At one point, gleefully biting into another sliver of Antietam’s foie gras, I found myself wondering if, when I die, would it be possible for my liver — which has worked so hard for three decades at evaluating food and wine — to be prepped and dressed for its farewell as deliciously, beautifully, and lovingly as the one sitting in front of me.
Yes, on that evening, the foie gras at Antietam was quite exceptional.
Something about this brilliant restaurant on Gratiot Avenue north of the Brewery Park complex is particular to top-caliber dining: Everything that comes to the table from executive chefs Brion Wong and Jestin “Jessie” Feggan has the distinction of floating at a level above any previous dining experience, higher than other experiences that invariably end with the words “… that good.”
On a recent visit, it began with a wood plank that arrived at the table, on one end of which sat a mini mason jar of cloudy yellow liquid duck fat. In it was nestled a sizeable lobe of Hudson River Valley duck liver, surrounded by pickled ramps and other veggies arranged like backup singers.
Along with a smear of mango mustard, some candied pecans sitting in a dab of honey, and toasted baguette slices cross-stacked like a mini woodpile, it was both sweet and sharp — meant to cleanse the palate and manage the balance and texture of flavors in the duck liver.
I’ve partaken of the livers of ducks (and geese) in many forms over the years, but the preparation, deep flavor, and texture served at Antietam was near the best I’ve ever had: soulfully delicious, and as unctuous as sliding on a satin sheet.
And that was just the start.
Everything here is sprinkled with heavy doses of French cooking technique. From one dish to the next, across two visits, we sat there, astounded.
This is not exactly a level of dining common to the wider Detroit area. This is something new.
Antietam is another in the breed of edgy new restaurants brought on by bright young owners, chefs, and staff — reflective of a reborn Detroit characterized by risk and energy. It’s an attitude that has spawned art galleries, new luxury residences, and the M1 light rail. It has also encouraged native sons like John Varvatos to return to Detroit to open his luxury clothing store on Woodward Avenue.
Antietam is the brainchild of Gregory Holm, another Detroit-area native. He had been splitting time between Detroit and New York as a photographer/artist. His original vision was to challenge people’s perceptions through a sort of reincarnation or “transformation” of a formerly vacant space.
The idea of putting in a restaurant to have the building become self-sustaining came later. But, Holm admits, the journey from artist to restaurateur was harder than anything he’d ever done.
The first pass at opening Antietam got off to a rough start last summer. Despite rave reviews during a “soft” opening, it quickly shut down as Holm and some key staff parted ways. Antietam reopened in November with a new crew. And just as Holm had to learn how to change his mindset, he’s encouraged others to reconsider what their job titles mean.
“Everyone is developing skills and challenging each other,” he says. For example, Mark Maynard, who was with Antietam from the start as a wine curator and “speaker designer” for the house’s audio needs, morphed into the “general manager” role.Holm calls assistant GM Aleiya Lindsey a “queen of culture” who brings a local flavor to the space.
Reconsidering traditional titles also extends into the kitchen, where the shared executive chef roles of Wong (who had worked in New York) and Feggan (a Michigan native who also spent time in New York) complement each other.
Their menu is concentrated on using seasonally fresh products — which, considering the seasons in Michigan, can call for great imagination and culinary turns during the winter (“I do my best,” jokes Wong).
Across two visits we tried five first courses, which included an intense deconstructed escargot “pâté,” that arrived on a small wood board and was a little more like a salad of micro-sized pickled brown beech mushrooms and radish, with equal size pieces of snail scattered throughout.
Another delightful starter called “Beet Tart” was a slice of pie made of a sweet crust and a filling of layered red beets, with caramelized goat cheese, fresh arugula, and kale chips baked to a crunchy crispness. Once again, the disparate element of acid green in the kale and the almost sugary sweetness of beets buffered by a pie crust melded spectacularly.
Likewise, a “terrine” of oxtail indicates where the dish started, but what arrived were square blocks of terrine made with shredded oxtail meat coated and pan-browned into crisp cubes, on a bed of sweet corn, diced fresno chili peppers, cilantro, and lime — packed with flavor and wonderful texture.
Of the seven main courses, which were the same across two visits, our group tried five. All were carefully thought-out and executed.
A hands-down favorite was oven-roasted whitefish, presented in a simple white bowl, resting atop a purée of fava beans, a perfectly square thin piece of dried crisp fish skin laying across the top, and accompanied by mini oven-roasted, olive-oiled potatoes, bright green, tangy Castelvetrano olives, and tomato “jam” and a little tomato water for moisture.
“Whole poussin” was another favorite. A Cornish game hen-sized bird had been deboned other than the legs and wings and stuffed with chicken meat blended with morels and foie gras and served with white asparagus, sitting in intense clear juices.
In short, the food at Antietam is nothing short of spectacular. And so is the décor.
A majority of the restoration and work on the Art Deco front and interior were done across two and a half years by Holm. He joined two adjacent storefronts, and had chairs and other furnishings made by mimicking various Deco elements in the original terrazzo floor and the trim of the building.
He has since renamed it the Frontera Building — dedicated to his family’s ties of doing business in Eastern Market for 100-plus years.
The building that serves as the entrance is done in reclaimed barn siding. An archway, above which hangs an old roll-down security door, leads into an L-shaped bar and second dining space. To the back of the bar is a charming area, labeled the “Ladies’ Lounge,” just large enough for three tables for two.
We hear of a restaurant opening in the Detroit area these days, and it is invariably attached to either a successful and renowned chef or an already successful restaurant. It is also usually attached to a gifted restaurant design team that has done a hundred other places around town.
There is nothing wrong with any of that. But what makes Antietam unique, beyond the scale of the food, is the utter rarity offered by the location.
The one-of-a-kind interior was forged by regrinding and salvaging materials from a hard and rough core — making a thing of beauty out of abandonment, ugliness, and despair. And that is a recipe that can be made in only one place: Detroit.
1428 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; 313-782-4378. D Mon.-Sat.Br. Sat.-Sun.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic.