At first glance, Freya’s Yakitori Swordfish looks like a typical first course at a fine-dining restaurant. Fish grilled to the proper char and tenderness. A precisely sliced Fresno chile pepper and tendrils of verdant scallion that pop on the plate. Two perfectly shaped dollops of chile aioli. Togarashi with pulverized Bugles. Wait, what? Yes, Bugles, as in the cone-shaped corn snack. Oh, and the fish has taken a swim in zesty Italian dressing, the kind used for marinating all kinds of meat or tossing with iceberg lettuce.
Freya’s chef de cuisine, Phoebe Zimmerman, created the dish as an homage to their mom, who passed away in 2022. She used to marinate everything from pork to chicken to steak in Italian dressing, so as an ode to her, they thought it would be funny to marinate swordfish in the stuff.
Zimmerman finds fine dining funny in general.
“I think [fine dining is] kind of like a hoax. It’s smoke and mirrors, right? And [the Yakitori Swordfish is] a play on that.”
Many of the dishes on Freya’s menu, which is always in flux depending on what’s in season and what’s on the minds of the chefs, are much like the swordfish: creative, wild, and audacious but down-to-earth. Freya’s fresh take on fine dining, along with its devotion to providing not just great service but joy for diners and its dedication to building an inclusive and welcoming dining space, is why it’s Hour Detroit’s 2024 Restaurant of the Year.
The Making of Freya
Freya is the second restaurant of chef Doug Hewitt and Sandy Levine, who together opened Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Midtown in 2015. The two of them “wanted to do something a little more extravagant, not only for ourselves but for the city. And doit…in a way that we find elegant and unique,” Hewitt says.
Inspired by three-Michelin-star restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York and Smyth in Chicago, they took what they liked about those places and ditched whatever wouldn’t feel welcoming at the multicourse, progressive restaurant they envisioned, such as suits for staff, smooth jazz in the dining room (see the end of this article for more on Freya’s music), and the hefty price point. For example, when they ate at Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant known for its tableside theatrics and $365 per person price tag, they felt like they didn’t belong. They didn’t want anyone to feel like that at Freya.
In 2019, they bought a former National Postal Mail Handlers Union building (once a drill company) in Milwaukee Junction, a neighborhood north of downtown that was the center of commercial and industrial activity for 100-plus years, most notably as the hub of America’s emerging auto industry. But the building needed a full gutting. They either had to make drastic improvements such as pouring the floor and fixing the electrical system or had to build from scratch, Levine says.
With the design of the space, which incorporates Nordic elements, they embraced the DIY ethos, often relying on the talents of friends, such as Shaina Kasztelan, who hand-painted the arches to combine with the gray wallpaper that depicts a scene of a serene winter landscape “so that it looked like you were peering out of windows at nature,” Levine says.
“We wanted it to feel like a super-decked-out version of a cabin in the woods [with candles, blankets, etc.], but combined with the feeling that you’re still in Detroit [with industrial elements].”
In the dining area that seats about 50, the first thing you’ll notice is that there is no bar, and that is by design. Bars can be a distraction, and without one as a focal point, diners can direct their gaze to the big open kitchen.
The lack of walls between diner and chefs is intentional.
“Eating out has so many different anxiety moments to it, whether it be price point, or maybe a wine you don’t know how to pronounce,” Hewitt says. “Sometimes fine dining can be very nerve-racking and intimidating. And that’s exactly what Sandy and I are not. That is the thing about fine dining, the walls that we’re trying to break down. It started with the thought of the kitchen. And everything after that just sort of follows.”
Hewitt acknowledges there is still some work to do.
“There are a lot of people that we haven’t had in for dinner. And there are a lot of people that we still need to reach. … We’re just trying to improve, improve, improve, improve. And ultimately, I think that’s what makes a restaurant a good restaurant, one that just strives to be better than it was yesterday.”
A Different Kind of Tasting Menu Restaurant
Many tasting menu restaurants don’t even show you the menu until you’re done with the meal. Unless there’s an allergy, there won’t be accommodations. Most of the time, you are going to eat what the chef has determined ahead of time.
At Freya, you can choose your own adventure with the prix fixe option that costs $95 per person (there is a grand tasting menu where you leave it up to the chefs to select your courses for $155). You pick what you want in each course, from starters to dessert, but the guesswork of how much to order or whether to share dishes is taken out of the equation. After you pick what you want to eat (and there are vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options), then it’s time to sit back and enjoy every flavorful bite and drink. There are optional drink pairings: wine ($55), cocktails ($55), or nonalcoholic drinks ($35); you may also order by the glass.
Each dish is perfectly seasoned; nothing is bland, and nothing needs an extra hit of salt. That’s because each dish is built with layers of complementary flavors. “What you want is all of the things: salty, sweet, spicy, umami, crunchy, crispy, sour,” Zimmerman says. “I kind of get made fun of for that because all my [dishes] have like 17 things
Zimmerman also likes to take food “on the edge.” The grilled Romanesco, with black garlic, chimichurri, and almond, is a perfect example of that. The vegetable is charred to the point that it looks almost burnt, but it’s “the right kind” of burnt, Zimmerman says. “That char balances out the overwhelm of the umami [from the black garlic]. The thing that I love to do is ride the line, like ‘It’s almost too salty; no, it’s not.’ … It almost has the potential to go over the line, but it just rides it right on the edge.”
At Freya, the menu isn’t just Hewitt’s or Zimmerman’s; the creation of the menu is a collaborative process.
“These guys are the ones that run it every night,” Zimmerman says, gesturing to Andrew Peterson, Cameron Aramian, and Sous-Chef Cole Lauri in the kitchen as they prep for service on a recent Saturday. “These are the ones that I want to impress with the food. … And if they have a thought … and they want to try something, we build it together.”
Zimmerman is overcome with emotion while talking about creating with the chefs, their hand briefly hovering over their chest as they stand in Freya’s dining room. “I’m just extremely grateful to have that and to have the space with art and all that. It’s an abundance of all the things that I’ve ever wanted.”
Hewitt says Zimmerman has a unique cooking style, cooking with “fierceness.”
“Phoebe cooks very different than most people that I know,” Hewitt says. “And I would be a fool to stop that growth and to not let Phoebe do what Phoebe does best. And that is cook with layers and cook with flavors and unique depth.”
While the dishes have a fine-dining aesthetic, they are still recognizable, whether it’s local Brussels sprouts with a shallot vinaigrette or French onion soup — or in Freya’s case, French onion dumplings.
Lauri conceptualized several dishes on a recent menu, including the French onion dumplings with white cheddar foam, onion broth, and cheddar cheese cracker. The onion broth has a rich and complex intensity from caramelizing onions, adding sherry and stock, and cooking it for three hours, with Lauri coaxing as much flavor as possible from a simple ingredient.
Bevarage director Tara Wong’s cocktail pairings are thoughtful and creative, with garnishes that match up with the flavors in a dish. The Rohan duck breast, which is seared, cooked sous vide, and seared again until the skin reaches maximum crispiness, is served with a bourbon cocktail infused with onion and fresh rosemary and garnished with fried rosemary mixed with tapioca dust.
The cocktail highlights the savory notes in the dish, including the luscious allium cream with herb oil. And in an effort to include those who do not imbibe, Wong has crafted nonalcoholic pairings that are no overly sweet afterthought. A cocktail made with Lyre’s Italian spritz, tart cherry, hot honey, and lemon is a standout among the carefully constructed offerings that don’t try to imitate alcohol.
Leedom’s wine pairings help to broaden guests’ palates or break down preconceptions. For example, the pairing with butter-poached cod is a dry Sicilian red, going against conventional wisdom that fish must always go with white wine.
When it comes to selecting wines, Leedom says her goal is to highlight organic and sustainable producers, and the smaller the better because the team is trying to support local farms. One such pairing is the passion fruit dessert with an ice wine from Pelee Island, a tiny Canadian island in Lake Erie south of Detroit. Ice wine can be almost cloying, but its acidity marries splendidly with Executive Pastry Chef Cali Castillo’s beautifully composed passion fruit dessert.
Serving Little Acts of Joy
At 4:15 p.m. on a Saturday in December, lead server and captain Julie Trojan goes over the reservation list, which has nearly 80 people on the books for tonight.
As part of her job as captain, a role she’s had for a few months, she does research on all the guests. There are a few repeat customers, and several celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. A local real estate agent, a college professor, an immigrant from Costa Rica who is dedicated to improving his community back home, and a group from a company that’s a bit like “Poshmark meets Facebook Marketplace” are all coming in.
These acts of hospitality are another thing Levine borrowed from Eleven Madison Park.
Trojan says her job is to discover details to tailor a guest’s experience. For example, she found out a guest was a pilot and made paper airplanes that welcomed the couple when they arrived at their table. She also introduced them to the aviation cocktail.
“It was one of those things where we hit it off so well. And there were all these little touches that we could do that made their visit just so much more special,” Trojan says.
General Manager Thor Jones says from day one the staff was encouraged to help shape what service would look like. Being able to have a say in how the restaurant is run has fostered a sense of ownership among the staff, and it shows in the cohesiveness of the friendly and attentive service.
A common refrain from several of Freya’s staff members is that the leaders let them forge their own paths and speak freely. Jones says people are empowered to have a “level of entrepreneurship” in their work.
For example, Leedom is dreaming of hosting social justice discussions, bringing people together over drinks, both boozy and nonalcoholic, with an expert or advocate to lead the conversation.
Several of the staff members have also grown into their roles. Castillo worked under former Executive Pastry Chef Ben Robison before taking over the pastry department with her own team of two others.
“Sandy and Doug trust us to do our jobs. And they don’t micromanage. … We’re allowed to create what we think will be good for the restaurant,” Castillo says.
“I’ve worked at places where you do not get along [with others], and it makes working there miserable,” Castillo continues. “I’ve had terrible owners in the past that micromanaged, and this place is not like that at all….We all get along; we all can joke and laugh and be serious together. … Our job is to make sure the restaurant succeeds and that we put out dishes that we’re proud of, that we know the guests will like. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Takeisha Pack, Freya’s head host, wears a lot of hats, something she didn’t do at previous jobs.
“A lot of times you go somewhere and there is literally one person dedicated to one role. Before I came to Freya, I never even trusted myself to hold a tray of glassware, or I never thought I would be explaining the food to guests when we bring each dish out, and now I’m doing all those things, plus more.
“Freya has really exposed me to a more in-depth side of hospitality and service that has furthered my appreciation for what we do in this industry,” Pack says.
Facilitator of Memories
As Zimmerman, who started cooking at age 19 when they became vegan, has gotten older, the chef has come to see their role differently.
“I’m not a chef; I’m a facilitator of memories. I want you to feel like I’m holding your hand at the table.”
And Zimmerman has literally held someone’s hand at the table. A woman who’d had a panic attack in the bathroom returned a couple of weeks later to eat at Freya.
“I went up to her and I held her hand, and she cried. We had a moment.”
Zimmerman continues, “[Food is] an opportunity to connect. It’s an opportunity for people to exist in space together. It’s the intrinsic nature of being human. Our spirits need belonging, safety, and dignity. That’s the thing that I’m trying to do, is providethatmemory,feeling, humor, joy.”
The Art of Community
The dishes at Freya look as good as they taste, but they’re not the only works of art in the restaurant.
The gray brick walls are a mini art gallery, showcasing different pieces created by Detroit artists. Last year, the restaurant launched the series of exhibitions during Black History Month with a show featuring local art heavy hitters such as Sheefy McFly, Phillip Simpson, Tony Rave, and Tony Whlgn, with a curating helping hand from emerging artist India Solomon.
“I wanted to make sure that we set out to be an example for what we would hope to see other restaurants do not just during Black History Month but all of the time, with Detroit being the Blackest city in the nation,” says General Manager Thor Jones, who oversees the rotating art installation and invites the artists to exhibit at the restaurant.
Freya puts up the pieces for free and takes no commission. To kick off a new selection of works, it will have a reception, which is an opportunity to invite people in who may not necessarily come in for a $95 meal but could peruse the art and enjoy drinks and snacks prepared by the chefs.
“We’re out here building on the foundation that has continued to make Detroit’s heart beat — the Black people, the queers, the artists, the musicians, the food, the fashion, and all other things creative that make our city pump,” read an Instagram post last April explaining the intent behind the art series and announcing the next art opening, Abundance, featuring a “trifecta” of nonbinary artists: Quinn Faylor, Jozie Bullard, and Aire.
That show was followed by an exhibit of work by Denzel Palm, a self-taught artist who started creating art to decorate his apartment because he couldn’t afford to buy pricier pieces.
He started off by painting celebrities such as rappers ASAP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator, and NBA All-Star Paul George. Then he transitioned into what has become a signature style for him, melting crayons and creating puzzle pieces to arrange on a wooden panel. His work caught Jones’s eye, and over the summer, Palm, who has been creating art for three years, had a solo exhibition titled Men Deserve Flowers Too at Freya and Dragonfly, the restaurant’s “sibling” cocktail bar located around the corner from Freya with an entrance on Beaubien Street. He sold about 15 pieces when his artwork adorned the walls.
“Freya giving me the opportunity to give people an experience of my artwork, not just on Instagram — it’s huge,” says Palm, who one might call a “corporate creative,” someone who has a day job but is able to pursue his passion for art.
The rotating art installation is just one of the ways Freya tries to engage with the community, something Jones says that Sandy Levine, with whom he worked at Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, tried to do from the beginning.
“I loved how he wanted to come into that neighborhood and not necessarily just pop up and do their own thing but also include the surrounding neighborhood and the people in it.
“One of the first things he mentioned was, ‘I really don’t want to just be a gentrifier,’” Jones recalls. “He was like, ‘I want to make it a place [where] everyone feels welcome. And the only way we can do that is to have ties to the community.’”
One of head host Takeisha Pack’s favorite things to do at Freya is to hand out a music menu, which includes a 12-page list of records diners can pick out along with their meal.
“What I’ve learned with the record book is that a lot of people have a lot of different tastes; some days we’ll for sure hear Leon Bridges’s Coming Home on occasion, or we’ll often get a request for Outkast or Tupac. It’s always different every day,” says Pack, who likes to throw in Erykah Badu, Anita Baker, D’Angelo, Fela Kuti, or Arthur Verocai.
The records are from co-owner Sandy Levine’s collection, Pack says, adding, “So we all have him to thank for his expanded taste in music.” The neighborhood “has an incredible history in regard to music, and we definitely wanted our dining room to reflect that,” Levine says.
The music menu is passed out only on weeknights. On weekends, the restaurant turns up its curated playlist, which isn’t faithful to one genre, but the “backbone” is R&B and electronic music inspired by the neighborhood, with a strong hip-hop presence and plenty of nostalgia.
“When the playlist is done right, you can see a few guests here and there just kind of grooving in their seats, and even though it might not be conscious, it adds to the fun of the night,” Levine says.
Here’s a sample of what you might hear coming through Freya’s speakers when you dine on a weekend:
- “Stay Flo,” by Solange
- “N.Y. State of Mind,” by Nas
- “Kevin’s Heart,” by J. Cole
- “Money Trees (Feat. Jay Rock),” by Kendrick Lamar
- “Nights,” by Frank Ocean
- “More Than a Woman,” by Aaliyah
- “ATLiens,” by Outkast
- “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” by Michael Jackson
- “Paint the Town Red,” by Doja Cat
- “The Light,” by Common
This story is from the February 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition. Associate Editor Jack Thomas contributed to this story.