There is an adage about restaurant dining that contends the closer you can get to the source of the product, the fresher and better the food will be. Want good fish in Michigan? Try the lake perch right off the commercial fishing boats at the Fishtown docks in Leland, where the catch is scaled and filleted before your eyes. Grab a bag of just-picked Michigan sweet corn from a farm stand on a hot July or August afternoon. Just one bite can give you a sugar rush. In Rome, a former roommate and ex-University of Michigan student took me to what he declared to be “the best genuine Roman restaurant in Rome.” It was in the slaughterhouse district of the ancient city. The idea of being close to the source is very much at the heart of today’s eat-local food movement, which is slowly coming to dominate so much of how and what we eat here in Michigan. A friend who has a splendid lakefront place near Charlevoix decided once to have about 30 people over for a roast. He chose to get a goat from a neighboring farmer. “Pick one out,” the farmer said, as they looked over a herd of goats rambling around a pen. My friend did, so the farmer corralled it and said, “Come back in an hour, I’ll have it dressed for you. ”A lot of things about how we get our food are processes and details that we don’t want to know about — primal functions sanitized away from the discomfort of our viewing.
Culturally, we like our food shopping to be a clean, pleasurable, and satisfying experience. We don’t think much about how it gets into that Styrofoam tray and onto an orderly shelf where everything is fresh and nicely packaged. We also demand a lot of pleasant aesthetics in our eating experiences. And those combinations are very much at work in this month’s restaurant selection in a modern suburban setting: Birmingham’s Bistro Joe’s restaurant, a open second-floor halo of a restaurant that looks down on the main shopping floor of Papa Joe’s Gourmet Market. From a table in the bistro above, you can watch shoppers cruising the aisles and stands with their carts, negotiating the stacks of colorful vegetables and neatly arranged box displays, while you enjoy a dozen fresh oysters or a charcuterie plate. The atmosphere is extremely casual, although modern and chic. But the food is quite serious. Both lunch and dinner — or supper, as they call it here — are offered with full table service and are very good. And there is a full bar on the restaurant level. That sense of integration and closeness between the restaurant and the store, which serves as the source of Bistro Joe’s ingredients, is very much what succeeds in designer Ron Rea’s clever arrangement of the layout. He treats it as a kind of observation deck, for which the shopping becomes theater.
Looking into Bistro Joe’s from Woodward, passers-by can get a view of customers sitting at tables through the second floor vitrine that fronts the avenue, thereby creating a desire to go see what it’s like. It’s cleverly inviting. As seems to be the trend in restaurants, the menu at Bistro Joe’s is fairly brief and to the point, with an emphasis on an assortment of inventive salads and dishes that can be done in a wood-burning oven. The menu’s “creative director” is star chef Jacques Van Staden, a South African and disciple of the late great chef Jean-Louis Palladin, best known for his creation of Jean-Louis in the Watergate Hotel, which became one of the best American restaurants in the 1980s. Palladin, who had gained two Michelin stars in France, went on to be one of the first international star chefs to settle in Las Vegas. Van Staden also cooked at Citronelle in Washington, D.C., and The Aladdin in Las Vegas. He was also the vice president of food and beverage and master chef for Celebrity Cruises. While the basic direction of Van Staden’s menu is French brasserie cooking, with such dishes as steak tartare, coq au vin, and steak frites, he branches out to a wider geography with dishes like bourbon braised short ribs with hominy grits and crispy pancetta, along with coffee spiced venison loin with roasted figs and chestnuts. The flavor profiles then head over to Asia with spicy tuna “Tacushi” and spicy hamachi Tiradito, and finally bumping down in the Middle East for roasted eggplant and sweet taro tacos, and an Armenian pizza-like flatbread with soujouk beef sausage, carmalized onion, and kasar cheese, all cooked in the wood-fired oven.
The first course items — they are called snacks here — include diver scallops with mission figs and walnuts, oven roasted soy-ginger chicken wings, bacon-wrapped Brussels sprouts, and seared foie gras with crispy duck and candied quince. One of the more savory and delightful items on the lunch menu is an extremely aromatic roasted lamb sandwich, dressed with garlic-yogurt sauce, su-mac, cucumber, and mint salad cooked in the wood-burning oven. Just delicious.There is also what Bistro Joe’s calls a “butcher block” selection of steaks — ribeye, hanger, filet mignon, and others — that can be had with various sauces and vegetable combinations.But what may be one of the more attractive offerings is the wine list; they do, after all, have the ordering power and storage capacity of a supermarket. The wine list is eclectic and extensive. During our visit, we found a great Willamette Valley red blend that we had seen elsewhere for $60; here it was $50. The restaurant draws on the market’s wine loft, and offers more than 700 bottles to choose from — and more than 60 selections by the glass. What Bistro Joe’s has accomplished is to carve a solid little niche for casual eating with decent pricing and a very refreshing and inventive approach to dining that should — hopefully — prompt others to consider doing something similar.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Woodward Ave, Birmingham; 248-594-0984. L & D daily.