A Superb Adventure

The cuisine at Grey Ghost isn’t easily defined, but the results are original and well-prepared
Photographs by Joe Vaughn

It may be hard to believe, but one Detroit restaurant’s pork schnitzel truly excels over all others in recent memory.

It really does.

At Grey Ghost, a Brush Park-area restaurant that opened less than a year ago, the eating is superb. It’s a place we can heap praise for its food over everything else.

After the pork schnitzel, one might ask: Can a deep-fried quail that’s encrusted with panko and served with pepper jelly and corn flakes genuinely be that exceptional?

Just try it.

And what should we make of a dish that features the combination of fried bologna, a waffle, sharp cheddar, and jalapeno?

In those three dishes alone, co-chefs John Vermiglio and Josef Giacomino blend a little bit of Germany, France, and England — and toss in a little bit of Americana for good measure.

This is very original stuff. And the menu is hard to define. It’s not really continental. It’s not French either, except in spots. And, it’s not Italian or German or any other easily definable cuisine.

One thing that it certainly is: adventurous. Grey Ghost has some of the most creative, original, and well-prepared cuisine we’ve run into in a while.

So how did these two owner-chefs evolve? And what influenced their clearly superior skills?

Giacomino, who is from the Madison, Wisconsin, area says he was influenced by great American chefs like Thomas Keller, Dan Barber, and the late Charlie Trotter. Still, he says it is “near impossible to name all the influences that…continue to develop my culinary style.”

Vermiglio, who grew up as a suburban Detroiter, names Magnus Nilsson, the famous young Swedish chef who heads the restaurant Fäviken in Sweden, and who made his name at L’Astrance and L’Arpège in Paris, France.

Vermigilio says Nilsson “has a simplistic approach to highlighting the flavors that are given, all while presenting them in a thought-provoking manner.”

So, where does Grey Ghost fit? And what can it’s cuisine be called?

Is it Nueva Detroit? Or Nouvelle Detroit?

Grey Ghost and a host of other restaurants, most of which have opened in and around the city within the last three years, have the originality, quality, and distinction to belong in category of their own.

I would start by putting in that group Selden Standard, Mabel Gray, Republic, and Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails.

Each of these restaurants share a goal: the search for perfection in the cooking.

And, as should be the case at any excellent restaurant, everything at Grey Ghost is made in house. “From the mayonnaise on our burger to the tonic in your gin and tonic and everything in between, we’ve dreamt it, created it, tasted it,  and made it,” says Vermiglio. Except for one thing: “We do use Heinz ketchup. Sorry, (but) not sorry.”

Also like the best new places, the menu changes seasonally depending on what’s available and best in the market.

On our visit, that included superbly flavored, moist Korean-style pork ribs, a charcuterie platter, and a spicy steak tartare.

The most delightful discovery, though, was a Brussels sprouts dish sprinkled with tiny strips of roasted chicken skin. Sound weird? Not at all; it’s utterly scrumptious.

We also liked a dry-aged rib-eye steak that came with a peppercorn butter, and little agnolotti pasta pouches stuffed with butternut squash sitting on a pumpkin-based sauce, with some grilled broccoli.

Other items on the menu sounded tantalizing, but that we did not try: lamb gyro sausage with rutabaga served with yogurt and naan, the puffy Indian oven-bread; and a dry-aged New York strip steak with hollandaise sauce.

The only dish we were conflicted over was a pickled cauliflower soup. Two of us liked it; two others did not.

The idea for the restaurant germinated in Chicago when Vermiglio and Giacomino worked at Table 52. Vermiglio has a twin brother, David, who was working in the business world there. The Vermiglio brothers harbored a desire to move back to the area in part because they found Detroit an exciting prospect and a place for a new restaurant.

So, in 2010 David Vermiglio, the business and financial guy among the three, moved back home to start putting together the concept, and sorting out how it could be done. Along the way a fourth partner, beverage director Will Lee, joined the team.

We first visited Grey Ghost on a winter night. It sits at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Watson Street with the entrance on Watson. After we nailed a parking spot a few feet farther down Watson, we ambled up the street to the brick and sandstone exterior. Grey Ghost’s storefront windows spilled warm light into the street, a discreet black awning accented the look, its empty little boxed off outdoor side patio closed until summer.

For just a few seconds, I was on a restaurant street in London, a city I lived in for several years.

New restaurant design fashion these days starts with the word “reclaimed” to indicate the owners’ and architects’ commitments to the environment. And Grey Ghost certainly fits that description.

The décor by Pink & Wooderson is clean and functional, and uses reclaimed wood from a bowling alley on the bar and other spots throughout.

Black and gray subway tile are the décor for the walls throughout. The open ceiling has been painted dark to gently recede the usual snaking pipes and heat and air conditioning ducts.

An assortment of ceiling light fixtures on chains with glass and brass globes drop to light one area, while wide black witch-hat shaped lamps provide ambient light to the dining room tables.

The restaurant’s name comes from a rum runner who plied his trade from Ecorse over to Canada, and became something of a Detroit legend in the 1920s.

He got the name because his identity was never known. But his appearance was certainly distinct. He dressed all in gray — a gray fedora, gray clothing, and a gray mask. He is said to have driven a gray boat, carried gray hand guns, and had a gray machine gun.

He was apparently killed on a downtown Detroit street in a gangland-style drive-by shooting, presumably by the Purple Gang. To this day, he has never been identified.

Grey Ghost joins Peterboro, Selden Standard, and several others on the expanding list of restaurants that are planting their flags in the Cass Avenue-Wayne State University corridor, adding to the now-thriving nightlife around the Bonstelle Theatre and Orchestra Hall (aka The Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center).

It is an area of great movement, as other types businesses also move into the corridor —think Hop Cat, La Feria, Great Lakes Coffee, The Block, etc.— where the new bumps up against the old.

The lights are back on here, in more than one way. And places like Grey Ghost certainly add more sparkle to the scene.

47 E. Watson St., Detroit; 313-262-6534. D daily, Br. Sun.

Christopher Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: editorial@hour-media.com