September 8, 2011 at 1:00 am

Rattlesnake Club's menu update, ambience suit venerable classic

Jimmy Schmidt has left the building.

But the spirit of the chef/proprietor who created the Rattlesnake Club is still felt in the striking restaurant, now in its 23rd year on the river.

After opening his first Rattlesnake Club in Denver in 1986, Schmidt returned to Detroit, where he had made his name as executive chef at the legendary London Chop House, to create the Detroit Rattlesnake. Last year, after 22 years at the 'Snake, he sold it to Stroh Cos. Inc.

And so, the question is: What's the status of the place, now that its perennially youthful founder isn't around?

Judging by recent visits, the transition has been smooth and seamless. The upscale, contemporary American fare is still top-notch, with everything made in-house from the bread and rolls at the beginning of a meal to the fruit sorbets and white chocolate ravioli at the end. The wine list has been brought up to date by master sommelier Claudia Tyagi.

Many of the people who worked with Schmidt for years, including executive chef Chris Franz and chef de cuisine Jeff Lanctot, are continuing to focus on locally produced, fresh seasonal ingredients and the sophisticated presentation that has been a hallmark of the Rattlesnake since the beginning.

And there's a spirit of enthusiasm among the veteran servers, who know how to take care of tables, whether filled with regulars or newcomers to the place.

Thanks to both social media and the previous Detroit Restaurant Weeks that introduced it to a new crowd, the Rattlesnake is succeeding in erasing the idea that guests have to dress up and risk spending a fortune to dine here.

For instance, there's a small plates menu with offerings such as a miniature skillet of blackened tenderloin tips with Maytag blue cheese and herb-sprinkled focaccia, and crunchy calamari and rock shrimp heaped in a paper cone, in a price range of $9-$15. And yes, even cheeseburger sliders — on house-made buns, of course — and tacos filled with carnitas are on the list.

Among other innovations, which include making the bar a more comfortable gathering spot, with informal seating on a grouping of lipstick red couches and chairs, is the appealing dinner menu, which offers two-, three- and four-course dinners at a fixed price ($37, $47 and $57) from a list of choices that includes nine or 10 entrees in addition to prime certified Angus steaks from the grill. Lunch remains a la carte.

Among dishes sampled at dinner on a busy Saturday evening when the dining room had a nice buzz were two notable appetizers: poached duck foie gras with port and roasted figs, and pork belly glazed with agave and served with a tart slaw of apples, fennel and celery that was just the right foil for the rich meat. (A passing waiter joked the now trendy dish used to be called fatback).

A special for the evening was a hefty center-cut pork porterhouse with a subtle touch of huckleberry sauce. Flash-fried perch, prettily served atop a two-potato combination, crispy and garlic mashed, needed nothing more than a splash of a light dressing of lemon and capers.

The Rattlesnake Club has been one of Detroit's premier destinations since it opened in 1988, but as often happens with established restaurants, it lost some of its luster over the years. The current regime is turning that around in a big way.

Rattlesnake Club

300 River Place Drive, Detroit

Call: (313) 567-4400

Web: www.rattlesnakeclub.com

Rating : 4 stars

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., 5:30-11 p.m. Sat. Closed Sun.-Mon.

Prices: Lunch appetizers, $9-$15; salads and sandwiches, $8-$18; entrees, $10-$18; dinner is chosen from two, three and four courses, $37, $47 and $57 respectively, with an $8 surcharge for certified Angus beef steaks. Small plates menu, $8-$15; desserts, $9

Credit cards: All major

Liquor: Full bar and an interesting wine and craft beer list

Parking: Valet

Wheelchair access: No barriers

abraham67@comcast.net

(313) 222-1475

The Rattlesnake Club is erasing the idea that guests have to dress up and ... (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)