I guess you could say we've been rooting for Sandy Levine for a while now. He's the creator of Ferndale's Oakland Art Novelty Company, metro Detroit's first pre-Prohibition-style bar, and he and Dave Kwiatkowski of Detroit's Sugar House Bar were instrumental in bringing high falutin cocktail culture to metro Detroit. When we heard he was opening a restaurant in Detroit, Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, we practically flipped our lids. Last night, we reserved a spot and experienced the second night of the restaurant's soft opening.
We arrived all by our lonesome Wednesday evening, just before our 6 o'clock reservation. The space, formerly Torya Blanchard's Rodin, has been given a dramatic makeover. It's Chartreuse, after all, and almost every hard, flat surface has been painted over in the lively shade of light green. Even the upholstery on some of the couches up front matches. Since we had a single reservation, we bellied up to the bar for our experience, and we're glad we did. The seats are tall and wonderful, with rushwork for a cushion. Before we even had drink number one, we'd knocked one over. “For our next trick,” we proclaimed …
That first drink, by the way, was a concoction called “The Last Word,” a drink that originated in Detroit, if we remember right, and a very difficult drink to make correctly. Why? Because one of the ingredients is Chartreuse, a spirit the restaurant has claimed as its namesake, one that's difficult to balance properly in a cocktail. Also, we wanted to see if it would disappear against the recurring backdrop of bright green.
Thankfully, it did not. The tension in the radioactive-green drink was palpable, but the ingredients were wonderfully balanced, a testament to the skill of bartender James Downs. While we were nursing this miracle drink, our server brought us bread, from Avalon, with a butter infused with ramps. We knowingly spent several minutes demolishing our appetite with this stuff, but can you blame us?
We ordered a plate of vegetables from Recovery Park, a local farm, and seized upon the special: short-rib pierogies with some kind of exotic slaw. We told the waiter we'd have a glass of Gerard Bertrand Grenache Carignan 2009 with it.
The restaurant began filling up with stylish people while we watched, increasingly glad most of them had missed us knocking over our barstool. Head honcho Sandy Levine dropped by to chat. He faces a problem similar to lots of restaurant operators filling in the city's off-the-rack spaces. In this case, his restaurant lacks something many take for granted: a walk-in refrigerator. He says that means he's getting at least two deliveries per day of fresh stock from vendors, which means everything is very fresh. It's a pain in the neck, but at least now nobody can say he isn't buying fresh daily.
The small kitchen also means some of the staff do their work at the bar. Last night, it was Guinevere Anderson and Nykola Stewart, shelling peas behind the bar as if they were sectioning limes. This is a step above the open kitchen; the kitchen action is spilling out into view, and it's a pleasure to chat with them while they work, or to watch Anderson create pastries.
Levine dropped by again. The official hard opening would still be Tuesday, but he'd be open for dinner at 5 p.m. until then. Levine's attitude at that point, with few hitches and steady customers at night, was “come on in.”
We'd drained our cocktail, but have time, perhaps, to fit in another. We ordered a Manhattan, unconventional, and it arrived quickly, with a wisp of lemon peel to declare its nonconformity. It was delicious. We were still nursing it when our server brought by a round plate of heirloom beets and asparagus tips, charred kohlrabi and baby radishes, baby green beans, lemon-pickled golden beets, and greens from beets, chamomile, and cilantro, all topped with an emulsified cherry viniagrette. Best were the asparagus tips, springtime sweet and only the best part, the rest likely blended into a soup also on offer that night. The lemon-pickled beets were more surprising, though, bearing a revelatory sweetness.
We finished the Manhattan, and the pierogi arrived simultaneously with the French red wine. (A lesser server would have brought the wine during the cocktails; not here!) The pierogi were full of flavor, bursting with barbecue taste, and all hidden inside crispy, well-made Polish dumplingssss. The slaw on top was tasty, but mysterious, part cabbage, part green, with what we took to be tender mustard seeds. Then again, we were now three drinks in, the dark, delicious wine tugging at the back of our lips with every drink.
Any regrets? Yes. We should have had Kaytee Querro mix us a drink. No insult to Downs, but Querro has some sick skills behind the bar, and it would have been worth it. Also, we should have brought a group. It's a convivial space, not yet crowded with Detroit's up-to-the-moment diners, who will certainly descend on this place in short order.
Best gag? The receipts and credit slips all are accompanied by the line: “You are the best.” We certainly felt that way when we limboed out.