DETROIT — Rich food, a Mad Men atmosphere, and big-city elegance are located an hour north at the London Chop House, a reprised Detroit institution that a year into its renaissance is faring handsomely.
For the first 30 years or so of its 1938 to 1991 run, the Chop House was one of the places for the Motor City's elite to wine and dine in the heart of downtown. It was clubby and largely male. Patrons who made a reservation found at their table a book of matches embossed with their name along with a dime for having made the phone call. That gold-plated era tarnished as both industry and residents built new lives in the suburbs.
London Chop House: ★★★★
Address: 155 W. Congress, Detroit
Category: Business casual at minimum
Menu: Steak and Seafood
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations suggested. Extended hours for bar and LCH Cigar Lounge on the lobby level.
Wheelchair access: No.
Average Price: $$$$
Credit Cards: AE, Dis, MC, V.
Web site: thelondonchophouse.com.
Nico Gatzaros, son of a Detroit entrepreneur who owned the 1901 Murphy-Telegraph Building in which the restaurant was located in the basement, took on the project, installing a new kitchen, reupholstering cracked banquettes, and refreshing the dark wood paneling. (The family also owns Detroit's popular Fishbone's restaurants.) The result is a 1950ish supper club with a masculine feel sans the smoky haze, and mellow musical entertainment starting at 6 nightly. A seductive cigar bar with oversized leather chairs and big-screens is on the lobby level, which has magnificent marble.
After a valet parks your car ($10; there's limited street parking during lunch and after the evening rush hour), you enter the modest doorway and head down the steep stairway where a hostess will hang your wrap. Astonishingly, despite a renovation of more than $1 million, neither the entrance nor restrooms are accessible to people who use wheelchairs.
Lights are low in this long, well-appointed den and classic bar that accommodates 180 at black-clothed tables. Ambient noise is greater on weekend evenings, so if it's quiet you seek, select a perimeter booth and arrive early.
The young chef has played off the old menu, retaining favorites and adding contemporary treats. Unlike supper clubs of yore, everything is a la carte. The lunch menu with six salads and 10 sandwiches and entrees, shares several items with the dinner menu, but is, of course, less pricey. The place was quiet for our midday repast when clientele were business people and retirees.
Nine appetizers (including "caviar service") are mostly born in the sea. Daily oysters hailing from both east and west coasts with names like flowers are offered. Oysters Rockefeller ($17) hides underneath a little too much melted Parmesan, spinach, bacon, and a drop of pernod; tasty and over the top.
If you like your beef rare, take it a notch closer to the steer himself with steak tartare ($14), a thick patty of diced raw meat, capped with a soft-poached egg, drizzled with porcini (mushroom) vinaigrette, warm frisee (chicory, looks like frizzy lettuce), and a shaving of truffle. A suggestion: While densely delicious and absent any fat, steak tartare is best followed by light fare.
An hors d'oeuvre that sounds lighter and equally intriguing is buttermilk-marinated calamari with sweet tomato relish, and a lavender and honey aioli.
Most lunch entrees are less than $20. The horseradish braised beef short rib ($17) with a Merlot reduction and celery-root puree topped by a stack of crispy slivered leeks was fabulous.
Fit for royalty (and for fit royalty) is the juicy salmon ($17), pan seared and graced with a terrific garlic chestnut cream. Its odd coupling is brussels sprouts, which had an overpowering flavor, but when forked with the sweet raisin relish were entirely palatable.
Large gulf shrimp with angel hair pasta in a lobster broth ($18) was scrumptious, with clever bits of tomato, aged ham, and delightfully, basil.
Most entrees don't come with vegetables, so three of us shared the Doc Greene Spinach Salad ($12, named after a popular Detroit newsman), with roasted mushrooms, bacon, hardboiled egg, and a generous bleu cheese dressing.
The 10-ounce filet mignon ($47, there's also a 6-ounce version) is a peppered round three-inches-tall, and among the most tender and flavorful a body is likely to find. Served with bordelaise, chimichurri, or hollandaise sauce, we chose the latter but gained nothing. Climbing the ladder of the Chop House's aged steaks, there is a 12-ounce New York strip, a 24-ounce bone-in ribeye, and a 32-ounce porterhouse for two. Thick-cut fried potatoes ($6) were a tad crispy outside, soft inside, and unremarkable.
A superb recommendation by our server was the Dover sole meuniere ($44) with a citrus butter and toasted almonds: a striking presentation with pieces of this very white, delicate fish layered on bright green beans. Only problem: one portion of the sole had a run-in with a pepper mill.
The single poultry is free-range chicken ($27), a small, delicious skin-on, bone-in breast. Its cider sauce was good but too scant and the creamed corn was underwhelming. Creamed spinach, however, was delicious and suitable for sharing.
Cocktails, as one would expect, are very good and 24 wines are poured by the glass and nearly 200 are sold by the bottle.
Desserts are house-made except for ice cream and sorbet, and the two we had were, as they said in the '50s, out of this world. Sure you can bake an entire cake for $7, but this piece was dense and possibly flourless, with milk-chocolate frosting. For me, the icing on the cake was the beautiful pool of dark chocolate melt on the side (very much like Richmond chocolate frosting). Who knew two chocolates would synergize so beautifully?
From the old menu was the gold-brick sundae ($8), scoops of vanilla with crumbles of toffee and chocolate and more chocolate that hardens on the ice cream.
Service was stellar at lunch when the place was sparse, but struggling on a Wednesday evening when a large party seemed to send the kitchen into a tizzy. Our server brought an unordered side, an incorrectly embellished cocktail, and the dinner vegetable was delivered several minutes after the entree. A zealous table-clearer had us hunching protectively over our not-quite finished plates whenever we saw him approaching.
Contact Bill of Fare at email@example.com.