Yep. It’s just me and Samantha Brown. You know Samantha Brown, right? She’s one of the Travel Channel’s top personalities. She goes to all those hotels and stuff.
Well, OK, it’s us and about 5 cameras, but you can’t see the cameras. Just us.
We’re in a corner suite in the MGM Grand Hotel in beautiful downtown Detroit, Michigan. It’s a sleek glass building with retro art deco touches, right across the street from the DTE Energy building. At the moment, Sam’s waxing poetic about the sleek wood grain on the cabinets in the kitchen. I’m nursing a martini hangover on the sofa with a comped bottle of Dom Perrier, totally unprepared. Next to her perfect blond bob and 100-kilowatt smile, I’m what the cat dragged in, a total street urchin.
What have I gotten myself into? She wants me to show her the “real” Detroit? Vibrant, bankrupt, living dead Detroit?
I know from her show Sam has high class tastes, so after getting her situated in her room, we hit up Wolfgang Puck Steak on the first floor. I figure that oughta impress her. The maitre d’ seats us under a stock photo of Detroit’s skyline, and before I can even ask for an ice water, Sam orders us two $84 steaks and Oysters Rockefeller.
She flashes her company card and winks, our silhouettes dimly visible through the delicate latticework panels I fancy Wolfgang himself must’ve selected.
“Don’t worry about it, silly. No one said you were a cheap date!”
The steak is Wagyu beef from Snake River Farms. Yes – Wagyu. Sam absolutely loves it. The Oysters Rockefeller, gussied up with spinach, bacon, and absinthe, is a decadent treat, a shameful pleasure. If the original Oysters Rockefeller got its name for having a sauce as rich as the oil magnate himself, then Puck’s take at least calls for a Koch brother.
It’s all I can do to stop myself from drooling.
Yes, I know this isn’t the Detroit I promised her. Where’s that trademark patina of grit the cameras love, the struggle embodied in that bitter, bearded man that trudges through the vast expanse of nothingness to go nowhere, the only sign of civilization an abandoned, crumbling corner store on a forgotten street?
We hop in her chauffeured limo and cruise. I point the way to Belle Isle, our wonderful state park, taking pains to show her the grandeur of the old aquarium and greenhouse. Then I take us across the devastated east side, and then tony, old money Palmer Woods, with its huge brick mansions. I’m showing her everything.
“You’re going to get the whole story,” I tell her, my eyes desperate, pleading, bloodshot ravines of despair. “This isn’t gonna be another one of those incomplete, Anthony Bourdain-style smearfests. We have nice neighborhoods, and we have bad neighborhoods. Like any other city. OK?”
Sam nods politely, perhaps even nervously.
“Hey, aren’t we gonna be late for the Red Wings game? We wouldn’t want to miss that!”
Right. Of course. She’s gone ahead and bought tickets to the Wings-Avalanche game tonight. I’d forgotten, lost in my wild, crazed enthusiasm for Detroit.
Not that it was bad idea. This is Hockey Town. Nothing speaks to Detroit like ice, wanton physical violence, and the occasional shootout. For about 7 months a year, we live and breathe hockey, and it’s an unwritten law that every bar in the area has to have at least one TV tuned in to every Wings game. Rumor has it they dock you on the health inspection if you don’t.
Since we’re pressed for time, I place an order for us at Slows To Go. The original Slows Bar-B-Q on Michigan Avenue was so trendy that the New York Times wrote an article about it, probably more than once. The wait used to be so long you could go through the McDonald’s drive-thru 30 times and still not have a table.
The secret to Slows’ popularity is simple. Everything is solid, from the barbecue to the cornbread and black eyed peas. It’s blue-eyed soul for the masses, and Slows To Go lives up to the example owner Phil Cooley set on Michigan Avenue. The decor, heavy on the repurposed wood and bold colors, is modern and minimal – in a word, fly. So is the location, a renovated, art deco (again) limestone building on Cass in Detroit’s hippest, too cool to go the school my rich parents are paying for district, Midtown.
Hell, the restaurant’s sign alone is a work of art, Slows To Go spelled vertically with metal letters, with each letter repeating multiple times horizontally. Oh, and as if the wasn’t enough the sign doubles as a bike rack, too. It’s like dying and going to hipster heaven.
I should’ve known heaven would have bike lanes.
“Order for Samantha Brown!”
Our cashier, dressed in all black, hands us an awfully brown, awfully conspicuous paper bag. Usually, they’d ask us what sauces we wanted, but since it’s Samantha Brown, we got all 5 without asking.
“Here you go! Enjoy!”
Inside, wrapped in more brown paper, there’s a Yardbird sandwich and a rack of St. Louis Ribs. We look like drooling, incoherent foodie winos on Christmas morning, tearing open the packaging to get at the goodies, but we can’t help ourselves. We couldn’t even wait to get back in the limo.
At Sam’s behest, we dive into the Yardbird first, a potent combo of Amish chicken, homemade mustard sauce, sautéed mushrooms, cheddar, and applewood bacon on Zingerman’s toast. It’s like they pulled the contents out of Dr. Atkins’ arteries and plopped it on some awesome bread. We each finish our respective half in about 3 bites flat.
Next, we unwrap the St. Louis ribs, slow-cooked in a smoker and dry-rubbed to perfection, the charred outer layer protecting a moist underworld of flavor. It’s meat that literally clings to the ribs, cut from the meatiest part of the rib cage, the rib tips removed to maximize the meat to everything else ratio. What’s left is a rectangle of prime pork, begging to be devoured.
Following a quick dry run on the ribs – don’t worry, they passed inspection – we liberally apply Slows’ different sauces: North Carolina, Mustard, Apple, Sweet, and Spicy. All are delicious. Pretty soon we’ve used up our daily allotment of Wet-Naps, and Sam’s fingers are glistening with grease.
Game time is just around the corner.
“George, I think we’d better get going. Really. We’ll take the rest to go.”
“C’mon! Seriously this time.”
“OK, OK. Just one more rib!”
The Wings game is sold out, and the streets are packed. Parking is going for $15 or $20. I know I’m already sick of the traffic, and we have to drive up Woodward later to check out the Vinsetta Garage, an old full service garage converted into a restaurant (and art deco to boot!). It’s got long waits, wallpaper made out of old repair receipts, and the food is served on metal trays.
I can hardly wait.
As the The Joe security guard runs a metal detector over my jeans, I’m busy telling Sam about how Vinsetta’s Waygu steak is “Detroit locker dry-aged” for 28 days. 28 days, Sam!
Ring! Ring! Ring!
Wait, what’s that sound? Is that my alarm clock? Here? What? Oh, sh-