When Café Muse opened in Royal Oak five years ago, it seated just 28 and served only breakfast and lunch. Tiny but charming, it was one of those breakfasty-brunchy places people always thought they had discovered -- "a hidden gem," they'd call it, as if no one else had stumbled on it.
It was so successful that less than three years later, owners David Smith and Greg Reyner, the executive chef, moved it a few blocks away to a place twice as big.
Then last June, they took an even more significant step: They added dinner.
You can't call Café Muse a hidden gem after all this time -- and it is right there in plain sight -- but if you haven't been in to try Reyner's excellent nighttime menu, you'll wonder what took you so long to discover this terrific spot for dinner in Royal Oak.
It's a place where small details of all kinds combine for big impact, where service is smart and personable, and where it's clear that everyone from the chef to the guests knows and loves food.
Reyner's morning and midday menus have always stood out for their creative flavors and excellent local and seasonal ingredients. But his serious culinary skills and eclectic approach are even more apparent when the evening meal gives him a bigger canvas.
His new spring menu debuts tonight, but to get a real sense of his culinary style, try one of his two recurring signature dishes: the mushroom-and-toast appetizer and the slow-braised rabbit entrée.
The appetizer is a mélange of sautéed mushrooms and Boursin cheese over grilled brioche, topped with a big, golden-orange duck egg, served sunny-side up. The striking presentation always wows guests at the table.
Don't miss the rabbit ($28), one of the best dishes I've tasted at Café Muse.
It's braised to fork tenderness with crumbles of homemade chorizo sausage and a blend of mushrooms. And when I had it from the winter menu weeks ago, it was served with chunky pieces of spaetzle -- toasty outside and tender inside -- and wonderful vegetables: narrow batons of parsnip and beet and carrot, slices of fennel, little onions and tiny whole red carrots. The mix of textures, flavors and colors was delightful, and the rabbit was mild and moist but still flavorful, boosted by the chorizo.
The spaetzle also appears with the braised short ribs ($19), which are served with roasted Brussels sprouts that could turn almost anyone into a fan of the much-maligned vegetable.
Grilled Arctic char with grapefruit, capers and olives ($19), accompanied by root vegetables and some wonderful roasted fingerlings, was one of the best fish dishes I'd had in months -- and I didn't think I liked Arctic char.
The Duck Two Ways may change on the spring menu, but I'd say it's a good bet, judging from Reyner's terrific winter rendition ($23).
Slices of grilled rare duck breast and an ultra-tender confit leg were served cassoulet-style with a thick, aromatic stew of French flageolet beans and sausage. The flavors were marvelous and the seasoning perfect.
Some of the spring dishes have been offered recently as chef's specials.
There's a thick, 12-ounce cider-brined Berkshire pork chop first cooked sous vide (in a sealed pouch in a water bath) so it remains juicy and flavorful, and then finished over a hickory-fired grill for a hint of smokiness. Garnishing the top is a salad that features sweet and spicy ingredients: shaved fennel, Honeycrisp apple and teardrop tomatoes playing off peppery micro arugula and a hint of Serrano chile, with a dressing of grilled-lemon vinaigrette.
I preferred its varied textures and lively flavors to another new spring dish -- steamed halibut wrapped in ramp leaves, set atop a bed of cold quinoa with spring fiddleheads, ramps and asparagus. The fish portion seemed small, the quinoa was uncharacteristically mushy and the vegetables had lost their bright colors. It was the only dish over numerous visits that hit so many off notes.
While it's the dinner menu that's newest here, it's the breakfast, lunch and brunch menus that first drew metro Detroit diners to Café Muse, and they're even better now than I remembered them.
Notice some of the beautiful details: heavy silverware wrapped in heavy cloth napkins; plates garnished with four different slices of fruit, each cut just so; crisp buttery toast served with individual dishes of jam, and brown sugar chunks in white lidded sugar bowls.
Even the breakfast potatoes are special: tender coins of golden fingerlings roasted with garlic or a grown-up sweet potato mash that isn't too sweet or too buttery.
Whether it's morning or night, the servers clearly know and enjoy food, are knowledgeable about the menu and wine, and have a way of making customers feel like guests instead of table numbers.
It's challenging for restaurants to excel at breakfast, please a hurried lunch crowd and still impress sophisticated dinner guests, but Reyner and sous chef Ricky McCormick make it look easy.
If you haven't been there, I recommend it. And feel free to tell your friends you discovered it.
Contact Sylvia Rector: 313-222-5026 or firstname.lastname@example.org