2016 Restaurant of the Year
On a rebounding stretch on Second Avenue in Midtown, Selden Standard’s Andy Hollyday takes casual high-end restaurants to the next level
There’s the tangy and sweet deliciousness of the scallions in a romesco sauce, the chorizo with white beans, and the sweet succulence of the trout with fennel and fingerling potatoes. Detroit’s Selden Standard does these all superbly well — and much of it begins on a remarkable wood-fired grill.
At the controls on one visit is John Sloan, a slim young man with a 1,000-watt smile and ambitions to be a chef. He barely breaks a sweat despite the intense heat from logs he has just stoked onto the fire bed.
Sloan regulates the grill by raising or lowering meat, fish, and vegetables toward the hot wood coals with a couple of turns of two cranks connected to the cooking grate by what appears to be bike chains.
The heat blast is strong enough that the customers sitting at the counter about 10 feet away are tempted to consider moving down a few seats.
The Grillery, as the fire-pit contraption is called, is just one of many factors that contribute to the richness and unique cooking that comes from Andy Hollyday, the chef and co-owner of Selden Standard, his business partner Evan Hansen, and their 70-some employees in the dining room and kitchen.
Selden Standard is our choice as 2016 Restaurant of the Year.
When the restaurant opened in the fall of 2014, on Second Avenue at Selden Street, halfway between the Wayne State University campus and Grand Circus Park, the area was a downtrodden strip a few blocks off Woodward Avenue behind the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center.
In the weedy overgrown adjacent lot, a weather-beaten sign proclaimed it to be Redmond Plaza, a future little “pocket park.” Construction debris and trash dominated the property.
A few months ago, the sign’s promise became reality, when Midtown Detroit Inc. took it over and installed lighting, new concrete walks, new landscaping, flower beds, little benches, and a stand dispensing plastic bags with a sign asking dog walkers to clean up behind their pets.
It’s called progress, and this area, just a couple of streets off the Lodge Freeway, is undergoing a lot of renovation — and an infusion of young, wealthier couples and singles, including some suburbanites moving here for an urban atmosphere.
One block south, the old Coronado apartment — an 1892 building in a national historic district — was one of the first to get a face-lift. A block to the north, the ambitious El Moore project — a sustainably rehabilitated residential apartment building and urban lodge on West Alexandrine Street — is also a part of the new mix.
“There has been tremendous change since we started this project three years ago,” Hollyday says.
Hansen says their ideas for the food at Selden Standard came from what they found elsewhere. “When we traveled all we did was eat,” Hansen says. “In Chicago, for instance, you can stop on any block and it’s packed with lots of choices.
“In Detroit there was nothing like this. We wanted to have something that people like to find in other cities,” Hansen says.
If the Selden Standard name has a familiar ring to longtime Detroiters, it may be because for a generation ago or more, Selden Standard was a dry cleaning operation at that location. Hollyday decided to retain the name for his restaurant when he rebuilt the rather cavernous space into a dining destination.
On a chilly January night, an older BMW squeezes between two late model Cadillacs, on Selden Street. Their occupants cross the new park to dinner at Selden Standard, which has become one of the city’s most notable casual high-end restaurants, and is now routinely fully booked, sometimes a much as 30 days ahead, though it reserves a portion of its tables each night for walk-in customers.
Since opening in November 2014, Selden Standard has also caught the attention of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and even Architectural Digest. In January, the Washington Post ran a lengthy article about how Detroit is becoming a dining mecca, and gives as an example Selden Standard.
Hollyday, a 2015 James Beard Award semifinalist, is part of that movement of young chefs who have developed their own culinary styles, well apart from traditional institutional fine dining. Collectively they have been assigned the labels of “Young Turks” or “Young Guns” and their cooking falls under the “New American” label.
The Young Turks include Garrett Lipar (also a Beard semifinalist), who put his stamp on Torino in Ferndale, which closed suddenly last summer. He is now at Marais in Grosse Pointe. There’s also James Rigato, who recently opened Mabel Gray in Hazel Park and was instrumental in setting the tone at The Root in White Lake Township.
Other places dazzling the dining public in Detroit include the marvelous Antietam on Gratiot Avenue in Eastern Market, Central Kitchen and Bar on Woodward, Republic and Parks and Rec in the old Grand Army of the Republic building at Cass and Michigan avenues, and Ottava Via and Gold Cash Gold on Michigan in Corktown. And for delight of their atmosphere and polish, as well as the casual food, the glass construction of Townhouse at the foot of Woodward near Jefferson Avenue, and energy and the sheer size of Wright & Co., located in an old 1890s ballroom on Woodward.
Selden Standard’s exterior is simple and attractive, with blue-gray brick and raw wood planking, while the interior has the vaulted blackened ceiling, a long and incredibly busy bar, specializing in craft cocktails, and a good sized list of craft beers.
“From the beginning, we were looking to do something that offered quality; we wanted that middle ground between Roast on one end and Slows (Bar B Q in Corktown) on the other,“ says Hollyday. He adds “but we felt it should be fun, social, warm, and always done with high quality, the best ingredients we could buy.”
Toward the rear of Selden Standard, seven seats at the counter adjacent to the wood grill station provide a wide view of the white subway-tiled open kitchen.
There, a real-life version of Ratatouille is playing out, an almost balletic choreography of the kitchen, in which cooks, sous chefs, kitchen hands, and wait staff move back and forthbetween dining room and kitchen in a graceful silent rhythm.
The main dining area has a sleek urban feel, set off by a ceiling with blonde wood planking, and a line of simple clear glass tube bulbs with orange filament hanging as part of a rustic divider between the bar and dining area.
Hollyday does farm-to-table scratch cooking with ideas borrowed from around the world, including Mediterranean, French, Italian, Spanish, and American Southern cuisine.
A Toledo native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Hollyday previously worked at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn and Tribute in Farmington Hills, both now closed. Most recently Hollyday spent nearly five years as executive chef at Michael Symon’s Roast in the Book-Cadillac Hotel.
Breaking out on his own with Selden Standard allowed Hollyday to cook differently, in a more concentrated fashion, which means spending more time on the hunt for high-quality products. “You just aren’t going to get that quality by buying off the delivery truck.” So, at first Hollyday spent three days each week visiting markets, especially Eastern Market, and meeting with farmers in a search for those who grow the best. “Finding the right carrot that tastes good and was grown in good soil is not an easy thing to do,” he says.
A year on, he has refined his list of suppliers (the menu includes a list of farms and producers that Selden Standard deems “grateful” to work with). But the search continues, he says. “I do things the hard way, but it’s also the right way.”
Hollyday’s menu is remarkably short, and usually organized into two columns of 24 items. One is called “Vegetables & Such.” The other simply “Meats & Fish.” That’s it, except dessert, of which there are five, plus an ice cream and a sorbet.
A key to Hollyday’s cooking is the grill — and it’s no ordinary contraption. The Grillery from Grillworks Inc. is designed by Charles Eisendrath, a journalism professor and former Time foreign correspondent now living in Ann Arbor.
The Grillery came to the attention the dean of American cuisine, the late James Beard, who promoted it generously. Grillworks is now run by Eisendrath’s son, Ben, and the grills have become a prized restaurant item worldwide, not to mention finding a home on a couple of ocean-going private yachts.
The menu at Selden Standard, which changes all the time, is designed around smaller portions, so that diners can mix and match multiple choices.
We started off one evening with the crisp flatbread, just out of a hot oven. A recent version featured sliced pears with pancetta, red cabbage, mozzarella, and roasted garlic.
On a previous visit, Hollyday had roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, Stilton cheese, and walnuts. A kale Caesar salad was topped with crisped chicken skin, lemon, and sourdough croutons. And a delightful roasted beet salad was dressed with ricotta cheese, pomegranate seeds, and walnuts.
A standout from those previous visits was roasted cauliflower with tahini, lemon, cilantro, and pickled peppers. Who would have thought of putting those together? But it certainly worked.
Hollyday can get quite imaginative with such platings as duck sausage served with a salad of Brussels sprouts, persimmon, and fried shallots dressed in a fish sauce vinaigrette.
Our favorite: lamb meatballs cooked with roasted tomatoes and topped with yogurt and mint.
Hollyday’s menu this January included squid (cooked properly, so that it’s not like chewing rubber bands) on Spanish fried rice with chorizo and lemon aioli.
A seasonal grilled duck breast was served with chestnut bread pudding and a pear mostarda, a mustard-flavored, sweet fruit compote.
Other dishes included a steak tartare with a raw quail egg yolk, lobster salad with fried shallots and citrus slices, grilled chorizo with white beans and marinated peppers, and a pork shank with an apple gastrique and cornbread crumble.
Selden Standard has a very well-selected wine list, full of esoteric choices at superbly good prices. Most whites and reds range between $34 and $48, and only a handful tickle $50-$60; the pricing is incredibly reasonable (there’s also a “reserve” list if you want to splurge, where you can find a $250 bottle of 1995 Jean Laurent Blanc de Noirs Champagne).
What sets Selden Standard apart is that much like the other newcomers, it is moving Detroit into a whole new era in which upper-end dining with starched linen and tuxedoed waiters don’t hold much interest anymore.
Just ask the patrons seated near the wood-fired grill, watching the next crop of young chefs create excellent cuisine.
3921 Second Ave., Detroit; 313-438-5055.
D daily, L Mon.-Fri., Brunch Sat.-Sun.