In an amusing television commercial, two women try repeatedly to get a waiter’s attention. Finally, on his umpteenth trip past their table, one of the women trips him and he goes flying through a window and into the street.
Exaggerated, perhaps, but there’s a dollop of truth in that scene. Too many restaurants and servers do indeed have a bad attitude.
Superior restaurants also have ’tude, but a good kind that’s instantly noticeable. Bistro 222 in Dearborn has very good ’tude. In fact, it’s one of the most well-rounded and balanced little restaurants that I’ve experienced in metro Detroit in recent years.
It’s almost reflexive to compare Bistro 222 to neighborhood restaurants in Chicago or New York, and that’s pretty accurate. But this dining room is closer in style and feel to small, well-run restaurants in France and Italy, those family-owned places where staff members are often cousins or nephews and nieces to the chef — and everyone genuinely works hard to please.
There’s nothing opulent or even trendy about Bistro 222. But then, owner-chef Michael Chamas says that’s what he wants. “When people walk in here, I want them to immediately feel at home” — as opposed to being in someone’s idea of a palace.
The 60-seat Bistro 222 opened in October 2008 in a storefront along Michigan Avenue, east of Telegraph.
“It took a year to build it the way that I wanted it,” Chamas says. In that time, he created an aura of intimacy and order with a warm, pleasant, and sophisticated blend of deep-red wood tones, blue banquettes, and tables covered in bright-yellow oilcloth set with simple white dishware. Longtime Detroit restaurant veteran Anis Habhab is the manager and runs the dining room.
Chamas himself is a story. He has no formal training as a chef, but his cooking is near superior to many — perhaps most — big-ticket, showier, and pricier restaurants.
Chamas was born in Beirut, a city where the food reflects both the Middle East and the French, who occupied Lebanon for much of the 1900s. His primary home influence was his mother, who taught him many of the basics. He says she also spotted his keen sense of taste when he was child. “I know you have a good palate,” she told him repeatedly.
When civil war began consuming much of Beirut by the mid-1970s, eventually taking most of it down to ruins, 15-year-old Chamas was sent off to the safety of relatives in the United States — first, in Detroit, then Florida. After returning to Detroit, he studied mechanical engineering at Henry Ford Community College and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and he waited on tables in restaurants, an experience he says he “really enjoyed.”
After graduation in 1981, Chamas headed to California and got a junior management job in Los Angeles with the Sheraton Corp. Over the course of several years, he worked his way into food-and-beverage management, and in the late 1980s, he was sent off to Napa for six months to train as a master sommelier.
On weekend trips to San Francisco, Chamas became so seriously interested in cooking that he volunteered to work in the kitchen at the Prescott Hotel and its Postrio restaurant, where the chef happened to be a not-yet-risen star by the name of Wolfgang Puck.
“I was blown away by Wolfgang’s mind and how he would do things, and his use of fresh herbs,” Chamas says. One day, as they were cooking, Chamas heard Puck echo his mother’s words of many years previously. “He said to me, ‘You have one hell of a palate.’ ” Slowly, his direction was being sealed.
That same year, the earthquake of 1989 struck San Francisco, and Chamas and his wife (they later divorced) moved back to Detroit, where he found work as a maître d’ at Keith Famie’s Les Auteurs, the former Royal Oak bistro, and then as chef at La Dolce Vita in Detroit’s Palmer Park neighborhood.
After that, he opened LA Express in Dearborn and began plotting a bigger, more sophisticated restaurant.
The food at Bistro 222 is a blend of Italian, French, and American, and the prices — always a consideration these days — are beyond reasonable: $5 to $7 for starters, $13 to $18 for main courses.
Across two visits, we made our way through the brief, innovative menu and all five starters, seven of 11 main dishes, and a couple of salads. Each was perfectly prepared with an unusual liveliness and distinction in flavors and cooking that shows Chamas’ deft hand.
Chamas is a man who loves fresh herbs — basil, thyme, and oregano, in particular — and fresh spinach, and he uses them, generously chopped, often and everywhere.
For example, beneath his version of shrimp scampi (my favorite first course at the restaurant), a crisp, light, round flour tortilla sits atop a bed of shredded spinach, and on the tortilla is the utterly fresh, springy little shrimp, sautéed and sauced in a combination of white wine, garlic, and fish stock with a dash of cream.
The sea scallops, another first course, arrive on a slim, rectangular plate with three scallop shells, each cradling a pan-fried scallop — an unusual presentation — topped with a sauce of butter, garlic, cilantro, and a squeeze of lemon.
In main courses, the restaurant’s signature dish is one of its most impressive: our own simple, lovable lake perch. But in Chamas’ version, it’s served with two types of potatoes. First, a bed of garlic-mashed potatoes, on top of which is a bird’s nest of crisply fried grated potato. Over that are four pieces of flour-dredged, sautéed perch and a caper-butter sauce. The dish is nothing short of divine.
One of the more unusual dishes is a pasta that I had never seen. Here it’s called “Bacci,” and is made on special order for Chamas. Imagine one of those old Robin Hood movies in which someone whips out a drawstring coin purse. Now envision little pull-string pasta pouches, about the size of a dime, stuffed with Italian sausage. Chamas said his mother made them and called them “mama kisses.” He serves them in a light tomato sauce with crushed red-pepper flakes.
Also highly recommended are the seafood risotto, the de-boned chicken with a garlic-lemon sauce, and the delicate vegetarian eggplant tower with spinach, mushrooms, and fontina cheese. The only drawback we found in two visits was that a couple of dishes came to the table lukewarm; otherwise, everything was perfect.
Until quite recently, Bistro 222 didn’t have a liquor license. But that changed in late fall, and Chamas has been building a truly smart list of inexpensive wines and a reserve list with some impressive values. The markups tend to be 50 percent, some even less. (Most restaurants add more).
At its heart, this is the purest form of what a restaurant should be. There are restaurants where showmen chefs razzle-dazzle the food — like the chef at a now-closed high-end place who (I swear it’s true) sprinkled ground Pop Rocks on foie gras. And then there are those whose food soars beyond great technique. They nourish your soul with the skillful use of a whisk, a saucepan, and just the right flavor and intensity of ingredients. That’s Bistro 222.
22266 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-792-7500. L & D Mon.-Sat.
Cook is the chief restaurant critic for Hour Detroit. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.