Mabel Gray goes Mexican for its one-year milestone

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Those who have visited the seasonal and ever-changing restaurant Mabel Gray in Hazel Park know that chef James Rigato can usually be seen cooking in the open kitchen from just about any of the 40-something seats in the place.

For several days this month, however, Rigato will hand his kitchen over to his friend, chef Omar Ramirez, Tuesday through Sept. 24. He’ll serve a completely different menu of authentic Mexican and Spanish dishes, from chips and salsa to octopus a la Plancha.

Rigato says the very nature of Mabel Gray is evolution, so to completely change the menu and chef for three weeks is not unheard of.

“That’s kind of been our mantra from day one is that we do not stay still ... I think it’s important, especially in the exciting Detroit food scene, to stay in motion,” he says, adding that he’s invited as many as 25 guests chefs into his restaurant since opening last September.

(That mantra has served him well. Not only did the New York Times come take a look at Mabel Gray this year, the hip Hazel Park spot was also named a semifinalist for James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant.)

Rigato and Ramirez met while working in a diner in Howell as a line cook and dishwasher, respectively. Rigato says he would hang out with Ramirez after work at his apartment, where Ramirez and his friends and family would cook authentic Mexican food.

Rigato showed Ramirez how to line cook American classics like pasta and steak, and in return Ramirez, who is from central Mexico, taught a teenaged Rigato about authentic Mexican cuisine.

“Omar and I had a good friendship from the jump,” says Rigato, who also co-owns the Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake. “Professionally, I showed him how to cook, but like, naturally, with Mexican flavors, he showed me how to cook.”

Rigato says that while Ramirez takes over his kitchen, Mabel Gray should feel like a taqueria and the dining experience will be quicker and more casual. This will also be Metro Detroit diners’ last chance to enjoy Ramirez’s food; he’s moving to San Diego soon.

Walk-ins will be accepted, and reservations can also be made by calling (248) 398-4300.

While Ramirez takes the reigns, Rigato will travel to the Abruzzo region of Italy to cook with Luciano DelSignore of Bacco Ristorante in Southfield. The pair will present a pop-up dinner at Marramiero winery in central Italy.

And there’s still more on Rigato’s plate. He’ll be taking over shuttered ice cream stand Doug’s Delight, just blocks from Mabel Gray, which is at 23825 John R in Hazel Park.

He and his team will use the space year-round to make desserts for Mabel Gray, but it will also function as a seasonal ice cream stand. Rigato says he doesn’t want to make it “too chef-y,” but it will top ice cream with seasonal, local ingredients like sweet corn, Michigan honey and in-season fruit. Staying true to the original Doug’s Delight, Rigato will also serve “messy street food” like hot dogs, chili fries and tacos.

“I’m not going high brow,” he said.

Local chefs spin Spaghetti all’Amatriciana for Italy

Just a few hours from the winery where Rigato and DelSignore will be cooking later this month, the town of Amatrice was decimated by a 6.2-magnitude earthquake last week.

Amatrice is home to Spaghetti all’Amatriciana, a popular pasta sauce that’s served with spaghetti or bucatini noodles. DelSignore has called upon Metro Detroit restaurants to participate in a fundraiser for Amatrice, which suffered massive losses including hundreds of deaths. (Amatrice was set to hold the 50th Festival of the Spaghetti all’Amatriciana last weekend.)

More than two dozen restaurants in Michigan will put Spaghetti all’Amatriciana on their menus this month for $15. All proceeds will go toward the efforts to help Amatrice and the surrounding areas. DelSignore’s goal is to raise at least $50,000.

Besides DelSignore’s restaurants — Bacco Ristorante and Bigalora’s three locations — and Rigato’s the Root, participating restaurants include all Andiamo locations; Assaggi Bistro, Local Kitchen & Bar and Pop’s for Italian in Ferndale; Bella Piatti, Cucina Medoro, La Strada Dolci e Caffé and the Stand Gastro Bistro in Birmingham; Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, Coach Insignia and the Twisted Mitten (food truck) in Detroit; Bucci Ristorante in Grosse Pointe; Clarkston Union and Union Woodshop in Clarkston; Fenton Firehall in Fenton; La Cucina del Vino in Shelby Township; La Vita Bistro in Pinckney; Novi Chophouse; Tre Minto Risorante in Troy; and the Franklin and Trattoria Stella in Traverse City. More restaurants are expected to join the effort.

The fundraiser will continue throughout September.

(313) 222-2402

Twitter: @melodybaetens