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MGM Grand Detroit -- Note the Absence of the Word "Casino" --
 Is One Impressive, $800 million Piece of Eye Candy
By Phil Vettel, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 18, 2007 - DETROIT -- Could this be the face of Chicago's future?

Perhaps. The Illinois General Assembly has yet to grant Chicago a casino license, but the issue is on the front burner. And the MGM Grand Detroit, which opened Oct. 2 to oohs and aahs and a steady stream of gaming-hungry visitors, is precisely the sort of palace that casino advocates envision for Block 37, or any of a handful of other suggested Chicago sites.

Because the MGM Grand Detroit -- note the absence of the word "casino" in the official name -- is one impressive, $800 million piece of eye candy, loaded with appealing features. A 100,000-square-foot casino floor. An attached 400-room luxury hotel with a 20,000-square-foot spa. Five lounges and bars with tricked-out visual features. And, of course, acres of meeting space.

Most intriguing, at least from my perspective, the complex includes three high-end restaurants by Wolfgang Puck and Michael Mina, two critically acclaimed West Coast chefs who have made a lot of money by opening restaurants in casino resorts. (Puck has five restaurants in Las Vegas and one in Atlantic City; Mina four and one, respectively.)

And running Mina's two MGM Detroit restaurants is executive chef Don Yamauchi, who has spent most of his career cooking in Chicago (Carlos', Gordon, Le Francais).

Reason enough to grab a cheap airline ticket and head out.

The hotel

When I asked the cabby to take me to the MGM Grand Detroit, he replied, "Which one?" An unsettling question under most circumstances, but his confusion was understandable. For the last eight years, there has been an MGM Grand Detroit Casino in downtown Detroit, but rather than add a hotel to that property, parent company MGM Mirage opted to build a new complex from the ground up -- a block away from the original, which now stands empty. (The first casino closed on Sept. 30; the new complex, with the shortened MGM Grand Detroit name, opened two days later.)

Further confusing my temporary friend, the MGM Grand offers two identical entrances, one for the casino and one for the hotel. Hotel guests can arrive, check in and access their rooms without setting foot on the casino floor -- a rarity in casino-resort design.

The hotel is at the luxury-price level -- rooms start at $300 a night, more on weekends -- but the MGM Grand delivers. Round-the-clock security guards the door to the "living room," a guests-only space with cushy sofas, a narrow horizontal fireplace with dancing gas flames and some contemporary artwork that reminds me of oversized, fruit-flavored Life Savers. Beyond that is the concierge desk, beyond which are talking elevators to whisk you to your room.

My deluxe-king room offered the expected amenities -- huge bed, super-soft bed linens, desk, couch -- along with such nifty features as pre-programmed lighting levels, an iPod docking station, 42-inch HDTV and phones with color touch screens that permit users to program wake-up calls, order room service and access the Internet without picking up the phone. The marble and green-glass bathroom has a plasma TV hidden behind a mirror, walk-in shower stall with dual shower heads and plenty of oversize towels. But I never found a hair dryer, which should have been on one of the shelves beneath the sink. Maybe it was hidden behind a towel.

I could have spent hours in this room, but there was eating to do.

Wolfgang Puck Grille

Wolfgang Puck has been doing this contemporary-American act for some time. But it's a good act, which is why he's able to replicate it all over the country and remain successful. Skillfully blending informal design with familiar food, Puck manages to create creates a laid-back atmosphere, even while front-room workers are surgically precise. Sit down at a table and water, bread and butter appear in moments, and soon there's a drink in one hand and a menu in the other.

The decor is Midwest rustic, adorned with racks of firewood by the entrance and racks of deer (naturally shed, I'm quickly advised) hanging over the bar. Sit in the airy, vaguely Prairie-ish main room, or by the leather-wrapped bar, which offers tall communal tables, a quartet of cozy booths and yet another horizontal fireplace.

Puck's signature pizzas are on the menu, of course, as is his famed Chinois chicken salad and other favorites. And the restaurant serves breakfast daily, should you get a hankering for Dutch apple pancakes or crab cakes Benedict.

I didn't stop by for breakfast, but I'll bet the crab cakes Benedict are good, because my lunchtime crab cakes -- actually four miniature cakes, topped with marinated tomato dices and surrounded by basil aioli -- were terrific. I also inhaled a plate of ricotta gnocchi, their delicacy contrasted by a hearty sauce Bolognese. But the sashimi plate was as pedestrian (tuna and yellowtail, yawn) as it was overpriced ($21), the high-quality of the fish notwithstanding. And a very promising piece of salmon, crusted with ginger and almonds and set over a delicious bed of pureed celery root and a rich red-wine reduction, was so overcooked it was bone dry.

There's not much here that Puck hasn't done before, but you could do a lot worse.

Bourbon Steak

Stainless steel and glass wine racks, soaring 10 feet high, call attention to the 500-bottle wine list and serve as decoration for Michael Mina's brawny steak house, done in industrial materials that suggest strength and permanence. I wish the light level were a bit lower and the pop-hits soundtrack a good bit quieter; a $44 steak ought not be accompanied by "Kung Fu Fighting" blaring overhead.

Beef is king here, of course, whether it be the Piedmontese steaks (American raised, leaner than most), the American Kobe (wagyu) steaks or, for the true aficionado, genuine Kobe "A5" beef, the top-quality stuff, which will set you back $150 for a six-ounce rib eye.

I stuck with the "cheap" stuff, by which I mean the 16-ounce Kansas City strip for $42, and it was a wonderful piece of juicy, flavor-rich beef, cooked to a precise medium-rare. I indulged in a wagyu appetizer, a fanciful shabu-shabu consisting of raw wagyu strips wrapped around enoki mushrooms, ready to be dipped (swished, really) in a bubbling-hot seasoned broth. A few flicks of the wrist, and the beef is ready -- and tasty.

And I couldn't resist the lobster corn dogs, an offbeat appetizer of a half-dozen tiny corn dogs filled with minced lobster and shrimp, served on a stick alongside some mustard-creme-fraiche dipping sauce. Imagine a Vietnamese chao tom, only in deep-fried corn batter, and you've just about got it.

The meal starts with a couple of complimentary goodies. Instead of a bread basket, servers present fresh corn bread in a tiny cast-iron skillet, followed by an amuse of french fries with dipping sauces: herbed fries with ketchup, paprika-dusted fries with barbecue sauce and truffled fries with black-truffle aioli.

The opening freebies are tasty, but I suspect an ulterior motive. After that carbohydrate onslaught, you need some protein.

As steakhouses go, Bourbon Steak isn't half bad. It's a little frillier than Midwesterners are accustomed to, but that could turn out to be a plus.

SaltWater

Since his early days at Aqua, Mina has dazzled diners with his fish, and at SaltWater, he (or his stand-in, Yamauchi) does yet again.

The best restaurant in the casino also has the coolest decor. The ceiling is covered in shimmering mosaic tiles in undulating patterns; just below that, a series of gold-metal hoops, from which amber Edison bulbs jut skyward, create a rings-of-fire effect while bathing the dining area in soft light. The restaurant is quiet and romantic, and if you're really deep-pocketed, there are a couple of gorgeous private rooms available.

Entrees here range from $32 to $48, making the six-course chef's tasting, $115, a decent enough deal. The courses are plucked from the menu and include some of Mina's signature efforts, including a downsized version of his lobster pot pie (a golden, flaky crust encasing a filling of lobster chunks, vegetables and brandied lobster cream), the outrageously good mussels souffle (a savory souffle that retains the mussels' briny character, muted by saffron-chardonnay cream) and his ahi tartare (top-grade tuna dressed with sesame oil, mixed with pine nuts and pieces of Japanese pear). A stack of crisp potato cake, barely seared tuna and sauteed foie gras gleefully mixed and matched textures and temperatures, while a much simpler tapioca-dusted snapper over basmati rice called attention to nothing but the pristine white fish in the center of the plate.

The finale was the chocolate souffle cake, and I rejoiced to see how small the portion was (this was a tasting menu, recall). It was properly oozy and rich, and Yamauchi dressed up the plate with crumbled chocolate tuile and a ribbon of pulled chocolate, but it was a curiously ordinary finish to an otherwise rousing progression.

If there's a restaurant in the MGM Grand Detroit with serious star potential, this is it.

pvettel@tribune.com

- -- -

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Detroit is about 280 miles from Chicago -- about a five-hour drive. American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, US Airways and United Airlines offer non-stop service from Chicago to Detroit, and fares are often steeply discounted. My round-trip via United was $118.80, taxes included.

Taxi fare from Detroit Metro airport to downtown Detroit was $38, before tip. From downtown to the airport (very early in the morning), the fare was $33.

THE HOTEL

Rooms at the MGM Grand Detroit (1777 3rd St.; 877-888-2121; reservations, 888-646-3387; mgmgranddetroit.com) begin at $299 per night, and are about 10 percent higher on weekends. With Detroit's 9 percent occupancy tax and 6 percent sales tax, I paid $343.85 per night.

The hotel has a modern, everything-you'd-want fitness center, indoor pool and whirlpool, and a full-service spa. There's a $10 per day charge to access the fitness center and pool; access to the entire spa facility, including locker room, showers and steam room, is $24. I used the fitness center one day and wasn't charged.

THE RESTAURANTS

Bourbon Steak: 313-465-1644; michaelmina .net.

SaltWater: 313-465-1646; michaelmina.net.

Wolfgang Puck Grille: 313-465-1648; wolfgangpuck.com.

In addition to these three fine-dining restaurants, the hotel offers Palette Dining Studio, essentially a fixed-price buffet with a wide range of food options ($22; $24 after 5 p.m.), and Breeze, a five-station food court -- Italian, Asian, American grill, comfort food (fried chicken and other dishes), desserts -- with a la carte pricing. Ignite, one of the five lounges in the casino, offers a small tapas-style menu.

-- Phil Vettel

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To see more of the Chicago Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.chicagotribune.com.

Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune

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