Food As Entertainment

The Conserva delivers vibrant, bright cuisine with originality and vision
Photographs by Joe Vaughn

The grazing menu dining style is popular with the food-curious. It lets diners eat lightly and nibble on various new, unusual, and sometimes exotic foods. It tends to appeal more — though not exclusively — to younger diners.

The Conserva, a terrific little place on Ferndale’s Nine Mile Road restaurant-row strip east of Woodward Avenue, is exactly that. And Matthew Baldridge is an ambitious and skilled chef and restaurant owner who has ditched the traditional menu recitation — appetizers, meat, fish, pasta, and dessert. He’s pushing dining away from those other predictable tropes of “volume-is-value” and “bigger-must-be-better” toward something fresh.

Grazing is a slow-paced, pleasant way of eating, usually making a satisfying meal out sharing six, eight, or 10 smaller, medium-sized plates. Essentially, it is an American version of Spain’s famous and very social tapas dining — except that food at The Conserva is way lighter.

Grazing menus also allow chefs to break out of tradition and showcase their imagination and multiplicity of cooking skills, all in one meal.

Baldridge is a veteran of Cliff Bell’s in Detroit, and was also chef de cuisine at the Rattlesnake Club and the executive chef at Seldom Blues.

For a while, he and his artist wife, Janna Coumoundouros, put on The Dinner Club Pop Up events around town (winning Hour Detroit readers’ approval as the Best Pop-up). They kept a tradition of fusing art with food from those pop-up days. The Conserva acts as a rotating gallery for artists to display their works.

Baldridge’s menu at The Conserva clones fresh, imaginative, Nouveau American cuisine with a tapas style in what is one of the briefest menus I’ve seen. On our visit, there were just eight small plates and two desserts. That’s it.

Four of us opted to take all eight items listed, plus the two desserts, from a menu titled “sharables,” and walked away after two and a half hours perfectly fed and more comfortable than after a traditional three-course dinner.

We began with a plate of za’atar-rubbed grilled octopus tentacles, served with shaved slices of cucumber, radish, garlic, and dill and a tangy soy-citrus Ponzu sauce. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice often used in tagine and couscous-based dishes.

Next came a small serving of young carrots cooked in a tandoori oven. They arrived tableside soft as yams and served with peanuts, raisins, grated coconut, and a brisk yogurt sauce. And that was just the beginning.

Braised short ribs in their juices with a chive potato salad followed. Then came a cauliflower with shaved truffles and crème fraiche, also to be recommended. After that, the seared salmon in a bourbon glaze. Then, sweet and spicy baby back ribs dotted with sesame seeds, peanuts, cilantro, and chopped scallions.

The ingredients used are nothing unique, though some of the spices certainly are. What makes The Conserva such a standout is the vibrant brightness of the cooking.

The menu changes almost daily, since it is totally market-driven by what is fresh on the stands that day. Some dishes we had may not appear again for weeks or months. One that has, however, already achieved “back-by-popular-demand” status is the octopus, our server informed us.

Every dish Baldridge puts out at The Conserva is unique. His New American cuisine doesn’t lack for either enthusiasm or imagination. It is concentrated on freshness and flavor, simplicity, and delicate enhancements through sauces, gastriques, glazes, and emulsions.

He clearly enjoys setting up contrasts in look and taste, and he does them well. The Conserva is food as entertainment, and it delivers in cuisine, originality, and vision.

The Conserva is also an extraordinary craft cocktail bar, overseen by Jarrod Kassis. As seems to be popular everywhere today, cocktails run the gamut from sensible to strange.

The Conserva has some drinks worth noting for their oddness. What are we to make of “Never Fernet A Face,” which the menu tells us is light rum, black strap, fernet branca, and lemon? My parents used to keep fernet branca around the house to cure hangovers. But black strap? Here’s another: “Raining in Baltimore,” which is Luxardo cherry, bourbon, vanilla, and smoked salt. Or, for the shillelagh-inspired, try the “Irish Handcuffs” — Irish whisky, Pimms, sugar, lemon, and Laphroaig.

Although some things about The Conserva may not always be to my taste, it gets seriously high marks for imagination and creativity.

What’s a refreshing new dinner style to us, goes back for generations in Spain, where for well over a century it has been customary for people to gather in large groups of eight or 10 to spend long warm evenings sitting in cafés talking, arguing, drinking and eating as those small tapas plates continue to arrive through the evening. It’s a continuous snacking until full.

In my experience, the empty little plates are simply left stacked on the table, when the check is called for the server counts them and multiplies the total by a flat per-dish charge. That accounting method, however, has not yet reached the shores of fashionable Ferndale.

It’s also hard to look at The Conserva without being reminded of the brilliant Torino, which briefly occupied this space. It went in an even more intense culinary direction.

Torino was a shooting star of Detroit dining. Nothing quite like it had been seen around town in 20 years. And nothing has since. But like a shooting star, it was bright and fizzled in almost no time. I still miss what it brought Detroit, if ever so briefly.

The interior configuration of The Conserva has polished aluminum ductwork that follows the high ceiling as part of the simple but sleek modern design. An L-shaped bar takes up most of the back inside wall, while two other sides of the restaurant are glassed. One of those sides opens to an al fresco dining terrace, partially protected by an overhang.

The Conserva certainly deserves recognition as part of that progressive new food movement of chefs and owners who are putting a stamp on this city and defining its own modern culinary identity.

The Conserva, in my estimation, does that. And we should all welcome it with a visit. Or two. Or three. Or more.

201 East Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-291-6133; D Tues.-Sat.

Christopher Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: