When the Wolfgang Puck Grille closed in June to make room for what MGM Grand Detroit calls its old, new sports bar, TAP, it may have looked as if the noted chef was losing his Detroit presence.
Not so fast.
Wolfgang Puck’s Pizzeria & Cucina was already waiting in the wings, ready to bring Puck’s gourmet pizzas, pastas, and Italian-accented entrees into a space in the casino that had formerly been occupied by Michael Mina’s SaltWater.
When you’re the mastermind of a worldwide restaurant empire as extensive as Puck’s, it seems there’s always another option — in this case, two, since the Puck organization also moved into the former Bourbon Steak space with Wolfgang Puck Steak.
SaltWater’s raw-seafood bar and fish-oriented menu had been a critical success but a box-office disappointment, as they say in the movies. It was able to attract reasonable crowds on weekends, but didn’t live up to its potential on quieter nights, despite the fact that it was in the casino’s most attractive space under a soaring ceiling made entirely of cream and gray marble mosaic tile, lit by glowing Edison bulbs in a series of swooping brass-armed chandeliers. Mina and the casino agreed to part amicably.
And so Puck essentially moved down the hall as of Nov. 7, into that truly stunning space, which remains essentially the same, with a new, more focused menu and a significantly improved wine list assembled by sommelier Mick Descamps. It includes champagne by the glass (Gossett Brut Excellence), as well as a luscious Oregon pinot noir (Ken Wright, Willamette Valley). The beer list has been similarly tweaked with the addition of some seldom-seen artisanal Italian beers in a nod to the menu direction.
While the Puck Grille never lacked popularity, the direction taken by Cucina tilts more toward fine dining, while still emphasizing Puck’s wood-fired pizzas and adding more elaborate dishes. The transition has been seamless, because the kitchen and that of its adjoining sibling, Wolfgang Puck Steak (which, at press time, was scheduled to debut in early December), remain in the steady hands of Puck’s longtime colleague, Executive Chef Marc Djozlija.
Djozlija, a 1988 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, moved to Las Vegas in 1990 and joined the Puck organization two years later at Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. He has been with Puck ever since in several locations, and by now, is almost an alter ego. Puck chose Djozlija to bring the brand to Detroit in 2007 when the permanent casino opened and he was an inspired choice because, as a Detroit native, he relates well to the guests and is aware of the tastes of the local palate.
Because the Grille had a completely open exhibition kitchen, guests got to know the personable chef over the past five years as he managed to simultaneously direct his gaggle of cooks and interact with the diners — many of them devoted regulars — who stopped to chat as they passed by on their way to their table. It’s a different story now, since the huge kitchen is behind the scenes, and Djozlija is not as accessible, and that’s a loss, since his personality is as big as he is. He does manage to pop out every now and then to chat with guests, many of whom he knows by name, and get their feedback, promising that if they want to tweak the menu in any way, he’ll try to accommodate them. Sous-chefs Beau Burnett and Jacob Williamson keep the burners fired while the chef mingles.
Although the dining space has been altered to a minor extent, with wood and leather chairs pulled up to smaller wood tables covered only with straw-like, woven black placemats with accompaniments of black or white linen napkins, the room is as elegant as ever with its panels of mirror, marble-topped service tables, and sparkling contemporary glass wall panels that look like oversized ice-cube trays. The glass serves as dividers between alcoves tucked along the walls, where some guests are seated on rust-colored leather couches. There’s been no effort to make the room reflect the change in direction, and that’s a good thing.
As for the menu, it’s precisely the right length, a single crisp ivory page listing à la carte choices, starting with the wood-fired pizzas on crusts made with dough from a 20-plus year-old sourdough starter that was shipped here from Spago in Las Vegas and is being carefully tended in the Puck kitchen. It produces a thin crust with puffy edges reminiscent of Neapolitan pizzas. Toppings vary from wild mushrooms, goat cheese, and leeks, to Italian sausage with broccolini and roasted garlic, as well as the classic tomato-basil Margherita. Still, I miss the smoked salmon with crème fraîche, caviar, and fresh dill that was on the pizza menu when the Grille first opened and I’d lobby for a return of that one, should the chef happen to stop by my table.
Appetizers are generously portioned and some easily double as mains, especially the shrimp scampi in a swirl of white-bean purée, white wine, lots of garlic, and lemon, which comes in two portion sizes. The chef seems particularly enamored of white beans. They turn up in the Tuscan white-bean soup dotted with a dice of pancetta and ribbons of Swiss chard — absolutely delicious but quite filling. The beans also appear with the grilled Atlantic salmon in rosemary butter, one of just a couple of seafood items. And there they are again, as a dip for the crusty bread.
Also on the starter list is something ideal for groups of three or four: the Cucina platter, which offers paper-thin slices of salami, prosciutto, mortadella, and soppressata with a soft pillow of Burrata cheese and some grilled rustic bread, presented on a wooden board.
Of the four salads, two stand out: arugula, radicchio, goat cheese, and candied walnuts in a Parmesan balsamic vinaigrette; and the Caesar topped with white anchovies and tiny Parmesan croutons atop chopped romaine in a garlicky dressing.
Pastas get the most menu space with eight choices, including veal and porcini-mushroom ravioli topped with a fresh sage leaf and brown butter; house-made fettuccine with wild mushrooms; and seafood linguine with clams, shrimp, and calamari in the classically spicy Fra Diavolo treatment.
Entrees include two more classics, tender chicken piccata in lemon-caper butter sauce and teamed with tart broccolini that contrasts nicely with the chicken; and a notable veal scaloppini in a sauce of wild mushrooms, artichokes, Marsala, and provolone cheese. It’s a hit. In fact, the scaloppini leads the pack in popularity in the early going.
Pastry Chef Vadim Orman contributes the lovely desserts, including a simple but exquisite cheesecake; panna cotta flavored with buttermilk and vanilla; and a delicate tiramisu; as well as a pretty little plate of cookies in rainbow shades; and a do-it-yourself sundae of three scoops of gelato, a tiny pot of strawberries, whipped cream, and caramel sauce.
The service staff, directed by Gary Bastien, is outstanding. Many are holdovers from the Mina restaurants and have been able to fit in nicely with the new regime. And that’s an integral part of any successful restaurant. Even in its opening weeks, Djozlija and crew were making their mark.