The pan-roasted whitefish clearly had gone bad, but when we pointed it out to our server, her response was priceless.
She sniffed it, crinkled her nose, and said, “Ooooh, you’re right. I’m not really too surprised, you know. That kitchen is so small, and it gets so smoky in there that those poor guys probably never could have smelled it anyway.”
That’s not exactly how this dining thing is supposed to work. But give her an A-plus for an honesty so refreshing that there was nothing to do but laugh, give the kitchen a pass on this one, and move on.
The restaurant is Gala in downtown Farmington, which — the fish thing aside — is imaginative, serves extremely well-prepared food, and is certainly worth a visit.
Gala calls itself “a tapas-style new American bistro.” It’s a sweet little place with a pleasing, soothing décor, and a wine list that goes beyond many of its competitors to match the food it serves. It offers a polished dining atmosphere and extremely good prices.
A massive tropical mural of very bright red berries and green leaves dominates the dining room. “Those are coffee beans on the vine, I’m told,” says Gala’s owner/chef, Jeff Condit, who opened the restaurant in 2005 with a partner, James Williams.
The sidewalls are bare red brick. The chest-high countertops are sleek gray-black, which subtly accent the gray carpet. The effect is sleek and simple. “I wanted an elegant, clean look, and for the food to be the main focus,” Condit says.
A copper-topped bar frames one corner of the room and backs onto to that “too-smoky” kitchen. “It is really, really tiny,” Condit says, with just enough room for a six-burner stove, an oven, and a refrigerator. A piano and bandstand occupy the front area next to the bar. (Live jazz is performed on Friday and Saturday evenings.)
White-linen topped tables with simple settings are spaced well enough for private conversation and give the room a comfortable feel.
Gala tracks against the conventional wisdom on the best location for a restaurant. It’s in the basement of a building, a few doors from Farmington’s epicenter at Grand River and Farmington Road.
Gala doesn’t feel closed in and cramped, however, as many basements eateries do, largely because it has a skylight and a 14-foot-high vaulted ceiling at the front of the room, welcoming daylight from street level and adding breathing space and height to the room.
In the 1990s, basement jazz-club restaurants with soft candlelight and low ceilings went out of style, and many disappeared. The most famous was Detroit’s famed and now long-gone London Chop House. They were replaced with big, open-space bistros with high ceilings and a more brassy, casual look and feel.
Gala has the new look of airy spaces bathed in natural light while also tipping its hat to the jazz-club feel of the past. The combined themes are clever and seamless.
And while the skill in the preparation of food is extremely good, the tapas theme is confusing, so much so that Condit has felt it necessary to explain it at length on Gala’s Web site.
In Spain, the home of the tapas, it’s what might be called nibbles of food that arrive on tiny dishes. Often, people pick where to eat by the types of tapas a restaurant serves. Or they wander from place to place trying individual small-bite hot and cold dishes such as fresh grilled sardines, spiced lamb, Serrano ham, croquettas, Manchego cheese, or a simple plate of seasoned olives.
At Gala, the tapas styling is more like a menu in search of a concept. The plates are indeed small, but what arrives on the small plates is often the size of a regular main course at any other restaurant. “It’s true, the dishes are larger than people think they are going to get. Really, it is an à la carte menu, but people don’t know that term anymore,” Condit says.
We found that the size of one tapas and a salad were enough to make a meal.
Yet the individual dishes themselves are very skillfully done. And why not? Condit’s cooking credits are impressive: The Whitney and Rattlesnake Club and MotorCity Casino in Detroit, Café Bonhomme in Plymouth, and Bravo! in Livonia.
We had a superbly prepared filet mignon in a wine demi-glace reduction sauce with wilted baby spinach, Maytag blue cheese, and crisped slivered onions. But it came to the table overflowing the small plate, and half the food ended up on the table because it was so tricky to cut.
We all agreed that the price was amazing, a mere $14 for a dish that’s easily a full meal elsewhere at twice the money.
The same went for a perfectly prepared flatiron steak au poivre with potato gratin and mushrooms, easily a full meal at $14. A souffléed blue-crab cake with mango, cucumber, and radish salad was delightful and, again, just $14, but not tapas-sized.
Try Condit’s smoked salmon and chèvre mousse. It’s truly wonderful. Or sample his tequila-lime pork medallions with black beans and chives.
The one outstanding plate that truly marks Gala for me is a salad, an exceptional baby cucumber and watercress salad in a creamy Maytag blue cheese vinaigrette with spiced almonds and, on one of our visits, sugared pecans. It was simply the very best salad I have had in any Detroit-area restaurant in ages.
Most restaurants put mixed greens on a plate with large wedges of tomato, fat rounds of unpeeled cucumbers, and long strips of green and red pepper. The dressing is on the side in a little plastic cup. It’s unusual to get a mixed salad, properly tossed with vegetables cut almost to a diced size.
Gala is a place well worth trying — despite the plate thing. Condit’s cooking is vibrant and exceptional, and his restaurant is refreshingly fun. I just wish he’d simplify things and serve his food on regular plates. A confusing concept only distracts from what you do well when you’ve got all the skill to run with the big dogs.
33316 Grand River, Farmington; 248-478-2355, galafarmington.com. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Thur., 11 a.m.-midnight Fri., noon-midnight Sat., 5-10 p.m. Sun.