A frequent lament heard among serious food enthusiasts is that there are no restaurants in Detroit that reach the hyper-perfection of Per Se or Daniel in New York, Alinea in Chicago, or the French Laundry in the Napa Valley.
We have some reasonably good grills, brasseries, steakhouses, bistros, and seafood and ethnic restaurants, but when it comes to top-end fine dining, there is almost nothing.
Well, the wringing of hands can now stop.
Barely six months old, Marais, the elegant and sensational new Grosse Pointe restaurant, at last reaches the level of fine dining of other cities.
It is also the return of a kind of dining missing here for many years. Marais has quickly and comfortably slipped into the robe of being one of the best — possibly even the best — in the area.
Marais has that rare combination of precision, skill, care, confidence, execution, and vision. Its menu is contemporary French-based, modern haute cuisine. The food is sublime.
The restaurant, owned by Executive Chef David Gilbert and his wife and General Manager Monica Gilbert, is gorgeous with soft warm gray walls, one of which displays large framed photographs of old European kitchens. Blond-grayish light hickory flooring and a combination of baroque chandeliers, wall lamps, and soft modern crystal lighting lend Marais a welcoming plushness.
From some seats in the dining room, there’s a glimpse into the open kitchen, which, with its bright industrial lighting, becomes a kind of staged theater. For a closer look at the action, there’s a plate-glass window to one side of the kitchen near a little shop. The shop sells some of the hard-to-find ingredients used in various dishes, plus wine and house-made French macaroons.
The last time anything this exciting opened in the Detroit area was in the 1980s, when Jimmy Schmidt, then a boy-wonder chef barely out of his teens, launched the Rattlesnake Club in the midst of the national intrigue with new American brasserie style of dining.
Certainly, Detroit has had — and still has — white-linen, fine dining restaurants, but as a breed, the genre has been waddling toward extinction for many years.
The survivors include The Lark in West Bloomfield Township, the last to set a higher bar for fine dining in the 1980s, along with Rugby Grille in Birmingham and The Hill in Grosse Pointe Farms. But the others died, one by one: Golden Mushroom, Moveable Feast, Emily’s, Chez Raphael, Vineyard, Il Posto, and Excalibur, to name a few.
Until now, there have been a few radar blips, such as Clawson’s delightful Due Venti, but nothing that approaches Marais’ level of dining.
THE YOUNG TURKS
Marais is one of a handful of restaurants only recently opened by a small group of Young Turk chefs.
Determined to reconfigure and advance all forms, not just fine dining, they loosely represent the start of what may be a movement.
Marais’ Gilbert see himself as one of them, and he includes in this confederation Andy Hollyday, formerly of Roast and the soon-to-open Selden Standard, both in Detroit; James Rigato at The Root in White Lake Township, and Garrett Lipar at Torino in Ferndale, whose style of cooking comes quite close to Marais.
“This collaborative is trying to make headway. And the more of them we have doing it, the better. The guys coming out now really get it. It’s a new awakening,” Gilbert says. He contends that traditionally, Detroit restaurants have operated either in isolation or in competition with each other, with no interaction.
The contrast, Gilbert says, is that the new chef-owners are far more bonded and regularly in touch with each other. They think nothing of reaching out or helping each other and asking “How do you do that?” and “I think that’s fantastic. I’m going to support you, and come eat at your restaurant.”
“That’s one thing that separates this generation of chefs from the last generation,” Gilbert says. “We share information. We talk a lot.”
Brash perhaps, but some truths are uncomfortable. And as much as Gilbert is cautious to avoid disparaging area restaurants, he is blunt about what some offer: “I mean, it’s hard … to perceive value in the $24 plate of macaroni and cheese,” he says.
THE MAKING OF A NEW MASTER
Marais is also the flowering of Gilbert’s own culinary abilities.
He seems to have the Midas touch wherever he lands. No chef has ever been associated with more of our Restaurant of the Year choices — three in all.
Gilbert was the main chef at Rugby Grille in the Townsend Hotel, when it was picked in 2000. He was at Forest Grill, our selection in 2009. And, now it’s Marais.
Watching Gilbert for the last five or six years, as he moved from one restaurant to the next, has been like watching an amaryllis bloom in winter.
Gilbert’s route to Marais began in his teens, in his hometown, Milford. His first job was working for Appeteaser Café’s Chris Angelosante.
From there, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, which led to a kitchen position at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa, recognized as one of the top three or four restaurants in this country. He rose to the position of chef de partie.
“French Laundry and Keller taught me how to cook, how to be a professional. But more importantly, he taught me a way of life,” Gilbert says. “In those type of kitchens you will always reach a point where you have to decide this is what you want to do.”
Gilbert then took off for France, landing a job with Chef Michel Bras at the restaurant that bears his name in Laguiole, the home of those very popular pointy dinner table knives with horn handles. Bras trained some of the greatest names in new fine dining: Alain Chapel, Michel Guérard, Claude Verger, Alain Ducasse, and Joel Robuchon
Gilbert also spent four years with Pascal Barbot at Astrance in Paris, and worked briefly in Spain for Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian, the food deconstructionist chef who is to cooking what his fellow Spaniard Antoni Gaudi was to architecture.
The experience of eating at Marais is simply extraordinary.
It begins with the humble egg, one of the few constants on a menu that changes every four to six weeks.
After a glass of champagne — offered from a cart rolled to tableside bearing a half a dozen open bottles of bubbly on ice from Champagne, Alsace, Napa Valley, and elsewhere — comes a solitary egg in its shell.
This, you are told, is the amuse bouche — the starting line of the evening. This is no ordinary egg. Its top gone, the open egg sits in a stainless steel cylindrical egg cup in the middle of a plate, a small spoon at its side.
On a recent visit, the shell of the egg contained a layer of egg custard, a dab of maple syrup, a touch of Jerez sherry vinegar, and a fluffy whipped white cheese.
To simply call the eggs sublime would be true, but after that they become difficult to describe. More to the point, the eggs are a signal of the kind of culinary joy ride you are about to take.
The menu is not that large: eight first courses, 10 main plates, and five desserts. At press time, there were plans to open for Sunday brunch.
We began a recent visit with a scrumptious pork belly and kohlrabi that came with green pistachios, huckleberries, beets, and a caraway vinaigrette. A soup, an artichoke velouté with black truffle, had great intensity and aromas and was served with toasted mushroom brioche smeared with black truffle butter.
Gilbert’s fondness for the truffle and his mastery showed again in another dish that we decided to split three ways and make into a second course for all at the table: a simple black truffle risotto that Gilbert dotted with pieces of sweetbreads, pan glazed in molasses butter, and accompanied with fennel fronds and fennel pollen. Divine.
There are a few old classics on the menu, which Gilbert spins agilely in a new direction. Duck à l’orange, for example, is a combination of confit duck thigh, pink slices of grilled breast with pieces of skinned fresh citrus flesh, and rounded out with braised red cabbage, a port wine sauce, and chanterelle mushrooms.
For a main dish called “Tasting of Veal,” Gilbert offers breast meat, veal loin, and veal sweetbreads dusted with licorice, with accompaniments of savoy cabbage cooked in riesling wine, baby turnips, and salsify.
Everything we tasted was exquisite, and had distant, distinct memories of Taillevent restaurant in Paris.
Also available is a chef’s tasting menu for $115 per person, which has six courses, or eight, if you count the ubiquitous eggshell of the evening to start and a light dessert.
wine list at Marais is an ever-growing and changing work, overseen by Monica Gilbert. The list includes both Old and New World bottles that range in price from $30 to $800.
A lot goes into making Marais’ menu work. “In order to do [Marais] at this level,” Gilbert says, “we make our own butter. We make our own bread. We have guys here at 5 o’clock in the morning making macaroons, French pastries, and so on. The level of dedication to do this is beyond a 9-to-5 job. There is no start and end [to the day]. You have to work hard to make your own identity and cannot stray from it.”
Gilbert is on a mission.
It’s not just about having a successful restaurant. It’s also about changing both the perception of superb dining and showing people how they can eat.
“We as a society have gone away from what dining should be. We’ve gone in different directions and dining tends to be more personality-driven than cuisine-driven,” Gilbert says.
“We have a lot of good chefs in Michigan, but we stray from our original ideas and our identity,” he says. “And once we do that, we might as well shut the doors, because you are then doing confusion cuisine. And if you don’t know what you are, other people are not going to know what you are.”
Since the late 1990s, the trend around Detroit has been for new restaurants to play it safe, which can mean dumbing-down to the more casual, predictable dining that’s now everywhere.
We have seen many restaurants launch in categories such as new Italian, American bistro, gourmet barbecue, Nueva Mexicana, and Asian fusion. Financially, playing it safe also made sense. But in the process, fine dining was left to wither and almost became extinct.
All the while, in comparably large cities, top-end contemporary French-based restaurants like Marais continued to thrive and make up the top of dining lists. But not in Detroit.
“We have so many great chefs in this area,” Gilbert says. “The problem is … they have to leave the state because we don’t have the institutions that allow them to say ‘I want to work in a kitchen at the level of Daniel Boulud or Charlie Trotter, but I need to go over there to do it.’ ”
One objective of the new movement, Gilbert says, is “to try to provide that experience, that level also that even young culinarians can look at us and say: ‘This is a house of learning. This where I can cut my teeth.’ ”
“The guys I’m cultivating right now [as kitchen staff] are the next generation of chefs in Detroit. That’s my goal,” Gilbert says. “They and those who follow them will have not just the skill set, but the ability to say ‘my obligation is not only to do this, but to give back.’ ”
Can another upper-end restaurant nudge its way into a market and survive where fine dining has been moribund?
Gilbert says it can, but Marais is about more than that. He is in it for the long haul, and he expects Marais to be around in 100 years, long after he has passed it on to someone else.
We built this place to last. Look at it,” he says as he sits in a small, private dining room in the rear of Marais.
“The whole purpose of this restaurant was to do, with a little luck, what Alice Waters did in San Francisco, what Charlie Trotter did in Chicago. I don’t think anybody can argue the point that Chicago would not be where it is today without Trotter. It has become a food destination.”
Gilbert likes to think there is a similar future for Detroit. “Marais is not just for us to be better than somebody else. Rather, it’s just an example of what this industry can be and should be.”
Marais, 17051 Kercheval Ave., Grosse Pointe; 313-343-8800. D Tue.-Sat. Br. Sun.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic.