Lively and Sophisticated

Wright & Co.’s excellent bistro menu complements a re-energized downtown Detroit

A restaurant is like an onion. From one layer to the next it can be peeled back and explored. But it is also about more than the food. The sum of its many parts tells a story about a place, a person, history, or a trend in dining.

So it is with Wright & Co.’s, the energetic, toned-up, lively, and sophisticated second-floor dining spot in the hub of downtown Detroit’s accelerating residential area. Here, lofts, condos, and apartments are being snapped up, and the big complaint heard now is that prices are going out of sight.

Wright & Co. is the project of chef Marc Djozlija, former executive chef of the Wolfgang Puck restaurants at MGM Grand Detroit, and Dave Kwiatkowski, owner of the Sugar House cocktail emporium in a renewing Corktown.

With its terrific but brief American bistro menu, Wright & Co. sits right in the middle of ongoing change and is very much part of Detroit’s rebirth.

The restaurant is an easy walk down Woodward Avenue from Comerica Park, the Fox Theatre, and also close by are The Fillmore Detroit, The Gem Theatre, and Music Hall. And on two recent visits, both during Tigers home-game evenings, that’s pretty much what a lot of people were doing: parking at one place and walking to the next.
Around the corner, on Washington Boulevard, sits the restored and reconfigured Book Cadillac hotel, now a blend of a Westin hotel with conference facilities and residential condos.

During one visit, we stopped to pick up friends at their two-bedroom Book Cadillac condo. It comes with plush furnishings and stunning city views, two parking spots, doorman service, on-site laundry, dry cleaners, a grocery shopping service, gym, and housekeeping, as well as other amenities the hotel offers, including the spa and its business center.

We joined the active evening foot traffic up the boulevard and over to 1500 Woodward Ave. where Wright & Co. occupies the former second-floor ballroom of the old F. J. Schwankovsky Company building. In the early 1900s, entertainment was dancing to a concert orchestra. From 1920 until the late 1970s, it was home to the Wright-Kay jewelry firm.

We dodged around walkways through a dug-up strip of Woodward temporarily closed while a section of the M-1 light rail system was being laid.

As annoying as comparisons to other cities are for die-hard Detroit dwellers, yes, it is easy to think of Boston, Chicago, and even New York City, walking through this energized downtown. But gratefully, this is Detroit.

But isn’t putting a restaurant on the second floor of a downtown building risky?

“I understand that some people would perceive this as a risk,” Kwiatkowski says, “but we are very familiar with the area, and really don’t see it that way. Sure, street level absolutely would have been more acceptable for most restaurants. But the concept here is that we are looking for the sophisticated guest willing to put in a little work to find us. We like the aspect of we’re a little secret, a little hard to find.”

Kwiatkowski believes downtown is an underserved market. “My wife says that what’s missing is that if somebody comes to town and is staying at the Book Cadillac and asks ‘Where do go to I eat, within walking distance?’ Where do you send them? You have Roast, which is marvelous. But we felt it was time to do something different,” he says.

“Ultimately, when we saw it, the space spoke to what it needed to be. After that, anything we had started with, as a concept, just changed to meet what was already there. For sure, we didn’t feel a steak house would work up there.”

Wright & Co. has a total city-style deep and tall interior, a long marble-topped bar, and a combination of red leather booths, tables, and one delightful rounded alcove window with table seating, over which hangs a massive crystal chandelier.

The evening views are pure cityscape. Looking into a neighboring high-rise office, a jacket hangs on the back of chair, and on a desk, today’s work waits to be picked up again tomorrow.

The menu consists of nine tapas-style “snacks,” nine larger “plates” or main courses, and three desserts — a brevity that allows Djozlija’s kitchen to concentrate on doing fewer dishes well. It shows.

The “signature” starter could be called French nachos: house-made fresh potato chips covered in running melted white cheddar, bacon bits, and chopped scallions. Not to be missed.

Another worthwhile starter is the crisp, super-fresh Gulf Shrimp, with a crunchy coating suggesting panko breading, nestled in a light gribiche sauce and a sprinkling of fresh chopped chives. Gribiche is a cousin of mayonnaise and is used mostly with cold meats, made much the same way except that chopped pickles, chervil, capers, tarragon, and hard-boiled egg whites are added.

Pork belly sliders are all too common these days and not very well executed at most places. But at Wright & Co., they are truly distinguished. Nice meaty chunks of smoky roasted pork are interlaced with just enough fat to add flavor. They are dressed with arugula and a tomato “jam,” which add a little bitterness and sweetness to cut the fat and round the flavors upward and into unison. Nicely done.

Across two visits, we tried eight of the nine offerings on the main menu, and recommend them all. Standouts include the Ditalini Pasta, which is basically a tubular pasta coated with creamy Gorgonzola and small pieces of Italian sausage, then dotted with crunchy, tiny specks of walnut. The Snap Pea Salad entrée rounds out the menu with something on the lighter side: greens, shavings of red onion and pecorino cheese, and little rounds of crisped salami in a light oil and aromatic vinegar dressing.

Likewise, the charcuterie and cheese platter makes for a lighter grazing entrée, as does the tuna tartare plate, which at some places is often drowned in salty soy. But here it is pitch perfect with pickled pears and crisp wontons. Thumbs up as well for the lime-poached shrimp with avocado mousse, cilantro, and tomato relish.

The food at Wright & Co. is simple, solid, and well done. And perhaps most interesting of all are the prices. Starters average $8, while main plates average a mere $13.

There’s also a wide selection of craft cocktails and beer and an extremely well-selected wine list that runs heavily to California and the New World, but includes some really good values in small producer French wines from the Rhone and Loire valleys.

For someone who spent many years working at the long-boarded up Free Press Building nearby and watched downtown struggle in the 1980s and 1990s, what is going on downtown right now is truly uplifting.

As much as this is about food, it’s even more a story about rebirth. Wright & Co. and this reborn area of downtown Detroit have a muscular, big-shoulders feeling.

This city has an earned character, and there is a quiet, new kind of undeniable awesomeness to it, despite what some will write and choose to see.

Sure, Detroit bears the scars of a long fight, but it has come out on the other side standing.

1500 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-962-7711. D Mon.-Sat.

Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic.