A Breed Apart

At Grosse Pointe Farms’ Dirty Dog Jazz Café, the food and the music are right on pitch
Diners can’t help noticing the large painting above the bar of a mama spaniel and her pups. Photograph by Joe Vaughn

In the land of pink and green summer blazers, china teacups and saucers at the club, winter residences in Palm Beach, and classical quartets at brunch, there’s a new sound in town. The Grosse Pointes are getting down at the Dirty Dog.

That’s the Dirty Dog Jazz Café on Kercheval in The Farms, as the locals call it, Grosse Pointe Farms as distinguished from Grosse Pointe City, Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Shores, and Grosse Pointe Woods.

And what an utter delight! The Dirty Dog is a jazz club with stunning music and notable guest musicians, and more to the point, for us at least, a superb kitchen that serves top-notch food. There’s no other place in metro Detroit where the quality of food and jazz are matched on such a high level. And it’s jammed on weekends and often quite hard to get into on other nights, as well.

“It’s very far from the template of any of the restaurants that are up here. Or than what’s ever been here,” says general manager and executive chef André Neimanis, who should know. He served as chef at The Hill Seafood and Chophouse and the now-defunct Sparky Herbert’s, both in the Pointes.

While Neimanis handles the kitchen and food, the “front,” or dining room, at the Dirty Dog is run by Willie Jones, formerly of the Coach Insignia downtown.

The Dirty Dog’s interior looks as though it was designed by Ralph Lauren a few puffs into a doobie. It’s straight and traditional, and yet a little whacked: flocked red wall covering is trimmed out in clubby dark wood and wainscoting. Hammered-iron carriage lights are used as sconces and in the chandeliers.

Dog-themed paintings, dog logos, dog portraiture, and large plaster dog sculptures are scattered about. Be sure to check out the massive gilt-framed painting of a mama spaniel and her pups that’s displayed above the bar. In keeping with the red theme established by the wall covering, tables are topped with crimson cloths and set with simple, serviceable linens and place settings.

There are just two dinner seatings nightly, which are designed around performance times. While you eat and the music starts, the room hushes. Diners here are very serious about their jazz, and this is no dinner club with mood music; these are concert-level performers and musicians from Detroit and elsewhere.

Recent guest performers have included Mose Allison, Stanley Jordan, Johnnie Bassett, Thornetta Davis, Wendell Harrison, and Paul Keller — the noted bass player on an early Diana Krall album.

“I’ve had several people say that this is like something they expect to find in New York or Chicago,” Neimanis says. And it is, minus the cigarette smoke and traditional club grunge. “What makes us different, we think, is that the food is exceptional.”

So is the service. One small example, after ordering a bottle of wine, I watched our server, Abby, pull down wine glasses destined for our table, then hold each up to the light, checking for water spots. She then toweled each individually before bringing them to the table. Simple, but the kind of extra attention you get only in high-end restaurants — sometimes.

The menu leans heavily on the smaller plates that are listed as “tapas,” but aren’t really. “I’d call it modern American bistro cuisine,” Neimanis admits, and that’s where he excels. A lot of the items are his versions of dishes he cooked as a chef at The Breakers in Palm Beach.

Photograph by Joe Vaughn
Crab Louie — jumbo lump crab, cilantro-chili dressing, pickled peppers, and cumin-dusted fried potatoes.

There’s also the usual fried calamari, Prosciutto di Parma, tuna tartare, scallops with bacon, and chili-lime shrimp, all done well and a cut above most restaurants. But then come the startling and delightful diversions.

Two small lobster tails cooked in light tempura batter are crunchy and sweet on a bed of arugula with a Creole mustard “marmalade,” a creamy sauce with a little citrus zest.

A crab “fritter” (really a small crab cake with 95-percent pure crab meat, Neimanis explains) is served with caramelized corn and red peppers, avocado with tomato and jicama, and an apricot habanera aioli. It garnered four thumbs up at our table.

One thing that so often sets any dish apart is the imagination to take something old and simple, deconstruct it, and make something new. The late, great French chef Bernard Loiseau was renowned for doing just that with simple peasant dishes, cultural food icons that every child in France grows up with, and reorganizing and presenting them under a new guise.

Neimanis dismisses such interpretations of his food. “We’re not trying to reinvent anything here; we’re trying to take good products and make them taste better.”

But Neimanis does take the humble Michigan pasty — the simple heavy-baked Cornish pastry filled with meat and vegetables that Upper Peninsula miners took from home into the shaft each day — and makes it new and different. In this case, it’s a beef brisket pasty cooked with root vegetables and sealed in light, delicate pastry that wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes without breaking in a miner’s pocket, and he serves it with a fresh horseradish cream sauce. Now that’s pure Michigan reconstituted. And it’s delightful.

There are plenty of main courses to mention that weigh in on the plaudit scale from very good to wonderful.

One other notable example of the deconstruction-reconstruction theme is the lowly burger, in this case tarted up to the max: Kobe beef, seared fresh foie gras, grilled Vidalia onion, sautéed morels, and stone-ground mustard with Stilton cheese, served with potatoes fried in duck fat. Like an environmentalist on a Harley, it’s fun to ride, although you’d be embarrassed to be seen on one. It’s almost too much noise and too much chrome.

However, it is admittedly delicious. Especially the duck-fat potatoes, very traditional in France, and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the great food combos of all time. God put ducks on earth to make fat for potatoes.

On two recent visits, it was hard not to notice the racial composition of the well-heeled crowd, which was about 50-50 black-white — a diversity that hits the reset button on the clichéd view of the Pointes as cloistered oases old-school WASP culture.

Today, along with the well-tended lawns, sailboat slips, and swimming-pool society, jazz is mingling as a member of the club.

97 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe Farms; 313-882-5299. D Wed.-Thur. 6 & 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 8:30 & 11 p.m.

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