Restaurant Report: Host Utica

Nine months after opening, Host Utica’s founder is staying true to his mission of bringing big talent and diverse cuisine to Macomb County.
Spring menu items at Host Utica included Bella’s Beets; Lamb Cake, a lamb shank on eggplant delight topped with a cucumber/yogurt salad; and a ravani slice — an orange sponge cake garnished with Chantilly cream, anise powdered sugar, and orange zest. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

Residents in Macomb County have a chip on their shoulders. When it comes to their culinary scene, they feel overlooked and underappreciated.

And the mentality for many living in Detroit or its ring of suburbs usually adds up to, “With what we’ve got in our own backyard, why would we spend a Friday night driving out to Utica?”

That’s an attitude, however, that’s starting to peel away, one layer of prejudice paint at a time.

Cuisine like the Colombian offerings of Rosita’s Treats in Shelby Township, the Syrian specialties at Pattternz in Sterling Heights, or the Thai fare at Khom Fai in Macomb shows that the county has a growing immigrant population contributing to its culinary resume — the same diversity that makes the dining scenes of Oakland and Wayne counties stand out.

And the extremely active Facebook group Eat Local Macomb boasts more than 28,000 members, boosting local spots under a banner that reads, “Unique eats in Generictown, Michigan.”

Host Utica, founded by Michael Ivkov, is yet another addition that’s staving off the reputation that Macomb can’t hold its own.

Macomb County resident Ivkov elevated Detroit’s pop-up scene back in 2014 with Stockyard Detroit, which hosted dinners at places such as the Michigan Theater and the Packard Plant. Now, in less than a year, he has cemented the multifaceted Host, also in a historic building, as a favorite of local diners who were sick of driving to Detroit for an elevated night out.

Host is a lot of things under one roof. You can grab a wood-fired pizza to go or dine in. On the weekends, brunch is helmed by in-house Executive Chef Davante Burnley, who cut his teeth in Detroit after graduating from the Art Institute of Michigan and later took his talents north to Utica. Before that, the brunch featured chef Mark Camaj, formerly the chef de cuisine at SheWolf Pastificio & Bar in Detroit. The entire upstairs of Host functions as a coworking space with private offices, shared spaces, and conference rooms.

But its main draw is a full-service restaurant that acts as a residency for a rotating cast of chefs to cook and perfect their craft for up to three months.

On the Menu in June and July

The first floor of Host Utica serves as a full- service restaurant. Offices, conference rooms, and shared spaces occupy the upper floors of the building. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

Starting June 5, Host welcomes the chefs behind Break’n Cornbread — Shanel DeWalt and Brandon Johnson. The duo are bringing their “big energy comfort food” with twists on traditional Black food to the Utica restaurant June 5 through July 15.

“We like to show up in any given space and celebrate the Black experience, from our vibe to our culture and our food, but in a new way,” says DeWalt, who connected with Johnson after working in kitchens with him over the years and building up a solid culinary chemistry. The duo started Break’n Cornbread just over a year ago.

“Black food is soul food,” DeWalt says, but diners should expect a range of flavors from across the diaspora, including lots of Cajun and creole flavors.

Menu highlights will include Break’n Cornbread’s signature Detroit Hot Chix sandwich — Aleppo pepper-glazed hot chicken, collard green coleslaw, and house-made pickles.

Other items will cater to Macomb’s Italian American population by merging elements of Black cooking with some Italian flair.

Chef Johnson says he’s working on a smoked ham hock and collard green risotto for their upcoming Host residency, along with shrimp and grits arancini. A pound cake whose recipe been passed down for four generations, starting with chef Johnson’s great-grandmother, will be featured on the menu, too.

It’s a major nod to a defining feature of Black cuisine — recipes passed down generation after generation — but also a bridge to what makes Italian cooking stand out, too.

“We know that in that area, it’s very Italian influenced, and we know that it shares similarities with a Black household because everything is tied to food, family, and those large gatherings,” chef DeWalt says.

After that, in August, modern French is on the menu at Host. This autumn, it’s Moroccan cuisine.

Host’s History and Future

The first floor of Host Utica serves as a full- service restaurant. Offices, conference rooms, and shared spaces occupy the upper floors of the building. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

“Host and some of the other restaurants keep us from going to Detroit because they’re so damn good here,” says Ed Tebby, a Shelby Township resident who, along with his wife, has become a regular at Host. “We can’t wait for the new chefs.”

Ivkov was hoping to build that type of anticipation in his own backyard. Having grown up in the area and living in nearby Macomb, Ivkov is aware of the stereotypes surrounding the area’s food scene.

“This area is so fast-food chain driven,” says Ivkov, a real estate broker with a background in food trucks and hospitality. “There are a handful of great restaurants, but the rest is a lot of Applebee’s. I wanted to create this space, selfishly, because I want better food options out this way.”

Before Host found its home, the historic 1901 building housed a handful of dive bars. Along with his business partners, Ivkov bought the building for $790,000 in April of last year and spent $550,000 on renovations. Some of that work was done by his own two hands: He created the mosaic tile entryway to the 90-seat restaurant himself.

In its first full year of operations, Ivkov estimates Host will bring in about $3 million in revenue.

“I go up to customers and I thank them for coming,” Ivkov says, “and they thank me back for bringing something like this to Utica.”

Ivkov has surrounded himself with an impressive support cast, including Burnley and Beverage Director Jake Virden, formerly of The Conserva in Ferndale, who rounds out the beer and wine selection with seasonal cocktails.

As the restaurant grows, Ivkov says, they hope to offer later hours and build up to becoming a full-blown cocktail bar by night. When Hour Detroit visited in the spring, we found ourselves sipping the Hive Mind (chamomile gin, genepy, honey, lemon, Amaro Montenegro, egg white, and bee pollen) and the Flora’s Fortune (bourbon, Cognac, Cointreau, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and spring spice tincture).

For his part, Ivkov hopes the cocktails and rotating food options can bring customers together and help continue to put Macomb County’s dining scene in the discussion as something to pay attention to.

“When you walk in, we could be from completely different backgrounds and have completely different beliefs,” Ivkov says, “but if we’re sharing a good cocktail together and some good food, I think that calms the nerves and brings us together over conversation.”

Check Out More Photos of Host Utica

This story is part of the June 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition.