Ann Arbor has welcomed a new restaurant, and it is arguably one of the best to open in the city in many years. It’s not Italian, or Mexican, or Thai. It’s reliably French. And very good.
The Standard Bistro and Larder brings a much needed freshness and liveliness to the charming city’s dining scene. It is located in a bit of an odd place, on the edge of town along Jackson Road, where many car dealerships are housed, in a building that had an incarnation some years ago as a colorful biker hangout. The building has been totally redone by a partnership headed by chef and owner Alex Young, who, several years ago, was one of the wise brains behind the founding of Zingerman’s Roadhouse, which showcases regional American dishes. In 2011, Young was named the winner of a prestigious James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Midwest.
I first tasted some of what Young was planning in a test run of The Standard about a year ago, when he cooked a dinner of the planned menu at Frame in Hazel Park, a restaurant owned by Joe Vaughn, a longtime photographer for Hour Detroit. Young was clearly onto something different.
The Standard’s warm and pleasant interior was designed by Lisa Sauve of Synecdoche Design in Ann Arbor. Suave’s color palette included soft grays and blues accented by plush yellow-green banquets along a bank of windows, giving the room ample natural light. Tables are crisply set with simple, plain flatware and white dishes. The restaurant’s dining room is managed by Patricia Kucera, who was a prominent fixture at Common Grill in Chelsea for two decades. “When I lived in California, I always liked that feel out in Marin County,” Young says. “I wanted [to create] something that had that.”
Young’s concentration on French cuisine is bold. The popularity of French dining was overtaken some years ago by Italian, with Thai and Mexican nipping at its heels. “It’s my first love,” Young says of his deep penchant for French cooking. “France has the kind of food that speaks to me. My father gave me my first French cookbook when I was 6. Then, in 1971, I bought a Julia Child cookbook. I find my inspiration in food, and always have looked up to Julia Child who introduced French cooking to America in the 1950s with television cooking programs.”
What militates in favor of success here at The Standard is that it does not offer fine dining, but rather comfortable French brasserie cooking, steps away from the grand luxury of hushed conversations and formal service attempted boldly in places such as Marais in Grosse Pointe, a couple of years ago. Its owners eventually changed the formula there to more casual French bistro cooking.
Another factor is what’s behind “Larder” in the restaurant’s name. There’s a butcher shop, deli, and meat locker in the restaurant area, and the produce and cuts of meat are always stunningly presented. This allows Young to purchase meat by the side or carcass, and butcher-cut it in house.
The menu at The Standard slants heavily into classic French dishes that have been around forever, but we don’t see much of in Detroit.
New establishments need some time to shake down and settle in, which is very much why I don’t like to review restaurants as soon as they open. Give them three to six months, and you can typically see much more clearly where the restaurant is going. A previous visit to The Standard, the same month that it opened, proved my point. I ordered the porchetta, tightly rolled roulades of pork, a combination of pork belly on the outside and pork shoulder meat inside, and layered with fennel seed, sage leaves, rosemary, and chopped garlic. In the roasting, the outside belly “skin” becomes crisp and delicate. Made well, there is little in this world more scrumptious than porchetta.
On that first visit to The Standard, the porchetta dish was passable, but not great. One month after, it was totally different. In fact, the porchetta ended up being one of the best dishes I’ve had in a restaurant in a very long time.
Why would that be? I can take a pretty educated guess: fat. On the first visit, the porchetta lacked punch and flavor. I noticed that it was basically dry, white pork meat with a roasted skin-like exterior. On the more recent return, a small amount of fat had been left on the pork belly, which made all the difference in the taste of the dish. My guess is that some chef or other decided it needed to be adjusted for flavor. These are the kind of little issues that a restaurant needs time to resolve.
The menu at The Standard slants heavily into classic French dishes that have been around forever, but we don’t see much of in Detroit. For example, a Pot-au-Feu, meaning a-pot-on-the-fire, is an age-old peasant classic that uses marrow bones, cheap cuts of beef, carrots, leeks, and cabbage. It produces a wonderful savory broth. In his version, Young uses fresh purple carrots, asparagus, and parsnips.
With a Marseilles-styled Bouillabaise, Young toes the line, keeping to the rules with shrimp, clams, mussels, assorted fish, and the famous rouille, the rusty red aioli made from red peppers, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and egg. Young’s menu also features a house-made boudin blanc, the large, delicate white meat sausages that are surprisingly mild and slightly aromatic, a specialty of a small French region near Belgium and Germany.
There is a lot of experimentation going on in the culinary scene these days, especially in places like Detroit where new restaurants are in the lead of the revitalization of the downtown area. Young’s version of merguez, the spicy Moroccan sausage, is made with lamb from Jamison Farms in Latrobe, Pa., which also supplies meats to many of the top East Coast restaurants.
But sometimes, it is also good to look back and be reminded of dishes that can speak to where we’ve been, where a lot of what we now eat came from, and that what’s old can always be new again. The Standard Bistro and Larder fills that gap admirably.
5827 Jackson Rd., Ann Arbor; 734-263-2543; thestandardbistro.com; L&D Daily, Br. Sat & Sun.