Restaurant of the Year. A title like that evokes a couple images, like white tablecloths and someone playing soft music on a grand piano. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth when dining at the Detroit Free Press and Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers newest Restaurant of the Year, Mabel Gray.
Helmed by chef-owner James Rigato, Mabel Gray sits in a quaint, 1,600-square-foot building near the intersection of Woodward Heights Blvd. and John R Rd. But, how does such a relatively small space with a limited menu end up winning Restaurant of the Year? In seeking out the answer we kept coming back to one thing: less is more.
Mabel Gray isn’t Rigato’s first restaurant. Having been the co-proprietor of The Root in White Lake, the 2012 Restaurant of the Year recipient, the 32-year-old chef has already built up notoriety in the metro Detroit dining scene. The Root was a much larger venture in terms of real estate size, but Rigato and his team have been able to replicate the quality, and therefore success, of the chef-driven, locally-sourced approach to fine dining. That can be seen in the care and attention to detail given to each of Mabel Gray’s menu items, which can differ on a near-daily basis.
Now, with Mabel Gray, Rigato has decided to go small, and that may have just been the ticket to its success. With a relatively small location in a small town that isn’t known for its dining scene, Mabel Gray has carved out its own, new niche in Hazel Park. Plus, given the lower real estate costs of owning and operating a business in Hazel Park, as opposed to somewhere like downtown Detroit or even Royal Oak, the financial benefits trickle down to Mabel Gray’s guests.
“They can get away with charging $65 for an eight-course tasting menu because their operating costs are lower than they might be in a more expensive locale,” said Detroit Free Press restaurant critic Mark Kurlyandchik in an email.
In short, smaller operating costs result in smaller prices on a smaller menu (more on that later).
More directly, Mabel Gray has created a good problem for itself with its small location. Because it doesn’t have large spaces for cold storage with which to store food, it ends up getting almost all of its shipments daily from small, local purveyors in southeast Michigan, such as Guernsey Farms Dairy in Northville, Salomon Gardens in Grass Lake, Sunseed Farm in Ann Arbor and more. Not only are the ingredients locally-sourced, they come packaged in relatively small quantities — just enough to feed the 43 seats that may be filled at any given time in Mabel Gray’s intimate dining room.
How does this locally-sourced approach affect the menu? It challenges Rigato and his team to make a new, limited menu that reflects the ingredients they have on hand that day. That approach then benefits you, the customer. Not only do you know the food you’re eating was prepared with fresh ingredients, each visit can be an entirely different experience thanks to an ever-changing menu. Yet again, Mabel Gray takes something limiting, like small food suppliers, and turns it into a positive.
“It’s exciting – opening the menu when you arrive is like unwrapping a present. It’s always a surprise.” Kurlyandchik said.
Mabel Gray does not have the benefit of a large dining room to house hundreds of guests, or an extensive kitchen to prepare its meals. And while many chefs may look at that as a limitation, Rigato and his team have proven that sometimes thinking small is the furthest thing from small thinking.
As part of Mabel Gray receiving the Restaurant of the Year award from Detroit Free Press and Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers, Rigato has planned a special event that will bring in guest chefs from RotY winners of years past for a night of culinary passion on Sunday, May 7, 2017.