-lemon-garlic sauce that resembled a loose Hollandaise. The shrimp were springy and sweet, the sauce zippy and fresh — but very rich and thick.
Likewise, a first course of four big, plump, and fresh sea scallops double-wrapped in prosciutto and served in a tangy lemon-butter sauce, was so plentiful and rich that I left one on the plate with half the prosciutto. The cooking, once again, is excellent. The amount of food, almost too much — but who’s complaining?
Other first-course offerings include flash-fried baby squid with hot banana peppers and capers in a lemon-butter sauce, and smoked salmon with goat cheese, a quail egg, and crostini.
There are six pasta offerings served as an interlude course, if you choose. Among them is a rigatoni pasta that comes with a rich combination of porcini mushrooms, creamy Bolognese, mascarpone, and truffle purée. On the lighter side is the Bacci di Mama (kisses from mother), which looks like little pasta purses filled with veal and porcini stuffing, served with truffle oil and sage.
The main dishes are fairly routine Italian menu items. There are three main chicken dishes and three veal plates, of which we tried two. The veal medallions were more like veal filet towers (Well, we were in a castle!) served two to a plate on a wine-and-thyme reduction sauce. A puff pastry accompanies the veal with a ragout of porcini mushrooms, whipped goat cheese, and prosciutto — a weighty dish, but savory.
Likewise, a veal piccante is served with capers and a whole baby artichoke. It has all the right flavors, despite a huge amount of chardonnay-and-lemon butter sauce.
There’s an interesting dynamic here between the very high quality of the preparation and ingredients, and the size and weight of the portions.
Personally, I lean to lighter styles, but I have an appreciation of good ingredients and heavier cooking in dishes. Neither is a right way or a wrong way. Both just simply are.
Tre Monti is recommended for those with big appetites who like their Italian food well sauced and muscular. And even if you’ve lived here forever and don’t know the place, it’s amazing what you can find hidden away in the back of a parking lot in Troy. Buon appetito!