For a city founded by a French trader, named after the French word for “strait,” and dubbed the Paris of the Midwest, there aren’t many French restaurants in Detroit — or the region, for that matter. Of course, there is Cuisine, Paul Grosz’s restaurant in New Center, its longevity just as impressive as the thoughtful and impeccable contemporary French-American menu. But for the most part, there is a void in French fare. It’s not for a lack of trying: In 2018, James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Young opened The Standard Bistro & Larder in Ann Arbor, and just a few years before that, David Gilbert launched Marais in Grosse Pointe. The Standard was Young’s longtime dream, while Marais was Gilbert’s vision of bringing a fine-dining restaurant on par with Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry or Grant Achatz’s Alinea to metro Detroit. Both are no longer open.
Enter The Statler, a French-American bistro on the first floor of the City Club Apartments on Park Avenue in downtown Detroit, just across the way from Grand Circus Park. The space is where the former historic Statler Hotel, which played host to celebrities like Harry Houdini and Zsa Zsa Gabor, used to stand before it was torn down in the early 2000s. When it was built more than a hundred years ago, the Italian Renaissance revival-style hotel cost $3.5 million to construct (more than $70 million in today’s dollars), the city’s most expensive and luxurious hotel at the time. Photos of its storied past can be seen in the restaurant’s hallways, including a framed menu featuring dishes like a classic shrimp cocktail, braised short rib, roadhouse-style frog legs, and more.
The Statler of today offers rustic preparations and deep flavors of French bistro standards like braised short rib (no frog legs, though) in a sophisticated yet welcoming setting reminiscent of an elegant grand cafe, with dark wood, posh maroon banquettes, and plenty of natural light streaming in through the windows on sunny days. It reminded me of the classic and charming neighborhood bistros where I spent many a leisurely afternoon when I visited Paris a few years ago. The 165-seat dining space was designed by Patrick Thompson Design, which has done restaurants like The Meeting House in Rochester and the newly renovated Elwood near Comerica Park.
The menu was developed by master chef Daniel Scannell, only one of 72 chefs in the U.S. with the coveted distinction, and James Oppat, the corporate executive chef for Joe Vicari Restaurant Group, of which The Statler is a part. Executive Chef Lea Perz, who trained at the renowned Culinary Institute of America and prior to that worked as garde-manger and prep cook at Forest Grill in Birmingham with Brian Polcyn, leads the kitchen.
My dining companion and I began a recent meal with steak tartare and country pâté. The steak tartare is straightforward and classic, with capers bringing levels of tartness and crunch that pop off the palate like popcorn (it could’ve used a touch of salt). The crispy egg yolk on top is an exciting twist to the usual raw yolk that tops tartare. I would have liked a more substantial vehicle for the tartare than what appeared to be boxed water crackers. The accoutrements were similar to that of the country pâté’s, so why not add the grilled bread?
We tried the country pâté on two separate occasions: The first time the texture was a bit off, almost mealy, like it had been overworked and warmed up too much, and the bacon wrapped around it was falling off. My dining companion, who has made his fair share of pâté, was unimpressed and did not want to order it again when we came back another night. Thankfully he relented, because it was sumptuous and executed perfectly the second time around (he devoured more than half of it). It comes with cranberry, mustard, pickled red onion, cornichons, and grilled bread, with all of the elements complementing the bold and assertive flavors of the pâté. Other hors d’oeuvres options include Eggs & Caviar, Scallop Rossini, and Moules Mariniere (fresh steamed mussels in a spicy rouge sauce).
On the hors d’oeuvres side, the standout was the Henri Maire Escargots: wild Burgundy snails with garlic butter fondue, parsley, Pernod, and profiteroles. The fondue was sublime, redolent of garlic with the luxurious sauce balancing the perfectly cooked snails. The profiteroles were crispy and airy, an incredible feat considering everything was swimming together in a bowl instead of the usual special dish that separates the snails; the fact that everything retained its texture and shape is a testament to the kitchen’s skill.
The entrees are generous and rich. The braised short rib is one of the most popular dishes, our servers told us, and in a meat-and-potatoes town like Detroit, that’s not a surprise. I looked over at the tables around us, and most of the time, my fellow diners had also ordered the short rib. It’s cooked low and slow, down to the perfect level of fork-tenderness so it cuts easily like butter but doesn’t disintegrate and disappear into the rest of the dish. While the short rib was well seasoned, it was the vegetables that truly shined on the plate. Each was ostensibly prepared and cooked separately, and each of them tasted vibrantly of themselves — the carrots retained their mellow sweetness while the parsnip stood out on its own with its nuttier character.
We also tried the roast duck, an inspired and modern take on duck à l’orange served simply yet elegantly with a Grand Marnier sauce poured tableside on top of half of the roasted duck accented by grilled scallions and kumquat rind. The duck was roasted to tender perfection (I would’ve loved a bit crispier skin) and the kumquat added a bright citrus pop to the dish, a surprising twist to the usual orange that can make duck à l’orange cloyingly sweet. The Statler’s version was not overly sweet but perhaps a little too subtle — more kumquat flavor in the sauce would have elevated everything. The steak frites boasted a New York strip steak bathed in a mock béarnaise, but the crisp frites were the better half of the dish.
Wines by the glass include both Old and New World selections. We tried a soft and silky French Pinot Noir that complemented the hearty fare. The bottle list also includes both Old and New World bottles, ranging in price from $44 to $550.
The dishes are a satisfying prelude to the showstopping desserts, presented on a wooden and gold dessert cart that’s nearly 5 feet tall. There are French standbys like crème brûlée and chocolate ganache cake, but it’s the more interesting and creative options that are worth the calories. The Citrus Blend was an imaginative take on key lime pie, with creamy clouds bursting of key lime flavor atop a graham cracker rectangle. Chocolate banana cream pie is reinterpreted and beautifully presented as a chocolate ball with salted caramel poured atop in dramatic fashion, melting the chocolate sphere to reveal the creamy interior.
While the ambience is high end, with servers wearing jackets that say The Statler and whisking away crumbs in between courses, the service is welcoming and down to earth. One server told us dad jokes, which I hated and my husband loved, and the dining manager asked me if I wanted ketchup with my steak frites (I declined). It may look like you’re in Paris when you’re at The Statler, but the warm and friendly service brings you back to Detroit.
The Statler has a large open-air patio with one side dedicated to those who are just coming in for cocktails. There’s also a market stocked with groceries, pastries, coffee, wine, and other staples as well as to-go meals (the short rib among them), catering to the downtown dweller.
Bistros are deeply woven into the fabric of Parisian dining culture, and from carryout to happy hour and date night, The Statler has made a strong case it can be that spot for those living downtown. But even more than that, it seems like Detroit finally has another destination for diners in metro Detroit seeking French cuisine.
The Statler, 313 Park Ave., Detroit; 313- 463-7111; Dinner, Mon.-Sun.; Brunch, Sun.; statlerdetroit.com
This story is from the July 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more our digital edition.