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New restaurants, bar coming to RenCen’s old Coach Insignia space

Not one, not two, not three, but four — count ’em — four new dining and drinking concepts will call the top of the Renaissance Center’s central tower on Detroit’s riverfront home come November.

James Beard Award-winning celebrity chef Shawn McClain, best known for his work in Chicago and more recently Las Vegas, offered the first details since the initial announcement about his hospitality group’s new restaurants atop General Motors’ iconic headquarters.

Other than lengthy delays caused by the gargantuan renovation of a sprawling, 20,000-square-foot multi-level space, the plan for the the old Coach Insignia remains close to the vision McClain offered when the project was first announced in January 2018.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said McClain, who has lived on Grosse Ile for the last eight years. “It was really important to us as we looked at the space that we kind of upend the traditional model of the top-of-the-tower, special occasion, once-a-year kind of destination. And we had the space to kind of carve out what is essentially four concepts supporting one brand.”

The overarching brand is called Highlands, sharing a name with the flagship restaurant of the space, the Highlands Steakhouse. In addition to the main restaurant, there’ll be a whiskey and Scotch-focused bar called High Bar; a smaller, more casual, beer-driven shared plates restaurant highlighting local ingredients called Hearth 71; and a private events space on the newly expanded second floor called Highlands Events.

“We really want this to be approachable at every level and there are different levels and tiers within every experience,” McClain said. “But stuffy has never been part of our DNA. It’s always been about fun culture and letting the food and wine and experience speak for itself. This ultimately is an any occasion destination. It’s a come-as-you-are experience.”

Part of the extensive renovation included building a new elevator exit on floor 71, which is the floor guests will now exit from the elevator to reach the restaurants.

Stepping off the elevator, you’ll be greeted by the central High Bar. McClain said the focus will be on Scotch — a nod both to the “highland” theme and his own Scottish roots — as well as whiskeys of the world. The bar will also offer desserts as well as whiskey lockers for members who will be privy to special events and tasting dinners. The bar itself will seat about 14, with an additional 35 seats available in the lounge area near the elevators.

McClain has recruited an all-star team of top managers for this project. Among them is Port Huron native and famed mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, who is returning to Michigan to oversee the cocktail program at High Bar. According to his website, Abou-Ganim has been a frequent guest on national TV shows, has won three “Iron Chef America” competitions, and has designed cocktail programs for the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace and Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Guests will continue past the lounge seating left to the flagship restaurant, Highlands Steakhouse, a 140-seat “reimagined” steakhouse.

“We want to feature a real range of meat and maybe not completely follow the traditional model in our offerings,” McClain said. “It’ll really run the scale from larger format, maybe dry-aged stuff, to small, artisan, local beef, which will come and go depending on availability. It’s progressive. It’s modern. It’s American and Mediterranean-influenced in the flavor profiles.”

One major physical change will be the open kitchen with a wood-burning grill — a departure from the space’s former days as Coach Insignia, where the kitchen was in a completely separate space.

“For us it was about getting some activation and some energy up there,” McClain said. “The last thing I wanted was a sleepy, quiet, ambient environment. I think kitchens can add a lot without being too overbearing on the environment. I really like the sights and sounds of the action and seeing the wood-fired grill. We’re thrilled that we could do wood fire atop 72 floors.”

For his chef de cuisine at Highlands, McClain has tapped Scott Garthwaite, a Wisconsin native who has cooked with McClain since his Chicago days but moved up the ranks to run the kitchen at McClain’s Sage at Aria in Las Vegas.

The beverage side of the steakhouse menu will lean heavily toward wine, with a deep program overseen by Master Sommelier Nick Hetzel, another Sage alum.

“On the wine we really want to give guests a range and realize that there’s some really great values at every price point,” McClain said. “We look for just really good wine that compliments the food. I don’t think it will be a super luxe list. It’ll run the gamut.”

The third and final concept on floor 71 can be reached by making a right after exiting the elevator. It’s called Hearth 71 and will offer a more casual, rustic, rock ‘n’ roll approach for about 60 diners at full capacity.

“We kinda call it the funky younger brother of Highlands,” McClain said. “It falls on the other side of that personality. Again, we’re looking at an environment atop the Marriott hotel, atop the RenCen, which has a lot of traffic, and we really wanted to offer something else. Something where people could come in reservation-free and walk in — just to make it a point of saying ‘Hey, we’re here. We’re open. This is easy.'”

McClain said Hearth 71 will also feature another open kitchen centered around a wood-burning oven turning out dishes like baked mussels and spiced lamb shoulder. Craft beer is the focus here.

“When we first put together what I would call a design and inspiration deck, it really was about a family,” McClain said. “We saw Highlands as this kind of stylish father and Hearth being kind of the younger sibling who is a little more rock ‘n’ roll and then High Bar was kind of the daughter in art class who had a little sophistication but still liked to have fun and was youthful.”

Up on floor 72, the smaller space that used to allow you to look down onto the main dining room of what was then Coach Insignia has had its floor extended all the way to the windows, creating a brand new private events space that can hold some 240 seated diners.

No renderings were made available and McClain said it’s currently still a construction zone, but he did offer some details about the aesthetics, designed in partnership with New York-based Rockwell Group.

“We didn’t want it to feel like an endless wheel that you were running around on,” McClain said. “Circular spaces can have a tendency to get a little dizzying. And Rockwell, who we also worked with in Vegas, is just an amazing team. There’s some nod to the Scottish. There’s a little bit of plaid. There’s some beautiful finished wood. We’re finalizing some Pewabic tile touches.”

He said the spaces will feel lush, almost like a natural oasis atop the tallest building in a bustling downtown that’s experienced its own renaissance over the last decade.

“The view is beautiful but by no means is that the reason that you come up there,” McClain said. “It’s a great topper to all these things. But we want the food, the experience, the environment to really wow with the same effect that the view does.”

Barring any additional delays, Highlands is slated to debut on November 15.


Posted By: Detroit Free Press on August 23, 2019.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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