Potatoes are living their best life at new Michigan Ave. restaurant Cork & Gabel
Traditionally an Irish neighborhood since the 19th century, in recent years Corktown's dining landscape has seen a variety of cuisines move in and flourish, from the Southern-style barbecue of Slow's to the Thai-fusion of Takoi.
One of Michigan Avenue's newest dining destinations, Cork & Gabel, is serving Old World-influenced food in a beautifully rustic dining area that is free of televisions and public Wi-Fi. It fits the neighborhood with high ceilings, exposed brick walls, wrought iron touches and large windows that, on the south side, give a view of both the Michigan Central Station — look, the lights are on! — and the Ambassador Bridge.
Located on the west end of Corktown's main drag, the cuisine is bar-friendly Irish, German and Italian. Chef Matt McGrail's heritage is Irish and Italian, and building owner Joe Mifsud, a Corktown native, was hoping to own a German restaurant, so this is the result of that coalescence.
The three countries are showcased in one dish with the sausage sandwich sampler, also served with thinly-sliced pickles and perfectly greasy, dark golden french fries that still have some skin on. Three half-sized bangers from Detroit's Corridor Sausage are served on a pretzel roll and each are dressed appropriately.
A German brat has simply a bacon-mustard kraut and the Italian-style (the favorite at our table) is smothered with peppers, onions, provolone, bacon, bacon aioli and a crispy piece of basil. Representing Ireland, a third sausage has cabbage, peppers, parsley crema and hot honey.
Other nods to Ireland on the one-page menu — which is served wrinkled with wine and grease stains, assuring you this place is more about food than posturing — are the fried Dubliner cheese, Guinness-braised short ribs and a chicken breast entree served with parsnip mashed potatoes, braised Swiss chard and a cream sauce made with mushrooms and whiskey.
Nothing, however, screams "Irish gastropub" like the appetizer dish "life of a potato." This storytelling starter features three varieties of spud served three ways (boiled, smashed and mashed) with different flavors in between.
Served on a wooden tray like one used for beer flights, each end of the dish has a thing I've never been served before: a small pile of what looks like dirt on one end and bacon powder on the other.
First, to represent the ground from where the potato is born, is "edible earth" that is actually a mix of coffee, chocolate, almond flour, flour, sugar, butter and cardamom. Next you've got a glob of chive sour cream, then a butter-poached redskin potato, a dollop of soft and savory house-made Boursin-style cheese, then a smashed Yukon gold potato that is separated from a mashed purple potato by a small pile of bacon dust, which looks like powered sugar but tastes like smoky bacon.
As Cork & Gabel ("gabel" means "fork" in German, by the way) really has fun coming out of left field with this dish, which is a departure from much of the rest of the menu which sticks to what you'd expect from a Europub in America.
On the (slightly) lighter side, there are three salads offered, including a chopped with Black Forest ham, soppressata and some of the aforementioned fried Dubliner cheese. It's doused in a basil vinaigrette that is tangy and tastes of mint.
Many items are vegetarian by nature, but Cork & Gabel also serves a vegan burger and a vegan pasta dish.
The bar has a good amount of wines by the glass or bottle and the beer list is helpfully organized by style.
Being so close to Two James Distillery (next door), it's not a surprise that the cocktail list is no slouch here, either. The "Ford Revival" is a sturdy, sharp rocks cocktail made with Elijah Craig Bourbon, a ginger liqueur, lemon juice and a floater of red wine.
One drink that seems to stand out from anything else on any of the menus is the Lorelai. This elaborate, high-quality gin and tonic is served for one or two people (at $30 or $50, yikes) and is crafted tableside with much flourish and literal smoke.
Cork & Gabel, open since December, recently launched a weekend brunch service, and chef McGrail said he's planning an updated dinner menu for the spring season.
The new spot fits well in Corktown somewhere between the fine Irish hospitality of a modern place like Lady of the House and the sporty-casual pub grub of a spot like McShane's Irish Pub. Fans of Detroit's traditional European spots like Dakota Inn, or those who miss Corktown's long-shuttered Baile Corcaigh Irish pub, should put it on their list.
Cork & Gabel
2415 Michigan, Detroit
Hours: Dinner 4-10 p.m. Mon. and Wed.-Thurs.; 4 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat; 4-9 p.m. Sun.; Brunch is 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Prices: Appetizers $8-10; salads $9-$14; mains $13-$24; dessert $8; wines $8-$12 per glass, $34 and up per bottle; signature cocktails, $10-$30; beer and cider, $4-$9.
Reservations: Not required, but accepted by phone and encouraged for parties of six or more.
Noise level: Surprisingly moderate, even when full.
Accessibility: Two steps before the front entrance, otherwise no barriers.
Parking: Street parking and adjacent parking lot, which sometimes charges $5.