Detroit’s restaurant scene has become an urban chrysalis, a launchpad that keeps giving flight to a flock of one interesting new butterfly after another.
Among the more recent to dazzle us with its colorful wings is a former 1960s Holiday Inn in Corktown that has re-emerged as the hip Trumbull & Porter hotel.
The hotel’s restaurant, Red Dunn Kitchen, is headed by Chef Jay Gundy, who brings to its kitchen a pocketful of very solid restaurant credits.
His early career and influences include positions at Townhouse, Café Via, and Forte in Birmingham, and the uber-chic restaurant Tribute, which for a few years became a gourmet destination restaurant in Farmington Hills.
Most recently he was the chef at Cork Wine Pub in Pleasant Ridge. Gundy was also involved in the 2007 relaunch of The Whitney, the lovely 1800s baronial mansion of lumber baron David Whitney on Woodward Avenue, south of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
About a year ago, Gundy was approached by a Florida restaurant and hotel company. Would he consider coming to work for them at their new Detroit project? “I met with them,” Gundy says, “and toured the project in the middle of the renovation and thought: ‘This might be a good place to do my next restaurant.’ ”
The complex has that low-slung, sleek California motor court feel, right down to the curled entrance canopy’s overhang, which was very stylish in the ’60s.
Tucked away in Corktown’s commercial area, with pleasant, non-descript commercial brick buildings, warehouses, union halls, offices, and well-maintained streets with treed and neatly trimmed lawns, the Trumbull & Porter hotel is a small, self-contained complex with the restaurant to one side of the multi-story L-shaped main building.
The freshened old motor court leaves few clues to its origins, other than its retro look, complemented by cooling gray-blue tiling and a dark gray and white color scheme, the simplicity of clean lines, and the unpretentious original design of the building. The concept and design of the hotel and restaurant redo went to Patrick Thompson Design, whose works include the recent adaptive reuse of an industrial space into Axle Brewing Co.’s restaurant/brewery Livernois Tap in Ferndale, and the earlier transformation of the Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts into a comfortable date night-style hot spot.
As for the name, Red Dunn, Gundy explains: “When they were clearing the place out before it was redone, they found this old framed print of a breed of chickens named Red Dunn, painted by a little-known Detroit artist. They decided to name [the] restaurant for the chicken.’’
Gundy has described his menu as “creative seasonal American with classic French technique.”
Purposely absent from the lineup are the overused culinary dog whistles of “farm-to-table,” and “single source.”
While Gundy frequently uses seasonal Michigan ingredients, he says that for what he likes to cook, and what he wants to see on his menu, those concepts are too limiting. “Michigan has too short a growing season and too small a number of product to do farm-to-table, as far as I am concerned.”
For example, Gundy says: “I love avocados. I use them a lot in my dishes and … well, we don’t grow them here.”
Gundy also went about documenting what other chefs in Detroit were doing successfully, especially those experimenting with new ideas and ingredients. He also noted what items were selling best at those new restaurants.
His conclusion was that the hottest dish was quail, which immediately went on his own future menu. “Not because everyone else was doing it,” he says. “But more to match our concept.”
However, he notes. “It sold out from the start.”
â€‹Gundy also added those items people clearly like — salmon, beef, chicken, and pasta — which he then dressed up in his own style, and he made space for unique dishes of his own.
When Red Dunn opened its doors in June, Gundy was heartened by a loyal following of customers from Cork and elsewhere, who showed up. “My Birmingham crowd followed me down here, and they are all regulars here, too,” Gundy says.
At the dinner hour, much of the traffic is from Oakland County, Gundy says. But Red Dunn is also doing a hopping breakfast and lunch business. “It’s a very local and more laid-back crowd,” Gundy says, adding that he also found most of his serving staff among people who live in downtown Detroit and in Corktown.
Chef’s table dinners and private events are also available in an area called the Steak Room that seats 10 and overlooks the courtyard.
The room was named after the original restaurant when the hotel was a Holiday Inn and is decorated with a neon sign by local neon master George Vidas.
Some of Gundy’s flavor combinations are sure to raise eyebrows. For example, there’s the Parmesan dill popovers with maple sherry butter and pimento goat cheese. Or how about foie gras stuffed quail, with challah croutons, a blueberry reduction, and soubise sauce?
Among the appetizers, there is a salute to childhood and Dr. Seuss in the appetizer called “Green Eggs and Ham,” which are deviled eggs dotted with paprika and chives and crispy bacon. The deviled part is the addition of sweet peas and wasabi to the yolk mixture.
The imaginative menu also includes a tomato “tartare,” in which the chunks of tomato cooked and thickened by cooking them with quinoa take on the consistency and appearance of a raw beef tartare, right down to that same reddish-brown look. The taste, of course, leans totally over to sweet tomato. Whimsically, it is topped with a small egg yolk cured in lime, and served with grilled bread.
One main course not to be missed is Gundy’s duck breast. It is wrapped in Maple Leaf Farms bacon, stuffed with caramelized fennel, and served with a divine creamy polenta, pickled cherries, duck skin cracklins, and a Chamberlain sauce, which in a short-form version involves adding port and orange juice to deglaze the pan drippings from the roasted duck.
At just around six months old, Red Dunn is a baby just beginning to walk.
For now, it seems to have sturdy “legs,” and every opportunity for success.
“I’m still tweaking all kinds of things. And not just the menu, but the staff and other things. So far, my gamble has paid off,” Gundy says. “The crowd we’re getting is exactly what we wanted. Plus, we’ve recently been getting the stars. Nick Cave stayed here when he was filming in town. Tim Meadows has stayed with us. And Kid Rock’s band was here recently.” Not bad for the new kid on the block.
1331 Trumbull St., Detroit; 313-887-9477. B, L, & D Daily.