Photographs by Joe Vaughn
New restaurants have popped up across the downtown Detroit landscape like crocuses in spring, offering a crop of the most adventurous new dining options seen in years in the heart of the city.
Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails is one of a growing number of superbly imaginative new restaurants, offering food with much originality and brightness.
It launched last June in the historic Park Shelton building, right next door to the Detroit Institute of Arts on Midtown’s northern tip. It joins the clan of city newcomers up and down and near the Woodward corridor — Selden Standard, Townhouse Detroit, and Wright & Company — plus Corktown’s Gold Cash Gold and Ottava Via, Eastern Market’s Antietam, Craft Work in West Village, and Republic Tavern in the Grand Army of the Republic building at Grand River and Cass avenues.
Most have come along in accompaniment with the unrolling rebirth of downtown Detroit the last two or three years. And most offer assorted variations on experimental and New American cuisine, which uses a base of traditional French techniques.
The newcomers tend to be understated in their appearance, but with vibrant, delicate, and stylistically high cuisine on the plate.
The restaurant décor is often simple and funky. Plush and swanky are definitely out. The message is that this new fine dining works best when simple, great food with good wine is offered in pleasant and clean-lined, uncomplicated surroundings.
Chartreuse’s originators are owner Sandy Levine and chef Doug Hewitt, who for nearly a decade was the chef at Terry B’s, a mainstay in Dexter. Levine also owns the 1920s-style speakeasy cocktail bar in Ferndale called the Oakland Art Novelty Company.
Chartreuse’s menu adheres to the “less is more” theory. Generally, there are five “cold” starters, five offerings from the “vegetables” category (which included a seasonal soup), and six “hot” items that could be considered the main dishes. That’s it.
But every dish is done with great care, intensity, and skill. Likewise, the wine list is incredibly brief, just a few esoteric but good choices by the glass to match up to the menu. More on that later.
Many new, high-end restaurants have minuscule kitchens and no space for walk-in coolers.
“It forces us to plan better,” says Levine. “We have a refrigerator; that’s it, really. Which means Doug (Hewitt) orders just what he needs or can keep. So, we have arranged to have vendors serve us daily or a few times in a week.”
Levine adds that “the menu will always be small,” because of the supply issue. “But Doug is brilliant and knows how to execute on a quick turnaround.”
The brevity of the menu creates a path for Hewitt to concentrate on ramped originality in every item from top to bottom of each day’s offerings.
Left: Grilled sea scallops with northern bean mousse, carrot and grapefruit broth, tuile crumbs, and walnut oil.
The benefit is that freshness reigns supreme at Chartreuse — and it shows in every dish. Every selection and combination genuinely sparkles with carefully handled tanginess, sweetness, or softness, whatever the individual ingredients put out. It’s as if an effort has been made to purposely draw them out and then concentrate on the flavors and sensations of vegetables, fruits, and meats.
For example, a steak poké arrived with chunks of mango, avocado, cilantro, and sweet chili potato chips and sea salt — a merger of sweetness, freshness, pungency, and softness.
A grilled octopus was actually grilled rather than charred (which too many restaurants seem to do) and served with shaved fennel, chorizo, cucumber, and chili. Again, the octopus’ flavor is mild: the fennel gives up nice sweet licorice notes, the pickled onion its tang, and the chorizo adds hot spice. Put them together and you have a fair amount of complexity.
The main “hot” dishes include a Michigan shrimp curry (from a shrimp farm near Lansing). There is also a duck confit with a barley risotto, grilled mushrooms, and a blueberry “mostarda” (sauce).
The other main courses included a grilled cap steak, a roasted rabbit loin fricassee, and Lake Superior whitefish with parsnips and a sauce of fennel and orange.
Chartreuse’s décor is a bit of a trip. Some of the artwork is highly unusual. One tableau is a vertical garden chocked full of succulent plants. Another display, at the back of the restaurant, includes bouquets of brightly colored dried flowers hanging upside-down from piping that runs across the ceiling.
Chartreuse has a slightly innocent feel of a hippie restaurant gone mainstream, but with a lot of style and originality. Perhaps it’s the extensive use of recycled materials, chairs, tables, and the conversion of a space in an old inner-city high-rise that has gone through many incarnations.
The atmosphere is simple, practical, and cheerful. The walls and pillars are decked out in chartreuse, and set off against a gray concrete bar, milky white flooring, and a ceiling on which all the tubing, pipes, and air ducts have been painted dark green.
The room, with its 14-foot high ceilings, gets plenty of daylight from several large factory-styled windows set high in the main wall that runs front to rear of the building, giving it a bright welcoming feel by day. In the evening, soft accent lights help warm up the restaurant.
The restaurant is dominated by an L-shaped bar that starts near the entrance, where plush couches and armchairs add warmth as well as a touch of lounging luxury. The bar runs much of the length of the interior along the main dining area in front of the kitchen pass-through.
As mentioned, the wine list is one of the briefest around, just 11 items: two sparkling, five white, and four red, all esoteric and terrific choices, and not one a name that most diners would likely know.
But when I got down that list to a red named Bouza Tannat Reserva at $11 a glass, I knew this had to be my kind of place. This rare Uruguayan wine has long been one of my all-time favorites, grown from the Tannat grape, native to southwest France.
Chartreuse amounts to a very solid, well-done evening of extraordinarily good food. To some, brief menus may suggest limited choices. Not in this case.
If you go to Chartreuse with the idea of getting something you already know, don’t bother. Every dish is unique, made with a freshness and originality not found elsewhere.
15 E. Kirby St., Detroit; 313-818-3915. L & D Tue.-Fri., D Sat.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic.