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Torino, Michigan's Unlikely Restaurant Destination

Driving the ten miles on Woodward Avenue from Detroit's downtown toward Ferndale in the northern suburbs lays bare the city in all its disparities. The road leads past the glittery Fox Theatre (with its eight-story marquee flanked by winged lions), Comerica Park where the Tigers roam on their home turf, and the Detroit Institute of Arts that houses its collections in a palatial Italian Renaissance building. Along the street one also glimpses derelict blocks, empty apartment buildings, and poignant markers like "St. Curvy," an abandoned turreted church nicknamed by long-ago parishioners for its winding balcony.


The ride can stir up a blur of emotions. But after dining at Ferndale's destination restaurant, it's easy to feel hopeful for what's next. Torino is an unlikely stage for some of the country's most promising culinary talent. It sits at the bottom of a condo building and opened as an espresso and cocktail bar in 2011. In January 2013 Torino owner Noah Dorfman was introduced to Garrett Lipar, a native of nearby Waterford Township and a young chef with serious wanderlust. Not yet 25 at the time, he'd already powered through positions at New York's Public, Chicago's Boka, and Frantzen in Stockholm, and staged at many other star-chasers, Alinea among them. Along the way, he'd been indoctrinated into the creeds of tasting menus and modernist techniques.

Smoked Pike

Lipar and Dorfman, energized by their mutual ambitions, decided to go all in. In May 2013 Lipar began serving prix-fixe meals, with the cooks working on an induction stovetop (no gas ranges allowed in the space) in a kitchen no bigger than a coat-check closet at a posh steakhouse. In the first months the menus were three courses for $34 or five for $52 and they changed weekly. New Nordic flavors—flowers and dill cream, a focus on seafood—came into play. Locally sourced ingredients met liquid nitrogen and Japanese smokers. Nothing outré for New York or San Francisco, but radical for Michigan. Diners came slowly at first, but then word started to circulate and the critics began praising. In March the Detroit Free Press named Torino its Restaurant of the Year. Last month Lipar was named to Eater's Young Guns Class of 2014.

Skeptical that this might be a case of overreaching greenhorns in a market hungry for some dazzle, I almost skipped Torino. I'm so glad I didn't. It was the most rewarding surprise of my travels thus far. Lipar has the gift for composing tasting menus, drawing on various genres as his own style emerges and evolves. In June, he decided to offer nine courses for $89 and change the menu once a month—a wise choice that allows the kitchen staff to fully master each course.

Apricot with nasturtium

The first dish of the July lineup was a three-component bento box, each filled with summer squash: gently fermented slivers dotted with milkweed flowers; a battered squash blossom stuffed with pinto beans uplifted by summer truffles; and tiny zucchini, patty pan, and zephyr squashes grilled over a yakatori with sour beer foam spooned over them. Each element had the alchemical touch of a skilled chef: They tasted fresh and true to their essence but also amplified. The dishes grew incrementally more complex as the meal careened on. Apricot slowly simmered in whey turned savory, with verdant blasts from nasturtium flowers and young green grapes that resembled English peas. Asparagus arrived alongside a pool of savory chocolate sauce—a mole for vegetables. Fried eggplant stuffed with roasted heirloom tomatoes became a brilliant riff on moussaka, with warm gazpacho filling in for tomato sauce and honey aioli standing in for béchamel.

Suckling pig; strawberry and spruce dessert

More protein-driven courses of smoked pike and suckling pig gave way to the two most modernist creations. First, a sweet-savory palate refresher of shiso-green grape sorbet over compressed cucumber, briny from vinegar and simple syrup and decorated with vinegar gelee and Marcona almonds. It was all covered with yogurt snow, the tableau a reminder that Michigan's cold months are never too far away. Dessert was the evening's most esoteric effort—strawberries with angel food cake ice cream, house-made fromage blanc with macerated spruce buds, and other iterations of spruce and berry in the forms of powders, crisps, and caramels—but the components all merged in a way that satisfied rather than bewildered. As a finale, black garlic caramels and chocolates filled with aloe vera marmalade appeared with a sustaining cup of Sumatran coffee, a wink at Torino's origins.

Many liquid pleasures came before the java. Lipar has an advocate on the floor with beverage manager Ian Redmond. Starting off with a cocktail like Nigel's Magic Carpet (jasmine-infused gin, Luxardo Maraschino, crème de violet, sloe gin, and lemon) acclimated the palate for the journey ahead. And Redmond made choices for his $45 wine pairing that coaxed even more out of Lipar's cooking. A minerally Domaine Quénard white from France's Rhône-Alpes helped the stone fruit flavors resurface in the apricot. And he wittily chose a Greek Xinomavro with the tomato-eggplant dish to emphasize its moussaka-like characteristics.

This team of emerging talents could surely disband and find success individually in other cities. But their strengths are needed in their home state. Here's hoping they stay put and lead a revolution while Detroit recovers its traction.

Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.

Photos: Bill Addison

Torino

201 E 9 Mile Road, Ferndale, MI 48220 248-247-1370
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