One of the great pleasures of city life was almost lost in many cases during Detroit’s “bad years.” When the neighborhoods emptied, many of their local eateries disappeared, too.
These were the places to which you could walk or drive to in a matter of minutes, places that became intimately connected to the psyche of those who lived around them, places that actually made it a neighborhood.
Not all of them closed altogether. Some of the restaurants saved themselves by moving to the suburbs as gussied-up versions of what they had been.
But they were different. Once you left the city, it seems, you tended to leave your heart there, too. It just wasn’t the same out there in the new world.
Pirouette to today, and a re-energized neighborhood and a restaurant that had been closed for several years are now part of today’s healthier, energetic, and renewed Detroit.
The restaurant is called Craft Work, and it’s located in one of the tall apartment buildings in the newly popular West Village, off Jefferson Avenue north of the Belle Isle bridge — an area that indeed survived the upheaval years.
The West Village is flourishing now with marvelous early-1900s apartment buildings, several of which have the old-fashioned doormen doubling as security; coffee shops, stores, bars, and other restaurants dot West Village’s very walkable, tree-lined, and welcoming side streets.
Craft Work used to be the closed shell of The Harlequin Café, until 18 months ago when it underwent a transformation.
“A friend who used to live in the building said there was a really, really nice space available,” says Hubert Yaro, owner-partner in Craft Work, who previously worked and managed suburban restaurants. “I had never really been to the East Side. I was looking to move downtown. They were having an open house to attract people here, and this space was part of it. I just really liked the village.
“It’s very quiet and there is a sense of history and community,” he says. “It’s the best of city living. You are far enough from downtown, yet it’s just minutes away when you want it.”
Yaro and chef Matt Dalton, his co-owner/partner, took over the Harlequin space, a high-ceilinged glass storefront along Agnes Street, and reorganized how the space is used. It has a rolling, energetic feel from a new bar area, which before the Harlequin had been an old apothecary. They moved the main dining area across the hall, to what had been a nightclub area with live music.
On a recent Friday night, Craft Work — the name that sounds like a place full of looms, weavers, and knitting equipment — was jammed. It seats 110, and to their credit, the owners do take reservations, even for parties of two, a rarity in today’s world of casual dining, which often means a long wait.
Dalton’s food is very good. He offers a simple, abbreviated American menu: fried chicken, ribs, steaks, collard greens, mashed potatoes — all done with a twist and a flair that makes the food stand out in a market that is somewhat overrun with sameness.
The service is crisp and efficient, from knowledgeable bartenders who are well versed with some of the more esoteric liqueurs and spirits they keep to our server who had taken care of us previously at Red Crown in Grosse Pointe Park, and Republic.
The brief menu has just five appetizers, including a terrific “guac y queso.” Translation: a board of tortilla chips with a chunky guacamole at one end and a pimento-ed hot spicy dip at the other.
Yaro says the menu will be expanding in the late fall for the main dining room. That will allow Dalton to “get more creative and use seasonal products to keep things even more interesting.”
Craft Work offers a simple, abbreviated American menu — all prepared with a flair that makes the food stand out.
A personal favorite is the smooth, tangy duck heart pâté, which came with a sweet red onion relish and served in a screw-lid jar.
I am fussy about some foods. I avoid such things as crab and artichoke dips, a relic of bad American eating and invariably made with that fake “krab” meat and unpleasant cream cheesy spinach mush. Hats off to Dalton for rebuilding that image. His version makes the old dip very palatable. First secret? Use real crab meat. Second? Try mascarpone cheese.
Even the simple chickpeas deserve a mention. Many places roll uncooked chickpeas, which have the consistency of little bullets, around in a pan of hot oil. Thankfully, Craft Work actually serves soft chickpeas that have been cooked (in lemon and oil).
One oddity, among first course choices, was a plate of two lamb chops with a béarnaise-like sauce. Shouldn’t this be a main course? But once we tried them, cutting the lovely charred pink meat into small slices to pass around, it all worked just fine.
Two salad dishes caught our attention: a king salmon salad served with compressed strawberries, walnuts, goat cheese, and beets. Second, a green salad topped with tempura chicken, tomato, bacon, avocado, egg, and honey mustard dressing.
In main dish choices, a three-piece fried chicken dish had a marvelous dark, crispy, and spicy crust. But unfortunately, the meat was overcooked, and the breast was mushy enough that it gave no resistance. Flavor wise, it’s terrific, served with spot-on mashed potatoes and vinegary bacon collard greens.
A whole grilled trout, head and tails still on, arrived on a bed of fresh sweet corn, slices of lemon and sprigs of thyme in the fish’s cavity. A plate of barbecued pork ribs arrived scrumptiously lacquered in a sauce that hinted of raspberry and cherry. Other choices include fish and chips with coleslaw and tartar sauce, and a halibut served with a black rice risotto, sun-dried tomatoes, and roasted garlic.
Overall, Craft Work is well worth the visit. Its interpretation of casual, upscale, modern American dining works well, and could be plunked down in any other big city and never miss a beat.
There is also something heartwarming about yet another neighborhood in Detroit feeling and looking so healthy, as the city’s troubled times are growing more distant in the rearview mirror of time.
8047 Agnes St., Detroit, 313-469-0976. D Mon.-Sat., Br Sun.