Northville’s placid Victorian image got a jolt last December when a new restaurant opened on Main Street in the gingerbread and lace-curtain town.
NOMI (an acronym for Northville, Mich.) departed from the nostalgic scene with a contemporary approach, which was not without some controversy in the conservative town, partly because of its relatively young crowd stopping by for live music and late-night cocktails.
Proprietors Rachel Stern and Al Irish say they are making every effort to make peace with the community’s powers that be. They’ve cut back on the party scene that helped jump-start the enterprise.
Now they want to be known for their food — not, of course, that they have any intention of downplaying the lively bar that is very much part of the mix.
The dramatic setting includes russet-colored translucent floor-to-ceiling curtains that shield deep upholstered banquettes along one side of the high-ceilinged room under the dangling prisms of black glass chandeliers. A wine display anchors the interior wall of the slate-floored space.
An under-lit onyx-topped bar in the center of the room seats about 40 of the 155-seat capacity, and there are conventional tables in addition to the seductively sheltered booths. Tall front windows are left uncovered and, in suitable weather, the patio offers diners the backdrop of the street scene along with the appealing fare.
The open arrangement integrates the dining room and bar so that neither dominates. The black-clad wait staff is friendly, enthusiastic, and efficient, which contributes to NOMI’s energy.
Bartender Rico Miller, an import from London, offers fanciful drinks made with freshly squeezed juices and an array of fresh fruit and herbs — and not just the usual citrus varieties. Cherries, apples, blueberries, pineapples, watermelon, and raspberries, as well as ginger, lemongrass, vanilla beans, basil, and cucumbers are all part of his repertoire as he prepares candy-colored cocktails without the benefit of shortcuts or prepared mixes.
A case in point: His Tiger Lily martini of ginger, lemongrass, and pear purée is shaken with citrus vodka, elderflower syrup, and lemon juice.
The charmingly British-accented Rico is as devoted to his craft as Executive Chef James Leonardo is to his. Leonardo, a Boston native who came to Michigan four years ago from Florida to be the executive chef at Birmingham’s now-shuttered City Cellar, took over the NOMI kitchen in May when the opening chef, Jason Jones, left to join the P.F. Chang’s organization.
Leonardo completely rewrote the menu, and it reflects his varied experience. It’s an appetizer and small-plates list that is sophisticated, even chic, yet accessible, although I suspect some of the guests have to consult their food dictionaries when they encounter such ingredients as verjus broth and agrodolce.
While some of the same basic items remain from the beginning (calamari and Caesar salad, for instance), the treatment and presentation have changed. Leonardo’s style taps into fusion, but not just Asian. There also are Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean touches on the menu.
Most dishes have more than one element, and rarely the expected one. Leonardo aims for a contrast of both textures and flavors. Littleneck clams arrive on a big white plate with linguica, the Portuguese sausage, chilies, and ruffles of escarole. Sashimi-style tuna is paired with fig agrodolce (sweet-and-sour sauce) and Sicilian arancini (rice balls).
Marvelous little West Coast Kumamoto oysters come warmed in their shells, accompanied by tuna tartare and just a dab of rich black osetra caviar. Leonardo makes carpaccio with lamb rather than the traditional beef, and sets it off with purple potato salad.
All of these dishes are on the dinner menu. A few also make an appearance at lunch, but the bulk of the noontime selection is sandwiches, such as the trio of tarragon chicken salad, grilled asparagus, and Vidalia onion, and egg salad enlivened with truffled Italian bacon.
Grilled salmon burgers are updated with miso aioli and Asian noodle salad, and a version of the Cuban sandwich — ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles — is served appropriately with plantain chips.
Flatbread pizzas include an interesting white pizza topped with fontina, spinach, artichokes, and roasted chicken, as well as the classic margherita with tomato and fresh basil.
Leonardo’s wealth of experience (among other posts, he worked in London for Marco Pierre White restaurants, had a stint as a personal chef on a yacht plying the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and got West Coast experience at Seattle’s Painted Table) is evident from the moment a diner picks up the slim paper menu.
NOMI initially offered unwieldy ring-binder style menus, but quickly dispensed with them, one of several little tweaks that have improved the place in its short lifespan (NOMI won’t celebrate its first anniversary until Dec. 22).
Proprietors and longtime friends Irish and Stern might seem to be unlikely restaurateurs, but both have the personality for it. He was a professional boxer and personal trainer. Stern, a Virginia native who moved here in ’93, did have some restaurant experience but mainly stayed home raising a family. Her divorce coincided with the chance to open NOMI.
Having two proprietors means that at least one of them is always on hand, and that’s always a factor in a successful operation.
133 W. Main St., Northville; 248-449-3200. L & D Tue.-Sat., Br Sun.