Thursday, January 7, 2010

Eating Detroit - Angelina's Italian Bistro

Prior to taking in the Detroit production of "Jersey Boys" (I was lucky to get tickets - the entire engagement was almost completely sold out, and having seen the show, I know why. In short, it was an incredible evening of entertainment), at the Fisher Theatre, Ralph and I stopped by Angelina's Italian Bistro for an early pre-show supper.

The restaurant, which has been open about a year, sits on the corner of Witherell and Broadway on the southeast corner of Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit. You enter the place under the old Madison Theatre marquee. The theatre, which was demolished a few years ago, was one of the older of Detroit's movie palaces and was done up in sort of a Colonial style. I remember being in the place when it was still operating and maybe about 10 years ago when it was abandoned and in deplorable condition. A shame that another great landmark fell to the wrecking ball, but that's a fairly common occurrence here in Detroit.

In spite of the loss of the theatre, the office building that fronted it is alive and kicking, and hosts this splendid new eatery, Angelina's Italian Bistro. This was our second time there. The first was for a private party honoring Detroit music legend Marcus Belgrave back in December. Being impressed with the food, service and feel of the place, we vowed to go back for dinner sometime.

We arrived there Wednesday night at about 6pm. There wasn't much happening downtown, and things were pretty quiet. Although Angelina's does offer valet service ($5 on weekdays/$10 weekends) we found a spot on Madison across from the Opera House box office and parked there. We entered and were seated immediately. In fact, there was only one other occupied table and a couple folks at the bar.

A basket of warm bread came to the table right away along with a tray of "bread friends" (pictured left) that included homemade honey-butter, extra virgin olive oil and an "Italian hummus" made from white beans and other good things. Always a sucker for fresh bread of any kind, we hadn't ordered our drinks before the first basket of bread was devoured.

Looking at the wine list, I saw an "un-oaked" Chardonnay and ordered a bottle. We first tried this wine (although it was from another vineyard) at a dinner party over the holidays, and love the fresh, clean and crisp taste of the wine. This particular bottle was from "A to Z" vineyards, and it was the perfect compliment to the bread-fest I was having, not to mention the delights to come.

I ordered the "Primavera" appetizer, (pictured left) which was house pickled vegetables (what Polish boy isn't a sucker for anything pickled?). The plate included pickled fennel, pickled spicy red onions, pickled radishes, homemade course-ground mustard, some crustini, a little watercress (I think that's what it was - drizzled with balsamic vinegar) and shaved Pecorino cheese. Wow - what a flavor. I was told they use a red wine vinegar, sugar, some spices and water to pickle the veggies. They were crunchy and filled with that acid-sweet pickled flavor. Of course, this gave me reason to eat yet more bread, loading each slice with an assortment of these perfectly pickled prizes!

Since I had already eaten two loaves of breads, I figured it was just going to be a night for carbs. I ordered the Baked Mac and Cheese, which they make with Cavatappi (sort of a corkscrew shaped pasta), grilled oyster mushrooms and fresh herbs. Ralph ordered the Seafood Risotto that included a medley of seafood (shrimp, small scallops, crab), house made bacon, roasted fennel, tomato and red pepper flakes. Outstanding! These dishes (pictured left) were both melt-in-your-mouth, full bodied (without being overly rich), soul-warming meals. Ralph's risotto (we shared) was smooth, well-cooked and had a subtle heat that was a nice balance to the creaminess of the overall dish. The mac and cheese was off the hook. I loved everything about it - the pasta wasn't mushy, the cheese was a great blend of sharp and soft and I loved the crunch bread crumb topping.

We had salads, too. Stephanie, our server, was wonderful. Very knowledgeable on all the food, attentive but not bothersome, charming and helpful. By the time we were eating our entrees there were another 10 or 12 people dining with us in the restaurant.

Unbelievably, we couldn't finish all the food (what did I expect after eating all that bread?) but we managed to save just enough room for dessert! Something light was just in order, and we got a strawberry sorbetto with two spoons. Packed with berry goodness, this sweet and light ending (pictured left) was homemade and as good as I've had

There were so many things that I liked about my experience at Angelina's. What impressed me the most is how much of the food is really and truly homemade - the pickled vegetables, the pasta, the bread, the desserts. The service was excellent and it's a beautiful dining room. I love that they are using a built space in Detroit that was vacant for decades, and have brought it to life once again with new purpose and bright light. These are the kinds of special dinners one remembers fondly for a long, long time.

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