Restaurant of the Year 2010
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Years ago, the great trumpet and cornet player Nat Adderley, lecturing at a weeklong symposium on jazz at a New York City college, was asked by a young reporter: “Mr. Adderley, what exactly is jazz?”
Adderley, who had a band with his famous brother, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, took the rather naive question in stride, thought for a minute, and replied seriously: “Son, jazz is knowing all the rules of music so that you can know how to break them.” He paused, and added, “Without breaking the music.”
Some 30 years later, the essence of Adderley’s answer holds true not only for jazz, but for just about anything, including Hour Detroit’s choice for the 2010 Restaurant of the Year.
Chef André Neimanis’ cooking at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms exemplifies Adderley’s aphorism. He knows the rules of cooking, and clearly knows how to break them. And he does so exquisitely to achieve his American bistro menu — taking traditional American dishes, breaking them down, and rebuilding them by adding a culinary riff here and there and spinning them forward.
The Dirty Dog Jazz Café is a slightly left-field choice for us. Previous winners have been primarily gourmet, white-linen dining. This year, we found ourselves scanning a wider horizon thanks, in part, to an economy that has forced closures while offering opportunity to a handful of brilliant newcomers.
The 60-some seat Dirty Dog is styled as a jazz club at which the music, rather than the food, is its centerpiece — except that the food is remarkably equal to the music, and matched equally again in the service of the staff.
The menu absorbs a wide-ranging assortment of tapas drawn from across a cultural spectrum: tempura, tartare, pierogi, gnocchi, gravlax, but all dramatically altered from their classic original forms.
Neimanis takes basic steakhouse entrees, such as strip steak, rib-eye, and lamb chops, and gives them a different treatment. He does the same with pasta and pizzas, offering a roasted cauliflower risotto with toasted garlic and mascarpone, and a pizza topped with Stilton, duck confit, caramelized onions, and béchamel. It’s all unusual and intriguing.
There are restaurants, such as Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, that seek out the best recipes in the country to archive and reproduce as purely American dishes. The Dirty Dog scans an even wider realm, taking traditional American recipes along with those we’ve absorbed from China, Japan, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, and reinterpreting them.
Since opening two years ago, the Dirty Dog has risen to become one of metro Detroit’s top two or three venues for daily jazz. As Neimanis, who also is the general manager, says, “This is designed on the model of the smoky jazz clubs of the ’40s and ’50s, but without the smoke.
The interior looks 1960s pubby, with heavy tavern-like beams of dark wood crossing the ceiling and down the walls. The red-panel fabric walls are dotted with posters of jazz musicians and framed oils. Vintage-look wrought-iron carriage lamps and chandeliers provide dim lighting. (Waiters will provide flashlights for reading menus.)
The Dirty Dog name carries over into a wonderfully kitschy large oil painting above the bar that depicts a mama spaniel and her black-and-white pups. The tables are topped with white cloth and black napkin combinations with clean Pottery Barn-like white ware used to serve the wide-ranging menu items.
That classic club ambience, combined with the food and the music, make for an absorbing and transporting evening of dining and entertainment that has left more than one visitor asking if they’re really in New York or Chicago, Washington or Los Angeles. Negative as the remark may seem, what it says is that visitors leave with their expectations exceeded.
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