DETROIT — Selling a vegetable as a steak is asking for trouble, unless your customers have never eaten a steak. Even the finest kohlrabi shouldn’t have to pretend it’s a rib-eye. But if any slab of plant matter can survive the comparison, it’s the carrot steak at Lady of the House in this city’s Corktown neighborhood.
Kate Williams, the chef and owner, learned the blueprint for this recipe a few years ago while cooking at Restaurant Relae in Copenhagen, known for teasing great performances out of vegetables. In her restaurant, which opened seven months ago, each steak is made from about a half-pound of carrots, uprooted last fall. After slicing on the mandoline, they are rolled up to look like a big orange cinnamon bun.
Cut into it (with a steak knife, naturally), take a bite, and it’s smooth but firm all the way though — no mush, no crunch. And while the flavor isn’t meaty, exactly, it is very full and also rich, for which some of the credit should go to the pool of hollandaise on the plate and some to the rivers of butter the carrots swam in as they cooked.
This New Nordic carrot is perfectly at ease in a restaurant that is a little Irish, a little Midwestern, more than a bit Farm-to-Table, and extremely Bring Your Appetite. After you sit down, as the servers gloss the menu, they also lay down some Irish rarebit crackers coated with powdered cheese and mushrooms and pour hot black tea into grandma china. This is not a figure of speech; some of the china was owned by Ms. Williams’s grandmother.
There’s Paris-style cooked ham, a red-pink pile of it, cold, like an invitation to a picnic; an all-American prime rib au jus with way more flavor and spirit than you’ll find at any banquet venue; a salad of very young greens in tarragon vinaigrette and a lavish shower of Basque sheep cheese; steak tartare darkened with charred leeks and oyster aioli, a dish that would fit right in at a natural-wine bar in Paris or the Lower East Side.
The cocktails run the gamut from gin to vermouth and back again.
After dinner, you can have a slice of Bundt cake, her grandmother’s recipe, soaked with aged rum and coffee syrup, or doughnut holes made from baked-potato batter. (They are neither light nor fluffy, but they are terrific.)
These strands are wound together, somewhat loosely at times, by Ms. Williams, the undisputed lady of the house. A fair amount of the menu is autobiographical, like the restaurant. Inside, you can still see traces of its last tenant, an Irish tavern, including a fireplace set with stones from every county in Ireland. For Ms. Williams, the space is a link back to her great-grandparents, Irish immigrants who met in Corktown.
Ms. Williams, 33, grew up in Northville, a suburb west of Detroit, and was chasing a cooking career in New York when she came back home — just for a short time, she thought — to attend to a death in the family.
“Then I fell in love with it, and decided this is the only place I want to have a restaurant,” she said in a phone interview. A good deal of what attracted her was the hope that vacant-lot farms and start-up food businesses can help rebuild Detroit.
The leaves in the salad were bright green and undroopy because they’d been grown and picked by a farmer a few blocks away, in what had been an abandoned yard and is now one of many green nodes in Detroit’s network of urban agriculture. In the winter, that farmer plows the restaurant’s parking lot with his tractor.
The gin is made by Detroit City Distillery, a four-year old operation. The pork leg for Parisian ham comes from a whole-animal butcher shop near the Detroit Zoo, and before that from a family farm north of the city that takes all the food scraps generated by Lady of the House and tosses them to the pigs. Depriving the pigs of a small treat, the bartenders have boiled beet skins into a dark-purple syrup they use for cocktails.
“It’s a full-circle thing,” Ms. Williams said. “We want to be a no-waste kitchen.”
Chefs take up locavorism for all kinds of reasons, but in Detroit the one people talk about most is the importance of keeping money in the area. Using up scraps is another side of the issue: A penny saved is a penny earned, and a penny earned is a penny that can be reinvested in a city that outsiders have repeatedly left for dead. And hiring native Detroiters is still another side. The staff, both in the dining room and the kitchen that’s wide-open for inspection at the end of the bar, is notably diverse.
If I’ve made dinner at Lady of the House sound like a block association meeting, I apologize. It isn’t. In context, the scrap-saving comes across as creativity, and the local ingredients aren’t treated like sacred relics. The kitchen puts food on plates with an openhanded generosity, which may explain why the restaurant has been getting noticed by national media, including, last week, Food & Wine magazine, which named Ms. Williams one of the best new chefs of the year.
Ms. Williams pursues a style of hospitality that is historically female and that doesn’t get talked about much in the restaurant business. It is a domestic style, the style of mothers and grandmothers for whom welcoming guests was among the few realms of undisputed control many of them enjoyed in the era before feminism.
It’s a style that recognized the power that comes from feeding visitors, from teaching them about the place they’re in by handing them something delicious they’ve never had back at home.
You can see it in Ms. Williams’s opening gambit, the Irish crackers and hot tea. What an odd way to start a restaurant dinner, but what a smart way to say, This is mine, and you’re welcome to it.
Lady of the House, 1426 Bagley Ave., Detroit; 313-818-0218; ladyofthehousedetroit.com
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