Ask any chef to describe what his or her ideal restaurant (to own) would be like, and nearly every last one will tell you it would have about 50 seats, be open only for dinner, be closed Sunday and Monday, and feature an inspired, ever-changing menu of personally chosen dishes made from locally sourced ingredients.
Yep, that would be heaven.
Only problem with that scenario is that it’s nearly impossible to support a stellar crew and all of your business expenses when your revenue stream is limited by your hours of operation and your seating capacity.
Unless, of course, you absolutely rock, with a capital R, meaning a stellar menu, great reviews, loyal customers and butts in every one of those precious seats—every night, all night.
Guess what? It seems like, so far, Chef James Rigato (capital R) has managed to pull it off at Mabel Gray, a nearly 50-seat restaurant packed into 1,600 sq. ft. of Hazel Park space that was once a diner called Ham Heaven.
It’s Chef Rigato’s heaven now.
Partners Ed Mamou and Chef Rigato, with design and architectural details by the team of Ron & Roman, have turned this small slice of heaven, located on 23825 John R Road, into one MORE reason S.E. Michigan is on everyone’s dining radar.
Chef Rigato, also of the award-winning Root in White Lake Township and theretofore Morels, Shiraz and the Rugby Grille, has had an appearance on Top Chef (Season 12). He’s also had a Great Lakes regional win of Food & Wine Magazine’s the People’s Best New Chef Competition to put in his apron pocket.
Okay, you are probably already asking yourself, who or what is Mabel Gray and why, of all places, Hazel Park?
“Just because” might actually be the best answer, but looking deeper, Chef Rigato fell for the idea of a Midwest legend, the one of Alice Mabel Gray (1881–1925), who led a recluse life in an abandoned cottage near the beach on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Her ghost, it is said, still haunts the park’s sandy, dunned shores and is the basis of folklore’s Diana of the Dunes.
The location of Hazel Park is a bit less complicated. As it turns out, the chef not only knows the area well but lived for a time just north in Madison Hts. He also knows that (like Root in White Lake Township, 2012 Detroit Free Press Restaurant of the Year) if you’ve got a great product, people will come.
From my own perspective, when you’ve got his kind of talent, you don’t need to pay the $$$ to be in Royal Oak, Ferndale or Birmingham. Hazel Park will be just fine, thank you. Furthermore, as a foodie destination, Chef James (at the moment) has pretty much got Hazel Park all to himself.
So, set your GPS and slow down as you approach, keeping your eyes peeled for the light-gray awning against a dark-gray painted cinder block building with a simple, rusted sign. It’s Mabel Gray.
This building also once housed a simple diner named Liza’s Place, and its ghost still resides here too, in the form of its diner-esque layout.
Entering Mabel Gray’s minimalist foyer, you’re cheerfully greeted at a small podium. To your left, a long, white, high-back, upholstered banquette stretches into the (short) distance, flanking every table the restaurant owns (about 12). Half the guests sit against the banquette while the others sit in chairs facing it. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
There are also 12 chairs at the slender wood-grain and stainless-steel bar top, facing a nice selection of wine, beer and all the liquors necessary to make some awesome craft cocktails (including Manhattans).
As you look further on down the bar, it stops, becoming the kitchen, with all of Chef Rigato’s kitchen equipment against the wall and his plate-up area opposite (all with a decorative sneeze guard protecting it in the event you want to just stand there and drool).
If you’ve ever been to an old-fashioned coney and watched the hash slingers ply their trade on the griddle while you sat nearby, well, the ingredients aren’t the same, but you get the idea.
This isn’t a diner. It’s a finer diner.
Take your seat (hopefully you have a reservation or a LOT of time on your hands), and immediately, whether you can put your finger on it or not, you’ll feel something is different about this new restaurant. It feels like you’ve been here before—lots of times. There’s the whitewashed plywood ceiling, wood grain, 4” x 8″ ceramic floor tiles, distressed concrete walls and a collection of found artifacts reminiscent of what you might expect to find in some small, quaint, up-north neighborhood hangout. It’s slightly worn, weathered and cool…
It’s so casual, so comfortable that you almost expect there to be a pool table at the far end.
You don’t smell fresh flowers, the host’s perfume, fresh paint or new carpet. It’s not here. (Okay, I will admit that the host may have had some perfume on. If she did, it wasn’t noticeable.) All you smell is the unmistakable aroma of great food being cooked and served in front of you, like you just happened to walk into someone’s home as their holiday dinner was being set on the table.
Everyone here is casual (dressed and otherwise). Even the staff is dressed in everyday (but smart) street clothes. Jeans are perfectly acceptable. As a matter of fact, some of the staff wears jean bib aprons.
On to the food.
Chef Rigato’s menu is ever-evolving, depending on what’s available in the markets. (He partners with Sunseed Farms and the Detroit Public School Farm.) He also uses MANY Michigan-produced commodities, which he proudly acknowledges on the menu, including Michigan eggs, honey, apples, maple syrup, organic polenta, peppers, lamb and beef. (There were probably many more, but when you’re printing your entire menu on an 8 ½” x 11” card stock, you can only explain so much.)
I chose to enjoy the evening’s six-course tasting menu at $65. (With beverage pairing included, $100.)
My meal started with an amuse bouche (small treat) of seared scallops, cauliflower purée, cranberry and toasted pine nuts delivered by the chef himself, which, if you sit at the bar is an additional treat. He did this often throughout the evening. It was tender, sweet and creamy…
I inhaled it.
Next, a house-made crostini, topped with a creamy jalapeno pepper jelly; sweet, house-cured salmon; capers; dill and green onions, was piquant spicy, yet the salmon was ever so sweet to balance it perfectly.
The third course, seared, lamb paté nested on tender greens, was salad-like. It was very mild and had an almost perfectly tender meatloaf-like texture. It was served with a creamy dressing and garnishments. If you’re iffy about lamb, come here and order this. Thank me later.
A house-made butternut squash soup with shaved pickled ginger, house-made granola and a drizzle of EVOO came next. The light, crunchy cinnamon-and-maple flavor of the granola piled in the center was genius. Then, when you crunched into the second mouthful with the ginger, your palate was launched in yet another direction. Try the ginger garnish last, by the way.
Following my squash soup was the Korean/Thai-style Manila clams in a broth of coconut milk, peppers, mango and cilantro. The clams were tender and the broth was medium spicy and highly delicious.
To prepare for the sixth and final savory course, the chef’s icy Granita of Lambrusco with grapefruit and lemon peel was just the refreshment my palate needed. Ahhhhh…
Finally, the hanger steak (beef) with red and green harina smears (corn meal), a confit of Ann Arbor potatoes (slow-cooked in olive oil) and a garlic aioli fluff (for lack of a better word) finished the set.
I know hanger steaks are trendy right now and that they have exceptional flavor. Unfortunately, they also tend to be tough and chewy (especially if cooked less than medium), and mine was no exception. The flavor of the beef stood up rather well to the myriad of VERY flavorful smears going on beneath it, but I’d perhaps have enjoyed another cut more. Still, it was a creative and mostly enjoyable course.
Not to be outdone by the savory, Mabel Gray’s dessert menu is also stellar. While I saw the chocolate pots de crème and banana pudding served to others, I sampled my neighbor’s lemon huckleberry curd with baked meringue topping. I was served a sliver of the house-made pumpkin pie brûleé with maple Chantilly crème. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
As for the rest, here’s my box score. *(5 being highest/best where numbers are listed)
Menu Intimidation Factor MIF 1.5:
Mabel Gray’s menu looks and reads like some gal (with artistic penmanship) took straight dictation from the chef as he created each dish. (I say “gal” cuz no guy I’ve ever met has handwriting this cool.) It isn’t large (nor is the restaurant), but it’s rather simple to understand. Thanks, Chef.
Dress 2.0 :
Clothes are appropriate. Your choice…
The Crowd 3.5 :
Foodies have found another park to forage in—Hazel Park.
The gastro-”nuts” are in abundant supply and seen co-mingling with northern suburban dwellers that Googled Mabel Gray to discover that it was actually on John R, NORTH of 8 mile.
There is a small parking lot adjacent to Maple Gray’s on its south side and another one about a hundred feet to the north, towards the back alley. I didn’t personally count all the spaces, but come on! It’s only a 50-seat restaurant! How many parking spaces does it really need?
Bang for the Buck 5 :
Appetizers from $6 to $10, entrees from $20 to $27 and desserts $8 to $10 on the evening I visited makes Mabel Gray’s one of THE best quality-food values in S.E. Michigan. Add to that its comfortable atmosphere and lively, food-centric crowd, and it’s a home-run choice.
Food Stuff 4.5 :
This is Chef Rigato’s new residence (almost literally). If you want to see an excellent chef up close and personal, here you go. Watch, eat and repeat.
Energy, Vibe, & the Cool-Wow Factor 4.0:
It’s Cheers with craft cocktails and fabulous food. The host may be the only one to know your name when you arrive, but by the time you leave, you may have learned everyone else’s. Arrived at 6, line out the door by 7, couldn’t hear myself think by 7:30.