By Mark Nixon
F. Scott Fitzgerald got so many things right about this land, but he was dead wrong about there being “no second acts in American lives.” Actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan comes to mind. So does Lansing’s ever-inventive Old Town. (If you don’t remember it from 30 years ago, you only missed squalor stewed in despair). It seems the every other movie to hit the big screen is a reboot/remake/sequel of some sort.
Add another successful encore to our midst — the venerable Knight Cap restaurant. The director, the set design and much of the supporting cast — all different. They’ve tossed a good chunk of the old script, er, menu. Knight Cap is back, and Lansing’s dining crowd ought to be tap-dancing down the sidewalks of Michigan Avenue.
The diver scallops? As good as I’ve tasted this side of Nova Scotia. The duck confit? It will give some fine French restaurants a run for their money. Salmon imported from the bonnie banks of a Scottish river? As delicate and fresh as wild-caught salmon I’ve tasted in Alaska.
All that and much more is being whipped up nightly in a kitchen not much bigger than a walk-in closet.
It wasn’t this way in recent years. The old Knight Cap had a tired, ‘70s feel about it — think Lansingborn Burt Reynolds’ character in “Boogie Nights.” In a 2013 review, I wrote the Knight Cap “has lost a step ... nothing terrible about the food. But not much terribly exciting, either.”
Clearly, that has changed. Credit new owners Leo Farhat Jr. and his son, Gregory Farhat.
The decor is brighter, highlighted by a striking bas relief of a helmeted knight and his royal steed. You can hardly miss it. Well, you can hardly miss anything in this place. Knight Cap remains as intimate as a medieval sanctuary. I counted two booths, 14 closely parked tables and eight cheek-by-jowl stools at the bar. That’s it. The epitome of dining intimacy.
The stars of the show, for my money, are the seafood entrees. The lightly encrusted walleye ($28) was expertly prepared. It reminded me of that amazing walnutencrusted walleye perfected by chef Craig Common at the Common Grill in Chelsea. The scallops ($17) were plump, sweet, tender and not over-broiled. These are notoriously hard to get right, and Knight Cap nailed it.
The “minor roles” on the menu are worthy of a shout-out. The roasted beets ($6) and asparagus with hollandaise sauce ($4) were more than garden variety add-ons. The real standout for me was the $15 mushroom sard: button mushrooms in garlic butter, brandy, cream, dijon mustard and a red wine sauce, served with a crostini. This appetizer is big and rich enough to be a meal by itself.
If you have room for dessert, try a slice of the bourbon pecan pie ($7) with melted chunks of dark chocolate. Amazing. Your blood sugar levels should return to normal within a week.
The duck confit ($28) is worth the price. The juices and fat supply a gamey flavor to the duck that is so lacking in most poultry. Judy and I are devoted fans of all things duck — which is why they duck for cover whenever we approach. (Ba-doom crash! Thank you folks, I’ll be here all night.)
Our frequent dining companion, Bruce, lauded Knight Cap for providing “honest to goodness steak knives” and not those awful serrated knives that tear instead of slice. He is a steak lover, and on separate occasions had an amazing rib-eye steak “cooked to perfection” and a tenderloin that was “downright cold” inside.
This is the bane of many restaurants. Overheat the food, and the quality plummets. Underheat it, and it reaches your table practically begging for a sweater to stay warm.
Another example: My seafood chowder ($15) was creamy, silky goodness. But it arrived on the cool side. It was explained to me that heating it too much makes the cream “fall apart.” Still, there has to be a way to have it hot without wrecking it. If we can put a man on the moon ...
Since its opening in 1969, the original Knight Cap was known for its stellar service. It hasn’t missed a beat with the new owners. The service is spot-on, attentive without being cloying.
Every show has an off-night, and it’s safe to say this place will have an occasional, ahem, off-knight. (You’ve been a great audience, don’t forget to tip the waitstaff.) But the show must go on, and does. I predict the nightly performances will continue wowing the crowds for a long time to come.
Still the best filet in town
By Gabrielle Johnson
If you’re going to sell me an off-menu special, you have to tell me the price.
During a dinner at the recently renovated Knight Cap, now under new ownership, we listened to our server — and two other nearby servers — wax poetic about that evening’s bay scallop risotto and club-cut New York strip steak, all without mentioning a price. That automatically makes me assume that it’s $100 and thus off-limits. On our return visit, my suspicion that this vagueness was a directive, not simple forgetfulness, was confirmed. The fiancé and I had dinner at the bar on our second visit, and the bartender also failed to tell us the prices of the specials. I find this highly annoying.
Rant over. Let’s talk about the restaurant’s new look. Gone are the red brick walls, heavy draperies and 1970s key party lighting. The muted blues and grays of the new Knight Cap scream minimalism, while the arrangement of tables is anything but. Servers weave their way through a labyrinth of closely placed tables. But an intimate dining experience has always been part of Knight Cap’s charm.
And while Knight Cap has improved in style, it has, unfortunately, taken a step back in quality of service. I long for the days of Ricque, the understated and elegant waiter who murmured the specials to you like he was telling you a secret. Now we have high school students in ill-fitting vests, so eager to please that they pick their way across the dining room every five minutes to refill your water glass. One server was so clueless that he described the peppercorn-crusted steak as corn-crusted — and didn’t realize the error of his ways because he didn’t know what peppercorns are. Seriously?
As I ordered my filet ($40), I stared at the waiter. We both knew that he had follow-up questions to ask, but I had no confidence that he knew what they were. To be fair, “How well do you want that cooked?” is a version of the correct question. On the positive side, my filet was beautifully cooked to the requested medium rare, but the accompanying fresh green beans could have used another two minutes in the sauté pan. The fiancé’s New York strip ($35) was cooked as requested and well seasoned, and he liked the side of rice pilaf. Knight Cap has always known how to cook a fabulous steak, and, for my money, it’s still the best filet in town.
Our Brussels sprouts with jalapeño bacon were salty, smoky and roasted until crispy ($5). Delicious. On our next visit, I tried a holdover from the old Knight Cap menu, the mediciettes ($16). The tender, marinated beef tips are coated in bread crumbs and cheese and served with the world’s best Béarnaise sauce. Made with butter, egg yolks and herbs, Béarnaise sauce ranks right with the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse as my favorite contributions from France to the world.
The fiancés Scottish salmon ($25) flaked apart with a touch from his fork, and a taste that I wrestled away from him melted in my mouth. His side of truffled macaroni and cheese ($4), however, tried to make a fool of us. Not to be insufferably pretentious, but truffle is a distinctive taste. The aroma of truffles or truffle oil is so intense that you can almost taste it before you open your mouth. Truffles smell sexy. This macaroni and cheese had none of that — no truffle, not a hint.
For dessert, we had the chocolate bourbon pecan pie. In the past, I’d been vocal about my low regard for dessert at the old Knight Cap. I’m happy to report that those days seem to be gone. The pie was creamy, with a buttery crust, rich filling and a drizzle of crème fraiche that lent the perfect note of tanginess.
A note to co-owner Leo Farhat, whom I saw in the dining room that night of our first visit: I see what you’re trying to do here and I love you for it. But those servers need some serious training. They should know how to properly pronounce all the words on the menu, French or not. And they’ve got to know what peppercorns are.
Knight Cap 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday
320 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing (517) 484-7676, knightcap.com