Unlikely as it may seem, the new hot spot around town is a small restaurant in a rehabbed diner in Hazel Park. Mabel Gray is the creation of chef James Rigato and his business partner Ed Mamou of the Root Restaurant in White Lake, and it has been filling its 43 seats every night since it opened Oct. 1.
It’s basically a single room, with a 13-seat bar and open kitchen on one wall, and a long row of tables seating 30 on the other, in a setting of moody murals by Greg Oberle and an eclectic collection of salvaged items, ornamental light bulbs and cardboard boxes displayed on shelves overhead. That may make it sound cluttered but that’s far from the truth. It’s another winner from the design board of Ron & Roman, and it’s an appropriate backdrop for the fresh, appealing cuisine that departs from cliché.
There are no standard dishes on the menu, nor is it broken down to categories of appetizers, mains and salads. Each evening’s menu simply states what the kitchen is poised to deliver that night, and because the list is brief, you may depend on each dish qualifying as a specialty.
The single page menu offers 10 to 12 choices, with the fresh desserts from pastry chef Tina Conger adding the finishing touch.
The only problem as I see it will be returning for a favorite dish and finding that the chef has moved on to something else. For instance, the crisp brook trout with Manila clam, curry, tomato and a touch of tabbouleh that I loved on my first visit probably won’t be there the next time. The food is so appealing, however, it’s clear that whatever Rigato and his energetic crew replace it with, will be equally appealing.
Other dishes that typify the Mabel Gray style include house-cured lox with chive cream cheese, crisp onion toasts and a touch of hot pepper jelly (a lovely contrast of bland and spicy), crispy fried Brussels sprouts with smoked blue cheese and anchovy vinaigrette, and such salads as kale and tomato with Green Goddess dressing. The vegetables in these dishes, and also in the potato, pickled garlic and yogurt soup, are from Sunseed Farms in Ann Arbor, the ecologically correct growers who are given credit on the menu.
Those who order the tasting menu ($65) are served eight plates, including dessert, and so they are able to sample a pretty complete version of what the kitchen can do. Desserts are typified by a lovely chocolate angelfood cake with maple brown butter gelato and pumpkin shortcake with spiced apples, pecans and Chantilly cream.
Service is friendly and upbeat. The staff is knowledgeable about the food and the accompanying beverages, which include small but well-chosen beer and wine lists, and cocktails with housemade syrups and essences. Hand-crafted is a word that applies to Mabel Gray in all its aspects.
And who is Mabel Gray? She is a Great Lakes folklore legend. And now, perhaps, a Hazel Park legend too.
23825 John R, Hazel Park
Call: (248) 398-4300
Hours: Dinner only, 4-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 4-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Closed Sun.-Mon.
Prices: A la carte menu $6-$25, desserts $8; multi-course tasting menu $65
Credit cards: All major
Liquor: Full bar
Noise level: Moderate
Parking: Attached lot
Wheelchair access: No barriers