The team at Ladder 4 Wine Bar is not big on labels.
James Cadariu, who bought the vintage building that houses the wine bar with his brother, feels awkward when he says he’s the owner, first joking he’s “head of receiving,” then settling on something along the lines of “operating partner.”
Ask Omy Bugazia, the wine director (also “general manager/events guy”), what kind of wine Ladder 4 focuses on, and he’ll reply: “Natural wine, which eludes definition.”
Consider the menu by John Yelinek, who creates a wildly inventive mix of local, seasonal food influenced by Europe — from Romania to Spain — juxtaposed with New American and Asian flavors.
If these elements create a whole that’s a little hard to define, that’s on purpose. In fact, Cadariu did not set out to have a restaurant in his wine bar in 2015 when he bought the 1910 firehouse that gives Ladder 4 its name. Still, when his contractors renovated the 7,000-square-foot building, they built a kitchen with 10 burners, three ovens, a grill, a griddle, and a plancha.
“I knew that we needed food, but I think it’s more or less a guiding principle of ours to come at it from being a wine bar and not a restaurant,” he says.
Yelinek was not looking for another kitchen leadership job when he started at Ladder 4. He’d worked at top Detroit kitchens like Roast and founded the popular pop-up Park Ranger, but at Ladder 4, he only poured wine a few times a week at first. Eventually, Yelinek, who is quick to say he’s not head chef, moved from the bar to the kitchen. “We don’t have sous-chefs and stuff like that,” he says, in another example of how titles are just words here.
The locally sourced, seasonally driven menu is brief, organized by lighter fare like salad and crudo at the top (along with the infamous pairing of Drive-Thru Hash Browns and amber Kaluga caviar for $99); tasty morsels and vegetable-centric plates like the croquettes and the burnt leeks with sauce gribiche and trout roe in the middle; and large plates such as fried chicken and steak at the bottom.
I’ve been to Ladder 4 several times over the past year, and each time the menu has been different. That’s because the food is at the whim of Yelinek and Ladder 4’s producers, which include Fisheye Farms in Core City, as well as the wine bar’s garden tended by Yelinek’s wife, Charlotte Gale.
“We don’t have this long [research and development] process for every dish,” Yelinek says. “It’s sometimes like, I really just threw this together, and it’s going on the menu tonight.”
During my most recent visit last summer, we tried a gem lettuce salad with yogurt, lemon breadcrumbs, and Kampot pepper. It was reminiscent of a Caesar salad: crisp, refreshing, and well balanced, with tang from the yogurt, brightness and crunch from the lemon breadcrumbs, and rich flavor from the briny boquerones. The croquettes, perfectly crispy and crunchy, packed a flavorful punch in a small package with jamon Iberico, blue crab, and piparras, a type of long, green pepper from the Basque Country of Spain.
For the entrees, there were four offerings, and we wanted them all: roasted cabbage with whipped garlic and sheep’s milk cheese; whole rainbow trout with spruce, charred onion, and aioli; fried chicken with haricots verts and huitlacoche (the fungus that grows on corn); and a 60-day dry-aged rib eye with giardiniera and sesame.
The rib eye was tempting, especially with the intriguing pairing of giardiniera and sesame. But we went with the fried chicken and whole trout after spotting our next-door diners enjoying the same dishes. This food is meant for sharing, so you might want to bring friends.
The chicken, a slow-growing heritage bird, is special-ordered from a farm in Pennsylvania. It’s not local, but it’s also “the single best example of any chicken I’ve ever had, so I stand behind it that for that reason,” Yelinek says. And you can taste the difference; the crunchy exterior stayed crisp despite the generous serving of the savory jus, amplifying the juiciness and flavor of the chicken.
The fish was grilled and served whole, embellished with charred onion and generous dollops of aioli. It sounds overly complicated with competing flavors and aromas, but Yelinek is a wizard at marrying ingredients and flavors.
It’s likely you won’t get these same exact dishes, but Yelinek does have a method to the menu; each time I’ve gone, there’s been some iteration of crudo, burnt leeks and new potatoes, a whole fish preparation (I still dream about the whole grilled fluke with chorizo and piquillo peppers), and a decadent and luxurious meaty entree like steak au poivre.
“The food is serious, but I’m coming at it from [the perspective that] this is something you should be able to enjoy casually that doesn’t have to feel fancy, but you can treat it like that,” Yelinek says.
While Ladder 4 has hundreds of bottles in inventory, its daily wine list is finely curated. On the evening we went, there were just a couple of selections under the white, skin-contact, rosé, and red categories, as well as one sparkling, a Charles Le Bel Inspiration 1818 Champagne.
My companion and I wanted to share a bottle of rosé. On this particular evening, we could choose between a fruitier wine and a crisper, drier one with a saltier finish, both French. After asking us what our palates gravitated to, our server steered us toward the latter, the Domaine de Terrebrune Bandol 2021.
When it came to the entree, my companion wanted to switch it up and asked for a suggestion, adding that he prefers wines with more minerality. Our server returned with a spot-on choice: a Weingut Heinrich Naked white from Burgenland, Austria.
Like the food, the wines come from small operations, usually family vintners who produce wines grown organically and biodynamically, Cadariu says. As a Romanian Serb, Cadariu also wants to highlight Eastern Europe and the comeback of post-Soviet collective practices. “We find some of those ways to be very unique and
compelling. And then part of it is creating a market for old varieties of grapes so that they don’t go extinct.”
Cadariu continues: “We want to make space for things that have always existed. Like if there’s some weird grape growing on the Canary Islands that nobody knows about anymore but it may have a history of being brought over to North and South America and planted. There are through lines with a lot of these stories that we want to highlight.”
“Opening up a space like this not only allows you to understand more about the history of the building but also to share stories about the past and create new stories towards the future.”
He also wants to highlight the story of the space. Cadariu jokes that his
other job title is “tour guide” because he leads an “endless stream of tours for firefighters” who come to enjoy their former firehouse’s new incarnation. “They tell you stuff about the buildings that’s so incredible.” For example, Cadariu just learned that his personal room was once hay storage for the horses that pulled the fire wagons in the early 20th century.
And stories always go well with good food and wine.
Ladder 4 Wine Bar at a Glance
- Price: $$$
- Vibes: Fun and casual — you can feel like you’re celebrating a special occasion without white tablecloths and pretense.
- Service: Laid-back (maybe a little too much), but the staff makes up for it in being extremely knowledgeable; worth the wait.
- Sound level: Moderate. The dining area and bar are lively, but it doesn’t intrude on your experience.
- Dress code: Just like the vibes, although if you showed up in a cocktail dress or suit, no one would look twice.
- Open: Dinner Wednesday through Sunday.
- Reservations: Make online at exploretock.com/ladder4winebar.
- Parking: Street parking on Vinewood.
Accessibility: Ladder 4’s first floor is at street level.
What else? In addition to the wines, there’s a small selection of beer and cider as well as nonalcoholic options such as Unified Ferments’ Snow Chrysanthemum.
This story is from the November 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.