They say you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s not always true. In a town where the word “renaissance” has been worn out of late, Detroit has seen a dramatic resurgence in its dining scene. I’m almost tempted to throw ALL caution to the wind and use the “R” word to describe the phenomena.
One of the latest additions, however, isn’t a new kid on the block. It’s an old friend. If you’ve lived in Southeast Michigan for a while, you know that restaurants in Detroit barely get a FIRST chance to succeed let alone a second. In fact, of the city’s once-grand dining venues, few have made a successful comeback under their original names, most notably of late, Joe Muer’s and The London Chop House. Now, you can add a third.
The “Pontch,” is back…and so is Chef Justin Vaiciunas. Perched on the 25th floor of the Crowne Plaza’s Pontchartrain on 2 Washington Boulevard in the heart of Detroit, The Top of the Pontch, with Justin at the helm, is once again captivating diners with both its contemporary cuisine and its views.
Chef Justin Vaiciunas (of the DAC, 220 Merrill, Forte, The Hill and Zin Wine Bar in Plymouth), and a Schoolcraft College Culinary Graduate to boot, recently returned from a stint at Salt Lake City’s “The Aerie” to follow in the footsteps of the Pontch’s former notable chefs, among them Chef Doug Gretch (a.k.a. Duglass Duglass) and Chuck Muer’s former Corporate Chef Chuck Rachwitz (a.k.a. Rocky) of the popular Rocky’s of Northville and Steve & Rocky’s in Novi.
As a historical footnote, the original Pontchartain Hotel was built in 1907 and stood many blocks away at Campus Martius. At the time, it was an elegant palace of wonders filled with mahogany paneling, potted palms, Tiffany chandeliers and magnificent art. The rich and powerful made it their home, and business legends shaped much of Detroit’s early 20th century future at the Pontch’s posh bar. Its life was briefly grand but very short lived. By 1920, it had closed. The current Pontchartrain Hotel location opened in 1965 and rests directly on the former site of Fort Pontchartrain, directly across the street from Cobo Center. During the past 50 years, it has been opened, closed, renovated, closed and now reopened as a Crowne Plaza property as of July 2013. The Top of the Pontch restaurant lists its opening as 2014.
For the record, I don’t expect imaginative, high-quality restaurant food above the 10th floor, on the water, or at any restaurant that revolves. There are exceptions, but food that competes with views usually ends up like glorified chop house fare, complete with expensive wines and cocktails with umbrellas. Yet, while you can’t deny the Pontch’s vistas, the cuisine here is serious and has a very promising future. An immediate left from the elevator’s landing on the 25th floor, The Pontch confronts you with every visual design feature in one dramatic, panoramic sweep, including, as a bonus, the Detroit River and Windsor, Canada.
On the lower of the dining room’s multiple tiers (seating approximately 120), circular, creamy beige booths separated with white sculptural vases hug polished-wood tables, all facing the free-standing tables nearest the iconic floor-to-ceiling windows, each flanked theatrically with cream-colored drapery sheers.
The views are so spectacular you might forget to look up to appreciate this level’s ceiling details of hand-blown glass arranged within its recesses. The uppermost level’s banquette seating and free- standing tables are spaced between shimmering cobalt blue and white columns of bubbling water rising from the ground to the mirrored ceiling above. Additionally, cream-colored, wave-shaped columns, curvaceous glass partitions pinned off the floor by stainless-steel pedestals and textured wall coverings in light caramel give this space its own atmosphere. From here, the views over the booths and window table seating beyond give you what is probably THE most- encompassing view of where you are and why you’re there. Against the dining room’s color palate of white, creams, and beiges, the service and bar staff, dressed tonight in black-on-black with blue ties, aren’t hard to spot.
Tonight, my service would come from my bartender, John, at the Pontch’s granite-topped, eight-seat bar on the upper tier. The bar is stocked with an ample liquor selection and makes some imaginative cocktails. You’re also welcome to dine there. So…what about the food?
Chef Justin’s menu is printed on (what else) cream-colored card stock with the simple masthead Re-Established 2014. My guess is they’re thinking, “if you don’t know where you are by now…” Much to my surprise (and delight), there’s plenty to choose from under the menu’s classic headings: 6 Appetizers, 4 Soup & Salad choices, 5 Fish & Seafood dishes and 6 Steaks & Chops offerings round out a global menu of contemporary dishes inspired by Spain, the Caribbean, Japan, Brazil, France, and of course, the Americas. There’s something for everyone, from Octopus, Sea Urchin, Scallops, Shrimp and Lobster to Pork Belly, Duck, Trout, Lamb, and of course, a Filet of Beef for those inclined. Of all the choices, 8 were marked Gluten Free (GF) and 2 Vegetarian (V).
I sampled three dishes. I thoroughly enjoyed the Okonomikaki appetizer, which is a traditional Japanese savory pancake with lobster, crab, bacon, and cabbage drizzled with a spicy mayonnaise and topped with micro-cilantro. The crunchy texture of the cabbage married well with the bacon and seafood. I could have made an entire meal of it, and I’m sure some do!
Chef Justin’s appetizer menu was so enticing, I rolled the dice twice more and equally enjoyed his Fried Caribbean Rock Shrimp with Thai Coconut Cream and Black Bean Mousse as well as the *Pork Belly au Poive with Pickled Pear, Pistachio Powder, Mustard Seeds and Maple Air.
*For all you bacon fans hoping there’s bacon in heaven, this is a must-try dish. For now, it’s 25 floors closer to heaven.
All three dishes I ordered were served on a variety of plate wares with simple silverware and striped bar towel napkins and appropriately seasoned and executed, as were those of nearby guests I spoke with during my visit.
As for the rest, here’s my box score. *(5 being highest/best where numbers are listed)
Menu Intimidation Factor: MIF 4
The dish titles are actually quite simple and straightforward. Their descriptions, however, (occasionally) contain somewhat less-familiar foods (such as Taro Root, Maple Air, Bone Marrow, Yuzu Butter and Ras el hanout Demi, even I had to look that one up) and terms (Emulsions, Sabayons, Aioli’s) that are more well-known by the foodies than the average diners. Of course, your servers will gladly explain.
All over the board, but you’ll feel most comfortable in this contemporary-but-elegant setting with business smart and fashionably casual dress-up. Warning: Keep an eye out during prom season. This was once and will soon be again on everyone’s dance card (if they can afford it). Or you can just slip into that crushed velvet tux or chiffon number and pretend…
The Crowd: 4
Ok, as much as I (and perhaps Chef Justin) might like to dismiss it, I’ll call it what it is, a gorgeous restaurant above the 10th floor overlooking the water (and a foreign country for a bonus). Thankfully, the chef avoided the dreaded trifecta, and it doesn’t revolve. It is, however, atop a mid-priced hotel chain adjacent to one of the Midwest’s largest convention centers and within an easy walk of the Joe Louis Arena. Having said that, the crowd can be a mix of suits; foodies; 1st daters; impress the hell out of the out-of-towners; puck heads; and (perhaps) some innocent, well-intentioned folks that read this blog and expect it should be a great meal. It’s a mixed blessing.
Valet, local garages and tons of options too numerous to mention…if you have money.
Bang for the Buck: 4
Lots of bang costs you lots of bucks at the Pontch. Appetizers $13 to $15, Entrees begin at $32 and generally go to $52…unless, of course, you want the FULL Lobster Tail, which is served to you by your Personal Financial Advisor. $85 will be added to your bill by the Pontch, but the good news is your advisor will advise you on an appropriate IRS tax strategy to help you pay for it.
Food Stuff: 4.5
Everything looks wonderful and tastes the same. Not having tried every dish (I was tempted), I’m going to go out on a limb and predict you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. Chef Justin is devoting a great deal of effort and has developed a team to match his visions. Enjoy the results.
Energy, Vibe, & the Cool-Wow Factor: 5.0
Fabulous views, great people-watching and wonderful food all within a backdrop of high-in-the-sky Architectural Digest décor and hip hop jazz. Depending on where you sit, it can be anything from intimate to partyesque. What’s not to like? I’m not sayin’ you’ll like it; I’m just sayin’…
The Top of the Pontch is at 2 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226, does take reservations by phone at 1-313-782-4318 or on www.opentable.com. The more casual Urban Cellars and The Jefferson House is in the Pontch’s lobby and perfect for watching the game on large screen TVs or while you’re waiting for the valet.
The hours of operation are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The restaurant’s email addy is: email@example.com.
They accept all the usual plastic (AMEX, MC & Visa) and are wheelchair accessible.