You didn’t hear this from me, but there’s a restaurant critic in town who recently approached a review with some preconceived notions. You and I know that objectivity and open-mindedness are essential tools of the food writing trade. Even so, this guy had his mind half made up before he stepped foot in the place. I shouldn’t be telling you this. Let’s keep it our little secret.
Maybe I was a bit skeptical because Shelby seemed so darned self-assured from the start. Per their website, there’s no number to call for reservations. For those looking to have dinner, the menu appears minute. If you do come, you’re requested to limit your stay to two hours. And to top it all off, Shelby claims that somewhat elusive speakeasy status, its underground location marked only by a vaulted blue door on the basement floor beneath the Coffee Down Under cafe in downtown’s old U.S. Mortgage Bond Building.
Staff standing guard at the bottom of the stairs — though far from fierce-looking bouncer types — let you through from there (no secret knock or password required).
Led to a requested bar seat, I was left for a minute to take in the atmosphere. It was dark enough to show movies on any wall but the all-aglow back bar running the width of the room. Just after opening (5 p.m.) on a Friday, bar staff were already busy filling squeeze bottles and shaking the evening’s first drink orders.
Leaving my perch for a look-see around, I breezed through a smallish area dotted with a bar, high-top tables, and dining tables before literally stumbling into a space behind the big signature safe door that hearkens back to pre-cybersecurity times when banks kept our money under brick-and-mortar lock and key. Feet thick and made from who knows how many tons of steel, one imagines it’s provided the perfect background for countless patrons taking Shelby pics since the speakeasy opened two years ago.
Credit architect Chris Johnson of Primary Projects in Boston and Extracurricular in Detroit for creating a cozily cloistered interior that pays appropriate homage to the history of the property.
Settling in, I turned myself over to attending mixologist Derek Kaiser, the bar manager. Having come in from the cold wanting for some rekindling warmth, I let him slide me a State Fair Old Fashioned ($17): high-proof Elijah Craig bourbon blended with aged apricot brandy, teased tastier with almond syrup and bitters of orange and walnut, and served with a paper cone of candied almonds clipped to the glass.
I was already over the moon with my drink, but the Pink Moon oysters ($25, half-dozen) soon put me in even higher orbit thanks to their pristine presentation. Shucked perfectly whole with no manhandling scars, they were plated simply with lemon and salt, save for the slightest, perfuming spritz of sherry vinegar gastrique. Whoever prepared these knows their stuff.
Not to be outdone, the beef tartare ($22) offered an equally shimmering example: Lightly cured and ground eye of round (sans raw egg, by the way) arrived glistening and glittering in its toss of light oil and herbs on a lightly brushed base of homemade mayonnaise, along with gorgeously blistered crusty bread from Ann Arbor’s White Lotus Farms and crisp leaves of iceberg sprayed with a dried beef reduction so deliciously beguiling I wound up staring into the last one like a tea leaf reader before devouring it. Shelby should bottle this. For carnivores, it could make salad dressings obsolete.
Back for seconds the next night, I established trust and rapport with bartender Alex this time, letting her know I was looking to sip on something uplifting after a long workday.
She whipped me up a mezcal-centric cocktail mellowed with lemon, ginger, honey, and — unless I heard her wrong — a wee dram of blended Scotch as well. Whatever. It worked. Two sips in, my body started swaying to the sounds of Steely Dan and Babyface streaming through the space. A few sips more and I was really feeling it; my good chi returned to me. Along with an appetite.
When Alex suggested the “Escar-No” ($18), I was hesitant. An escargot-inspired presentation served without the star ingredient struck me as a mere shell of something I enjoy on occasion.
Still, Alex insisted and I’m a mushroom guy, so I gave it a try. She was right again. The dish didn’t need snails. Not when one’s served a big, beautiful bowl of cremini caps bathed in a thyme-tinged kombu and dashi broth slightly smoky with toasted applewood. Read through that again. It tastes even better than it sounds. And there’s the “snail bread” slathered with what’s a classic escargot butter at heart (garlic, butter, wine) but here Shelby-fied with fresh tarragon, miso, and dried porcini. The chef apparently understands the blessings of good bread. Not since the days when Mom buttered mine have I taken as much from its simple pleasures.
Waiting for a final savory course, I spied a pop-up distillery across the bar from me filling two glass receptacles drop by drop with colorless fluid. As they say, it pays to be curious. When I inquired about the setup with Kaiser, he poured me a taste. No mere moonshine, The End Is Clear ($18) is pisco-based (brandy), combined and clarified with botanical and nutty liqueurs, carrots, citrus, and maple syrup. It’s refined, surprisingly subtle and refreshing. Better still, the resulting distillate rings in at a measly 30 proof or so, according to my and Kaiser’s calculations. Feel free to have two or three. The Greek gods drank ambrosia. Shelby-goers looking to imbibe divinely should sip this stuff.
Once my scallops arrived ($30 for two), it became clear how much culinary acumen Executive Chef and partner Matt Tulpa is bringing to the table here. Yes, the scallops themselves were perfectly seared, but the sauce components served in symphony also sang the talents of their orchestrator, and there were two beauties in my bowl: a lightly foamed broth flavored from preserved whitefish and bones saved from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, and a sturdier second puree constructed from miso cream and simple yeast stock. They each complemented and somehow accentuated the essence of the scallops themselves. That’s admirable cooking craft. Kudos, chef.
In hindsight, I’m not surprised I ate more bread for dessert — Poor Man’s Bread Pudding ($16) in specific. It’s more cake-battered than the classic custardy, cube-textured construct, and Shelby bakes in maple cream, ladles on cider caramel, and flambes the confectionary little crock with Myers’s rum to finish. Don’t do what I did and douse the flames too soon. Let the booze burn off on its own. Otherwise, you’ll have something a little too alcoholic on your hands. Story of my life.
Some final observations. Firstly, on both visits, chef Tulpa had his workstation set up at the far end of the bar, where he could work while keeping an eye on the action out front. He was prepping, plating, serving, and engaging the crowd. Not knowing whether he does that as a conscious decision or out of sheer necessity (space constraints?), I love the idea, the look, and the added layers of oversight and execution. Again, nicely done, sir. Shelby showed me a few things we foodie folk need to be reminded of every now and again.
Eating and drinking trends ebb and flow. Don’t knock them; try them. Instead of swimming against tides, go with what’s being floated in front of you a little more often. Ride the wave. And lastly, here’s the secret to success in the food and beverage business: great food and service. End of story.
Shelby is located at 607 Shelby St., Detroit. Visit shelbydetroit.com for more information.
This story is part of the April 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition.