Detroit diners seem to find their own farm-raised meats and vegetables too dull for eating out. The most lauded local restaurant of the moment, Tribute, features wasabi tobiko and winter truffles on its menu, and has a Japanese chef. In Ann Arbor, Detroit's intellectual neighbor, the notion of fine dining retains a whiff of the decadent, and the favored meeting places are coffeehouses.
Diners in both cities who want a taste of the Midwest drive about forty-five minutes to the postcard-ready town of Milford, whose still-active Main Street has non-chain stores in brick and white-clapboard buildings. Behind the large picture windows of a double storefront that once housed a furniture store are the Prairie-style fittings of Five Lakes Grill, whose chef, Brian Polcyn, celebrates the ingredients of the region in which he grew up.
From the tile mosaic of the state of Michigan on the entryway floor and the big seventies-style Pop canvases in the dining room of harvest landscapes with cows and sheaves of wheat, you can guess that there will be an emphasis on the local. The lines of the large restaurant are clean; the only ornamentation comes in the form of Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced lamps and teak-colored wood columns.
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The food has clean lines too. Polcyn knows how to get true flavors. His forte is meat, appropriately enough in the Midwest. The pork and the duck were the best I've had in years—anywhere, even in southwestern France, where every house is a farm and every farm fattens a few ducks. Specifically, Polcyn's forte is charcuterie, the art of sausage-making. Every day a different pâté or terrine is offered, and the peppery duck pâté I tasted was a tour de force. Each component—the firm little chunks of duck leg, the pistachios, a soft pink-and-red forcemeat of pork and duck—had distinct texture and flavor; the aftertaste was clear and pleasant, with none of the muddy residue most pâtés leave.
I wasn't surprised to learn that Polcyn teaches charcuterie at the nearby Schoolcraft College, in Livonia, where he himself trained. Michigan is something of a breeding ground for culinary virtuosos: only seventy Americans have passed the ten-day Certified Master Chef exam; eight of them live in Michigan, and four of them teach at Schoolcraft. Polcyn has twice taken the exam and twice failed. (His second attempt was described in The Soul of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman.) His zeal seems misguided, given the weeks of preparation and lost sleep the exam involves, and given that he has amply proved his talent as a cook—something quite different from technical bravura.
Polcyn is at his best with local provender. Pan-roasted breast of Indiana duckling with a port currant sauce could hardly have had better flavor, and even a trendy-sounding garlic-sage duck strudel beside the lightly gamy sliced meat was simple and good. The duckling is always on the menu, along with potato-crusted Lake Superior whitefish, the fish to eat in these parts. (In truth, lake whitefish is more appealing as an idea than as a reality, because of its sometimes mushy texture, although it does have a hearty, arctic char-like flavor.) Another local ingredient that always appears is pork, and Polcyn's grilled pork loin, served with wild mushrooms and pan juices sweetened with caramelized onions, was as unexpectedly lush as the duck. Both sauces had the shine of lacquer and the impressive depth of flavor that comes only after multi-step cooking over several days. Even better, both meats, with their full marbling of fat, tasted the way they used to, before Long Island ducklings were raised in quarters closer than a Manhattan apartment and Iowa hogs were bred to be slim.
It's easy and also a good idea to steer clear of the dishes featuring Polcyn's I-keep-up-with-national-trends ingredients, such as white truffle oil and pomegranate molasses, both of which are in fact already démodé on the coasts. And perhaps inspired to nitpicking by reading about that murderous exam (framed articles document Polcyn's dogged determination), I couldn't help noticing that the wild-rice cakes served with the duck were made with bland, cultivated "wild" rice. This was a disappointment, given that hand-harvested, truly wild rice is gathered in the lakes of northern Minnesota (which, after California, is the country's chief grower of cultivated wild rice) and Wisconsin.
The greater, and similarly easy to remedy, disappointment was the condition of the cheeses. Polcyn wisely obtains them from Zingerman's, in Ann Arbor, which is probably the country's best source of artisan cheeses (the bread, too, comes from there). The selection that night included several Spanish cheeses that Zingerman's was featuring as part of a month-long promotion, including a crumbly, tangy sheep's-milk cheese called Zamorano to which I had developed a strong attachment when I tried it during an all-too-brief visit to the store. But the restaurant had kept the cheese too long and neglected to trim it, so it had lost its fresh, lively flavor and appearance.
None of this really mattered, given the quality of the ingredients—especially that pork, whose equal I don't expect to find in a long while—and the pleasure of finding such a nice restaurant in such a nice town. It did give me an idea, though: establishing a merit-badge system for qualification as a Certified Master Chef, and limiting the already demonstrably skilled Polcyn's requirements to cheese storage and wild-rice identification.
Five Lakes Grill, 424 North Main Street, Milford, Michigan, 248-684-7455. Dinner 4:00-10:00 Monday through Thursday and until 11:00 Friday and Saturday (closed Sunday). Reservations and Visa, Mastercard, and American Express accepted.