Chef Kate Williams hosts a historically rooted dining series highlighting cuisine enjoyed by Detroiters 100 or so years ago
It may sound like an odd dish in today’s world, but 100 years ago, turtle soup was a staple on menus and in home kitchens in places such as Detroit, New Orleans and elsewhere in America. It fell out of favor around the late 1970s, when chefs and ecologists agreed that too much of it was harming the shelled population.
The seafood delicacy and other forgotten-about dishes that were popular to the region decades ago are getting a modern revival via a historically rooted dinner series at chef Kate Williams’ restaurant Karl’s, located inside the Siren Hotel in downtown Detroit.
“Detroit history has been important to me, it’s the reason I have restaurants here, it’s the reason I decided to put down roots professionally the city. It has such a rich history … my story of food is being true to that,” said Williams, who opened the Candy Bar inside the Siren in 2018 followed by Karl’s in 2019, which she named after her great-great grandparents’ bakery which was on Detroit’s east side.
The series, called “Kate’s,” kicked off last weekend with a menu that may have been seen at a “bachelor’s eating house” in the mid 1800s, which Williams says is around the time her first ancestors immigrated to North America. Oysters, carrot soup and corned lamb with fermented cabbage were all the table.
“We’re starting with very meat-and-potatoes meals in the 1850s then going into super, super fancy French dining in Detroit and then we slowly start to get into the ’20s when Detroit was booming and we’re starting to see more American food as we know it starts to pop in a little bit, but still 1920s glamour,” said Williams of the series.
This Friday and Saturday, the special ticketed dinners continue with a nod to Detroit’s French roots and dishes that were popular at the turn of the century. Look for a starter of caviar, blinis and eggs and a main course featuring duck bourguignonne with onion ragout and herb spaetzle.
The aforementioned turtle soup is highlighted April 2-3 with four seatings that pay homage to the roaring ’20s and the Wurlitzer Building, where the Siren Hotel is, built in 1926. (Karl’s has a beautiful, working Wurlitzer jukebox in the dining room.) Asparagus with lemon vinaigrette and hollandaise and roasted lamb chops with mint relish and Parisian potatoes are on the menu, too, along with Charlotte Russe for dessert.
Turtle soup was popular on Detroit restaurant menus and in grocery store shelves in the 1920s, and continued to be through the 20th century. Even as late as the 1970s there was a restaurant in Detroit near the historic Buddy’s Rendezvous location called the Turtle Inn Soup. It served the namesake dish, of course, but folks raved more about the barbecued ribs there.
For the final dinner in the series, April 9 and 10, the menu will reflect postwar America’s baby boom and home cooking staples of the 1940s, like shrimp cocktail, frog legs (from sustainable purveyor Motor City Seafood), salad with French dressing, lake trout and a cream puff hot fudge sundae for dessert. The cocktail offerings will include a nod to Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood.
Williams worked with Michigan-based author Bill Loomis to research her menus. Loomis’ book “Detroit’s Delectable Past” takes a historic look at the region’s cuisine throughout the decades.
Williams said the only ingredient that was hard to find in the modern world (during a pandemic, no less) was the turtle meat.
“I’ve got it coming in from multiple sources because people only had 5 pounds here (and there) … it’s hilarious that it was so prominent and now I’m calling in special favors from sources around the country,” she said. For the April 2-3 dinners, she’ll treat the turtle meat “like it’s the star of a thick stew,” similar to the New Orleans’ preparation, leaning almost toward a gumbo.
“To me, turtle meat is sort of sweet like crab and has that marine flavor of mackerel or something,” she said. “It kind of tastes like sturgeon a little bit, and the texture is more firm.”
Williams, who recently closed her nationally recognized Corktown restaurant Lady of the House, said she may do a second Kate’s series at Karl’s that covers the 1950s through ’80s. Until then, she plans to reopen Karl’s this spring for dinner and weekend brunch.
Tickets for the remaining Kate’s series at Karl’s, 1509 Broadway, start at $120 per person and can be purchased at karlsdetroit.com.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com