Melissa Cole, owner of Luxe Kitchen & Lounge, admits that the restaurant has veered a little off course over the past couple years. It's not that the four-year-old Detroit Shoreway bistro isn't doing well — it is. It's just that the concept had gotten a little cloudy.
"Over time, we kind of beat up the menu a bit, adding things that people go wild over," admits Cole. "What I've really been focused on for the last year or more is trying to get back to our roots: Italian-Mediterranean, which is just simple, good, solid food and technique."
When Cole opened Luxe (with Marlin Kaplan, who is no longer involved), she crafted a concept that didn't adhere to restaurant convention. The menu shunned the predictable app-salad-entrée paradigm, favoring informality with an abundance of small plates, shared plates, pizzas, and pastas. Entrees appeared only on the specials board.
As for the atmosphere, Luxe oozes charm, from the salvaged Art Deco bar and shabby-chic fixtures to the rescued Terminal Tower panels and the bank vault wine cellar. In the lounge, a DJ keeps the energy up; on the patio, dogs eagerly await snacks from their people. Inclusive, welcoming, and authentic, the Gordon Square restaurant has always enjoyed one of the most delightfully eclectic crowds.
"Luxe was built as a place for people to come and hang out together and feel the community that I think we've lost a little of," says Cole. "We've created energy through a mixed clientele. That's one of the beauties of Luxe."
One of Cole's most pressing tasks was to hire a new kitchen steward, a chef who could simultaneously take Luxe to the next level while solidifying its foundation. That search led to Brian Okin, who took over as executive chef in early June. What Cole saw in Okin was not a celeb chef – though Okin is well-known as the founder of Dinner in the Dark, former chef of Fountain, and chef-owner of Verve — but rather an enthusiasm for the cuisine.
"I am not a 'name' girl — that's just not the world I live in," notes Cole. "I look for somebody who has something they want to say through their food, through their technique. I want that passion and pride in art. Brian has a passion for Northern Italian roots, and his foundation is there."
Okin's first order of business was to purge extraneous dishes. He then focused on improving those that survived, and slowly began adding a few of his own. Fans of the chef's previous work might spot some revivals — but only if they fall in line with Cole's mission.
An expanded "shared plates" section features a few holdovers, but also new items like seared scallops on creamy polenta with crispy pancetta and truffle honey, melty braised lamb ribs with berry reduction, and fried house-made pickles.
Okin's meaty, herb-infused preserved mushrooms are the highlight in an otherwise mild-mannered pasta, with fat ribbons of pappardelle getting a light olive oil-and-garlic treatment. Another pasta dish, a straightforward linguini with clam sauce, is enlivened by briny clams in the shell and plump capers.
To get a taste of what Okin really is about as a chef, pay close attention to the specials. We devoured a plate of crispy fried pig trotters — the succulent, slightly wild-tasting braised meat is breaded, fried, and garnished with greens, pickled onion, and a sous-vide egg.
A surf and turf offering combines pan-seared trout with braised pork belly, a surprisingly apt pairing bridged by pasta and pea tendrils. Okin's version of cassoulet is in reality a half-pound, bone-in grilled pork chop nestled into a bed of braised beans. A lively Brussels sprout and corn slaw topper perks up the dish.
Also new to the regular menu is a veggie/vegan section. Other subtractions, edits, and additions can be found on the popular weekend brunch menu.
One thing at Luxe hasn't changed: its suitability for just about every budget. "It's the kind of place where you can spend $10 or $100," management said at the outset.
Fortunately, that's as true today as it was four years ago.