The first time I visited 1428 Gratiot Ave., I sipped hot coffee from a teacup so delicate, I worried that my grip might snap the handle. That sunny morning, I sat beside a window and, with what seemed to be antique silverware, pierced thick slices of Bananas Foster French Toast draped in dark rum and silky syrup, and punctuated with a dollop of Chantilly. This was Sunday brunch at the French-inspired eatery Antietam, where frayed, cream-colored lace billowed across the ceiling and cascaded against marbled shiplap walls — images of the space remain in my archive of bedroom décor inspiration tears. I wore a 1950s silk yellow dress, a piece that felt befitting of the elegant space. Nearly 18 months since Antietam announced its closing, I returned to 1428 Gratiot. This time, for a vastly different experience — dinner at the recently opened soul food restaurant Le Culture Cafe.
Unlike my casual stroll into the near-empty dining room at Antietam — a setting that, in hindsight, was almost eerie; how could a place so beautiful be so empty at an hour when most restaurants’ waitlists span pages of metro Detroit millennials awaiting their ceremonial Sunday mimosas? — my road to Le Culture presented more of a challenge. Reservations for its brunch is often booked out at least a week in advance and it took nearly a month to secure an 8:30 p.m. mid-week dinner reservation.
More than the obvious factors that differentiate French cuisine and soul food, what distinguishes Le Culture from its predecessor is Executive Chef Drew Matthews’ larger-than-life approach to traditional Southern dishes. Whereas presentation was king at Antietam, decadence is the ethos at Le Culture. Here, the bread for starters, are hot fluffy croissants dredged in honey butter; the French Toast is stuffed with peach cobbler.
Though a brunch reservation proved too difficult to secure, an order of Chicken & Waffles served as redemption. And while I hail from a camp that follows the unspoken rule that fried chicken should only be entrusted to a family member — and maybe the chicken spots where wings are served only in flimsy paper boxes or doubled-up aluminum pans — I can attest that you can trust Matthews with your fried chicken. Two seasoned-to-perfection boneless thighs are juicy and coated in a breading with a perfect crunch, and sit on top of a crisp waffle with a dollop of maple butter.
But the whole point of the place seems to be its over-the-top takes on seafood. There are Lobster Corn Dogs here. Salty lobster meat pierced with a skewer, dipped in white cheddar polenta, and fried crisp. At a time, king crab legs too were battered and deep-fried. Elsewhere on the menu, lobster and crab almost always come in pairs. The Cakes are packed with jumbo lump crab and plump meat from twin lobster tails; in the Seafood Overload Mac & Cheese, rock lobster tail and jumbo lump crab swim in a five-cheese blend and cavatappi pasta, all of which is topped with two deep-fried lobster tails; and for a crustacean take on poutine, truffle fries are slathered in a creamy garlic and parmesan sauce and topped with crab and lobster.
Most likely one of Le Culture’s more notable dishes, the Salmon Tower, begins with a base of creamy whipped mashed potatoes stacked with a hearty 8-ounce salmon filet, heaps of crab and lobster, and draped with a house sauce. A showstopper when it arrives to the table, diners all throughout the space stop and pull out their camera phones to snap photos of the monstrosity of which at least half is destined to make its way to their refrigerator shelves after departing the place.
Over on Instagram, Matthews and his team share their own photos of their rich (gluttonous even) dishes. Among imagery of the Salmon Tower and other hearty specialties drizzled and drowning in sauces that make meats, veggies, and pastas almost unrecognizable, the restaurant flaunts photos of celebrity guests arm-in-arm with Matthews. Like the gallery walls of Southern fixtures across the country featuring autographed photos of celebs, Le Culture’s social media channels showcase the star power that has passed through the joint such as Montell Jordan, T.I., Fabolous, Martha Reeves, and more.
The morning after my meal at Le Culture Cafe, I didn’t have stories of celebrity sightings to share with my husband. I did, however, have boxes of remnants of my meal. I sautéed spinach tossed with the Fried Brussel Sprouts and duck bacon and seared what was left of the flank of salmon. I baked the peach cobbler, caramelizing it to add to its candied bits, and topped it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. And that morning, though from the comfort of our couch, we were able to say we experienced a taste of a Le Culture brunch.
Le Culture Cafe, 1428 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; 313-85-8137. D Tues.-Sat., L&D. Sat., Closed Mon.
In Good Hands
When Antietam’s proprietor, Greg Holm, announced he’d be closing the restaurant that sat on Gratiot Avenue for just three years, he was vocal about wanting to turn the space over to a team that would bring value to the Eastern Market business district. “I want to make sure this goes into the hands of someone that’s gonna love it. … I think it’s important for that block (on Gratiot) to maintain its unique character,” Holm told Crain’s Detroit Business last March.
Though vastly different from the experience Holm cemented with Antietam, the vibe that Drew Matthews has created with Le Culture Cafe, undeniably brings a fresh perspective to the area. Sandwiched between luxury and vintage fashion boutiques, Orleans and Winder and Boro Resale respectively, and just steps away from eateries Trinosophes and Gather, Matthews’ has carved a space that differs from the minimalistic interiors that largely appeal to metro Detroiters of the hipster variety.
Le Culture instead packs in crowds with an appreciation for a lively dining experience where vibrant African-American jazz art hangs on the walls and hip-hop and R&B hits reverberate over loud chatter. Here, flavorful dishes are often-fried, smothered, and butter-drenched with the intent to cater to the soul — much less the hips.