By MARK NIXON
How a restaurant becomes a great restaurant — and sustains greatness — is a mystery to me. What separates good from great restaurants is best defined by people like Anthony Bourdain (If you haven’t read his “Kitchen Confidential,” please do).
My only insight boils down to three words: Attention to detail. I bring all of this up with Dusty’s Cellar in mind. This Okemos eatery has the look, the promise, the panache, to be great. Alas, it has not scaled the summit as of yet. Keep the aforementioned three words in mind as we review our three visits to what I will argue is one of Greater Lansing’s best restaurants.
We begin with lunch. We wanted something hearty and filling because this would be our only meal of the day. I ordered the club sandwich ($14), which was packed with applewood-smoked bacon, ham and turkey and served on Zingerman’s bread (Do yourself a favor; if you haven’t been to Zingerman’s Deli or Zingerman’s Roadhouse, drop what you’re doing right now and head to Ann Arbor). What made this club sandwich extraordinary was the pesto and shallot aioli.
If this aioli were any better, I would formally adopt it and bring it home.
Judy had the tuna nicoise salad ($18), and the bites I had were fantastic. Generous hunks of seared tuna, still rare inside, were made to order for my sushi-loving spouse. The capers, olives, diced potato and roasted red peppers were perfect counterpoints to the tuna.
We also shared an asparagus and mushroom crepe ($12), with a rich béchamel sauce. The mushrooms’ earthiness and the woody notes of the asparagus shone through. I closed my eyes and dreamed I was back in France.
1839 West Grand River
Ave., Okemos dustyscellar.com (517) 349-5150 Mon. - Sat. 7am - 9 p.m.
Sun. 9am - 6 p.m.
In between courses and sips of chardonnay, I soaked in the surroundings. The decor is all about wine. The lampshades of the hanging lights are all made of wine bottles with their bottoms removed. The tables resemble, or perhaps are, wine boxes. And the service, with one exception, was noteworthy for its efficient and seemingly effortless execution.
Visit No. 2: Dinner. We shared a cheese and charcuterie board ($16). It was unexciting. Cheese should be served at or near room temperature to maximize the flavor. This cheese was too cold. And I would ditch the skimpy “house crackers” and provide thin slices of baguette instead.
For her entree, Judy chose the lamb chop appetizer plate ($15). The dainty chops were marinated in a curried liquid and came with a gruyere potato croquettes and a chimichurri sauce. The combination was outstanding.
Then came my aged ribeye steak. My fifty-five-frickin’ dollar aged ribeye steak.
OK, I ordered it rare. I expect a rare steak to be cool-ish on the inside but seared and hot on the outside. What I got for fifty-five-frickin’ dollars was a chilly interior and a not-so-hot crust. I really should have sent it back. Instead, I shrugged and ate on. The steak was on the tough side, by the way.
The saving grace was the cabernet reduction pooled beside the steak, and the garlic-mashed potatoes. Actually they were not enough of a saving grace for a fifty-five … you know what I mean.
Final visit: We invited my brother, Les, and his wife, Michele, to Sunday brunch. The consensus was that the food was good, but it was cool to cold. Further, the poached eggs on my crab cakes Benedict ($16) and Judy’s short ribs ($17) were NOT poached. The yolks were hard-boiled.
We sent the eggs back. And waited.
And ate much of the rest of the meal while we waited. The new, correctly poached eggs finally arrived, and we ate what remained of our now barely warm crab and ribs. I give the crab cakes high marks for not having too much filler.
But the overall critique from the four of us was: Inattention to detail.
Les’ pork belly hash ($13) was “cool at the edges but warm ‘inland.’” Both Les and Michele “spleened” (a favorite word in our clan) against so much pork belly on the menu. I disagree. Pork belly is my new favorite food group.
But they are spot-on about the coolto-cold food. I am getting to be a curmudgeon about this, but here I go again:
Why can’t restaurants figure out how to deliver food to a table when it’s still hot? This ain’t like building a new civilization. Tom Hanks figured out how to make hot food in “Cast Away,” and he didn’t even have a match!
Attention to detail is what separates the good from the great. I firmly believe Dusty’s Cellar has the menu, the look, the creativity and desire to reach the summit. Let us pray.SHE ATE Truffles and cheese
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE
Metro Lansingites have kept certain fantasies about Dusty’s Wine Bar alive for years.
It’s one of our most important restaurants, we told ourselves. It’s fancy enough for an anniversary dinner, but casual enough for a Friday happy hour. The food is upscale, but approachable, and it’s better than anything we were going to make at home for dinner tonight, we insisted.
It was last fall that Mr. She Ate and I headed to Dusty’s to use a gift card that we were gifted and enjoy dinner together. Service was a mess. Although the restaurant was half-empty, we sat for 25 minutes before being greeted with a waiter, and a bite of food didn’t cross my lips for a full 60 minutes. We lamented the turn that the evening had taken and the status of spotty service that seems to be prevalent in so many of our finer-dining establishments around town. We saw no reason to return until last month, when we again arrived for dinner on a Friday night.
We again started with the garlic truffle frites ($9), since I fondly remembered them as the bright spot of last year’s meal. They are still that — the fries are crisp, hot and seasoned, and tossed in an oversized bowl with roasted cloves of garlic and white truffle oil. I know that truffle oil is a divisive subject among many food personalities (because these are the issues that we debate when the state of our nation has veered beyond debate), but I’m into it. Speaking of all things truffle, if you haven’t had the popcorn at Zoobie’s yet, head to Old Town and get yourself a couple of bowls. The frites and popcorn are, bar none, my favorite truffled items in town (but if anyone else is offering anything with truffles — and I mean the mushroom, not the chocolate, please send a letter to my attention!).
Charging ahead, he chose the beef tournedos ($26) for his entrée. Tournedos are simply slices of beef tenderloin, and this version is finished in a hunter sauce — a rich, brown, tomatoey sauce with mushrooms and herbs. His plate was finished with mashed potatoes and asparagus. The potatoes, he said, were better than average, with some texture remaining to them. The asparagus was excellent — not cooked beyond recognition and still with some snap to it. Mashed potatoes are not a priority for me, so I took his word for it and minded my own business.
I chose the filet ($37), as I’ve been looking for a new favorite since the demise of the Knight Cap. This one was immediately eliminated from the competition. The texture of the meat was mealy, stringy, more like a flank steak than a filet, which should be smooth and melt in your mouth. The potato croquettes were amazingly, completely void of flavor. It was like chewing on air. The creamed spinach, however, could be a meal by itself. It was buttery, creamy and tasted like indulgence.
On our return visit, my husband and I hopped into our Delorean and traveled back to the 1990s where we ordered the fondue appetizer ($15). Yes, it was a little strange to have a bubbling cauldron of cheese surrounded by sliced baguette sitting between us on the table. Don’t get me wrong; I ate my fair share because I can’t get enough of those long, pointy forks (and because I’m eight months pregnant and there was bubbly cheese staring me in the face). But in the future I wouldn’t stray from the garlic truffle frites as an appetizer. This time, we both felt like ordering pasta, which has never happened before.
My restaurant dining philosophy can be summed up simply — I only want to eat something that will be better than what I can make, or am inclined to make, at home. Pasta never fits into that category for me. Sure, a restaurant pasta dish might taste good, but does it taste 25 times better than what I can make at home with 20 minutes in the kitchen?
This time, I ate my words (along with several bites of his dinner.) Friends, the five-cheese penne ($18) is one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had. The mixture of cheeses gives a depth of flavor that is unparalleled, and is exactly what is missing in literally all of the restaurant macaroni and cheese offerings that I’ve had throughout the Lansing area. He added seared steak to the top, and we were blown away by the delicious simplicity of the dish.
My pork tenderloin ($28) was well-prepared, pink and juicy on the inside, but could have used 15 more seconds in a screaming-hot skillet to develop a sear. The maple mashed sweet potatoes were overly sweet and the roasted eggplant drizzled with BBQ sauce was a head-scratcher. Remember that old song, one of these things is not like the other? I don’t know where BBQ eggplant belongs, but it wasn’t on this plate.
Dusty’s isn’t exciting. The menu isn’t innovative, and the selection of entrees has clearly been cultivated to please a certain well-heeled clientele, which is going to flock to Dusty’s regardless of the fact that there’s better food to be found with a little searching. I’d go back for the frites and the pasta, but nothing else would motivate me enough to leave the confines of my own kitchen.