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Feb 15, 2014 01:59 PM

Lelli’s old school “Italian” steakhouse in Auburn Hills [DTW]

Lelli’s has been mentioned countless times, but I thought I might open a topic for it, at least one that is more recent. I don’t know much about the history of the place but I finally did go try it; yes, thanks to a Groupon. Things started off well as I arrived on a weekday eve to find, while valet was offered, I was very welcome to conveniently park the car on my own. There was no wait even without a reservation, and the bar looked comfortable for those who had come solo, but with the wife and kid we took a somewhat plush booth.

The staff were beautiful young people in tuxedo-like outfits, who unselfishly worked together as a team, helping which ever table happened to be nearby and in need of something. They all were very friendly and not stuffy or condescending, even when I referenced the Groupon. However, with their youth came visible inexperience (not that I care), and I think there were too few workers out front to serve the number of tables which expectedly or unexpectedly showed up. In part due to the shortage of help, and in part probably by design, our dinner took more than two hours, where I had hoped it only would take fifty minutes on that school night.

We were started with freshly baked yeast rolls and butter: A- grade. Wish I were eating one this moment. Next came a large but simple salad with decent house dressing: I suppose it rates a “B or B+” but when I pay $45+drinks&t&t I would greedily wish for veggies that more clearly were above Papa Vino’s quality. Finally, an hour plus into things, came the famous minestrone soup. It featured fresh vegetables, was thickened with a bean puree, and seemed to be enhanced with parmesan rind(?). Again, a generous portion, and we ate every spoonful, though it didn’t have as much character (light on the acidity, herbs and garlic) as I had expected. I’ll leave it to others to grade.

Afterwards arrived an adorable antipasta tray, also included. There were two large shrimp, a few cold cuts, olives, cheese and peperoncini, all of moderate quality. This tray did nothing more than amuse me (nostalgic) and extinguish the last shred of appetite I could muster. Given that we were beyond minute ninety, we literally considered asking for the remaining dishes to be brought out in takeout containers. (Note—good gosh, while the dinner was several days ago and memory sometimes fails me, I now could swear I also received a small course of Bolognese pasta somewhere in there, too!)

Nevertheless, we powered through to the Main. I got a filet mignon because others had threatened me against ordering anything but. Dear wife got veal picatta. My seven year old got a very generously priced portion of chicken parmesan (who knew they would be kid friendly?!). Let me pause to warn against ordering the pasta with red sauce Mains. These are expensive and don’t distinguish themselves from restaurants half the price. Next, I will say that my steak was served with a large portion of mashed potatoes (put under the broiler to pleasantly brown the peaks), braised spinach and candied carrots or yams (I’m very embarrassed to say that I just couldn’t discern whether these were yams with a snap, or carrots which had been cored…they were good, as well as mysterious to my ignorant self). The spinach had a secret, classic (Eisenhower era?) ingredient and was delicious. Please tell me if you know what is that ingredient. Yum.

Wife’s veal picatta was tender, and met our somewhat high expectations. I would not discourage folks from ordering the many versions of veal offered (though, don’t order veal parmesan!), but I might still give a slight edge to the veal scallopine at the hidden, run-down, wine-less, Pasta Fagioli in Bloomfield Hills. Speaking of wine, surprisingly, Lelli’s offers numerous wines from $6 to $9 per glass, as well as ones much higher of course. But, the $7 and $8 reds I had were pretty bad. Maybe just my luck or karma.

My medium rare filet was indeed perfectly medium rare. It had a good, aged flavor, and was sized as advertised. Somewhat to my surprise, the surface was a light taupe, with some minor brown, grill hash marking on it. The steak didn’t blow me away, but I was PERFECTLY happy with it. The notable feature of the steak was the trademark house-made “zip” sauce. Somehow, I had never before tasted a zip sauce. It really was memorable. I have read ridiculously complex recipes on the web, regarding how to make the sauce. But, having experienced it at the place that I think (?) made it famous, it has become clear to me that zip just is something like butter, reduced stock/drippings and some Maggi* seasoning . (*equivalent to Bragg’s natural Amino Liquid.) It is like MSG at its zenith. By the way, while I’ll try to reiterate that I don’t care about the sideshow/trappings, I will remark that Lelli’s uses $2.75 steak knives from China…which cut just fine.

On top of everything, we were offered dessert. Ice cream or something else came with the meal, or for an upcharge fancier things were available. We just couldn’t take the sight of any more food, so we declined. The table next to us commented that the ice cream was “homemade” and “yummy.” It appeared to have been set in a cake pan and then sliced into blocks as would be giant brownies, for individual serving. Maybe next time… if ever I get a big salary raise or another coupon, and I decide to eat myself to death.

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    1. Good review. I love Lelli's, as long as I come with a Groupon ....
      I'll be there 2/28 around 9, with my lovely GF, using the second of the 2 Groupons I bought a couple months ago.
      I always love the side of Bolognese pasta, and the minestrone knocked the socks off my GF (as did the zip sauce - she loved her filet).
      The ice cream is absolutely nothing special btw, so you didn't miss much.
      RE: wines - Last visit (in January '14) I enjoyed a Montepulciano by the glass, but can't recall which one.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Markcron

        So I did go back Friday night, and I'll say one thing ... Never again wll I go to Lelli's on the night they have an expiring GroupOn.
        First, no Valet - not a big deal, unless you consider that valet would be nice on the busiest night of the year when the parking lot was over capacity.
        The soup, well, the soup just wasn't the same woup I have had the previous half dozen times I've dined at Lelli's. I don't know if they ran out due to the crowd and through something together, or what, but it just wasn't the same. GF agreed.
        I went big and ordered a Med Rare Porterhouse. It came out well done, or worse. By the time my second Porterhouse came out, Rare, not Med Rare, but I can handle that, and ate some of it before boxing it up (going to finish it tonight, in a few minutes actually), my GF had already finished her petite filet. So I got to watch her eat, and she got to watch me eat. So romantic...
        The waiter was good, handled the steak snafu appropriately, and served my date all the courses even though she only ordered a meal that came with soup.
        The staff seemed overwhelmed, which made me wonder why a place like Lelli's was not able to handle a packed house.
        I might be back someday. But not on a Friday night with a Groupon deal expiring.....

        1. re: Markcron

          "Don't go on the last day that a Groupon expires."
          I'm not too frequent of a Groupon user, so I had never before thought thru that danger. Thanks for the tip! Sorry to hear about your experience.

          1. re: Markcron

            Oh, I can imagine this. Sounds like a head-shaking experience.

            The soup being less-than-their-best, coupled with the Porterhouse being *backwards* means that they were heels-over-head in the kitchen. Like you, I've had that soup (that wonderful, wonderful soup) several times, and if that portion of the meal wasn't spot-on, I'd be very put out.

            Still, this place should be able to handle an expiring Groupon without skipping a beat. They've got plenty of seating for it. I assume that it expired 2/'re telling me that they couldn't handle a large crowd on a Friday night? On St. Crispin's Day?

            Sorry...I got off track at the end, there. Sounds like, as a restaurant, they kind of broke down for that night, and you had a pretty off experience as a result. I'll tell you this, and this should be comforting to a degree: your porterhouse will still be magical at home. I took home 3/4 of my T-bone with me last time I went, and I kid you not: at least two full days later, after being heated in the freaking *microwave*, that steak was extremely good. I mean, I gnawed on the stinking bone until there absolutely was nothing more to give...that's how good it was, two or more days later after being heated in the microwave!

            Sorry you had a bad experience. I've seen similar things happen at other places with expiring Groupons,'re not alone.