Comfort Food Hits a New Level

The Bird & The Bread is a refreshingly different addition to the Birmingham dining scene
A chalkboard shows Michigan brews on tap. // Photographs by Joe Vaughn

A year or so ago, we dubbed Birmingham the Octo-Mom of restaurant dining for a reason: It just keeps giving birth to one new restaurant after another. And now, here comes another.

The latest addition to the family is The Bird & The Bread, on Old Woodward Avenue, a refreshingly different restaurant among the brood born to Mama Birmingham in the last few years.

A unique identity, especially on the menu, is essential for any restaurant wanting to set itself apart in an area so dense with other choices.

What the owners, the Jonna family, have done is create a brasserie where the food trumps even its pleasant and energetic setting, with dishes that are consistently full of interesting twists.

For example, among a selection of pizzas is a square pizza with duck sausage, potato cream, and tomato tapenade. Another listed as “liver and onion” is made with a chicken liver pâté, a red onion jam, and arugula with truffle vinaigrette.

Mussels prepared in different styles dominate one corner of the menu, with departures from the traditional Belgian bucket of steamed mussels with french fries. Here, you get truffled fries with a caper mayonnaise. Or mussel choices such as steamed with ham and leeks in Founders Ale. There’s one that comes closest to the Belgian traditional: steamed with lemon and shallots in a pinot grigio base. Another version: tomato and horseradish in verjus, a pressing of lemon and spices that give the sauce kick.

The decor includes stainless steel and recycled materials.

Among the first courses are grilled octopus and calamari, warmed almonds and Manchego cheese, and a beet and ricotta plate. Other first courses include a dish of french fries and chicken skin crackling with a caper aioli and a crusted terrine of pork, duck, and chicken livers.

Main courses include rotisserie chicken from Chestnut Farms in Ohio and a lamb rope sausage with roasted fennel and browned potatoes.

And for vegetarians there are a few interesting, good choices including a ratatouille with roasted red peppers and fresh goat cheese, and an onion stuffed with quinoa and basted in tamarind broth.

For the more carnivorously inclined, a Michigan lamb shank is cooked in chocolate stout and served with cippolini onions and sweet potatoes roasted in rosemary. Or for the heart-stupid devotee, there’s a piece of prime rib roast braised in duck fat.

The kitchen is run by Jim Leonardo, a chef with a lot of years at Vinology, whose emphasis is on making the usual a little different, or unusual.

And who better to do this kind of a restaurant than the Jonna family, a perpetual motion machine when it comes to anything food, wine, and entertainment. In this case, it’s Kristin Jonna and her father, John, who were also the brains behind Vinotecca in Royal Oak, Vinology in Ann Arbor, and the now-closed Merchant’s Fine Wine store in Royal Oak.

John Jonna and his brother, Ed, also ran the long-gone, much missed Merchant of Vino chain, which was ingested by Whole Foods as part of its move into the Detroit market in the late 1990s.

More recently, Ed’s sons, Marc and Matt Jonna, created Plum Market. It began with local stores and has expanded to Chicago’s Old Town. They’re also rumored to be looking at Chapel Hill, N.C.

In a stroke of birthing verisimilitude, the name of the restaurant The Bird & The Bread comes from John Jonna himself, who, on first holding his twin grandson and granddaughter, born of Kristin, dub-bed the wriggly one as Bird and the silent, sleepy one as Bread. Thus, a name was born.

Left: Soup choices include the Onion & Mushrooms (Cheesy). Right: Beverage Director Steven Hildebrand makes a Bulleit In Thyme.

The Bird & The Bread is located in the space that was formerly South, the controversial and troubled bar and nightspot that closed shortly after a shooting there resulted in three arrests.

When you have a Type A family, it’s logical that you end up also with a Type A restaurant. The Bird & The Bread certainly is.

In this case, the distinction has been helped by chef Leonardo and the master of restaurant design, Ron Rea. His sensible design includes an assortment of go-green touches, using recycled materials.

The feel of the restaurant is open and breezy with dark wood accents, comfortable café chairs, and black metal piping used to offset and accent the room as well as serve its real function in some places.

The lighting fixtures are recycled, ridged glass ceiling lamp covers salvaged from places like closed Detroit public schools. And a hanging sculpture over a private dining room is made entirely from the staves of disassembled old wine barrels, reconfigured to look like some sort of huge mobile.

The décor of The Bird & The Bread falls under the moniker of stylish-casual American brasserie.

Paté & Pickles – pork, duck, chicken liver terrine en croute.

Exposed brick runs along one wall, and wire racks loaded with the restaurant’s wine list stock line the other wall, interspersed with accent-lighted bookshelves containing many years of John Jonna’s cookbook collection.

“You can borrow any book for up to a year. Free. Just take it,” says John with a smile. “But if you keep it, you must replace it with one of your own. That’s my rule.”
The floors are functional red-brown tiles, while tables are a mix of simple unadorned gray-white stainless steel or butcher-block wood set with silverware wrapped in white napkins, and white dishes.

In summary, The Bird & The Bread succeeds in achieving a rustic, chunky, and wholesome kind of dining. From the great array of peasant breads and crackers to the Mitten Burger with bacon jam and a cherry aioli, and on to the Beeman Farms double-cut pork chop with chestnut sausage, it’s all quite good and admirable, giving us a different take on a lot of old standards and comfort food favorites.

The Bird & The Bread might just slip into your list of weeknight retreats for a refreshing assortment and relatively good value.

210 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-203-6600. L Mon.-Fri. D daily. Br. Sun.