Restaurant of the Year 2010


Years ago, the great trumpet and cornet player Nat Adderley, lecturing at a weeklong symposium on jazz at a New York City college, was asked by a young reporter: “Mr. Adderley, what exactly is jazz?”

Adderley, who had a band with his famous brother, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, took the rather naive question in stride, thought for a minute, and replied seriously: “Son, jazz is knowing all the rules of music so that you can know how to break them.” He paused, and added, “Without breaking the music.”

Some 30 years later, the essence of Adderley’s answer holds true not only for jazz, but for just about anything, including Hour Detroit’s choice for the 2010 Restaurant of the Year.

Chef André Neimanis’ cooking at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms exemplifies Adderley’s aphorism. He knows the rules of cooking, and clearly knows how to break them. And he does so exquisitely to achieve his American bistro menu — taking traditional American dishes, breaking them down, and rebuilding them by adding a culinary riff here and there and spinning them forward.

The Dirty Dog Jazz Café is a slightly left-field choice for us. Previous winners have been primarily gourmet, white-linen dining. This year, we found ourselves scanning a wider horizon thanks, in part, to an economy that has forced closures while offering opportunity to a handful of brilliant newcomers.

The 60-some seat Dirty Dog is styled as a jazz club at which the music, rather than the food, is its centerpiece — except that the food is remarkably equal to the music, and matched equally again in the service of the staff.

Neimanis takes basic steakhouse entrees, such as strip steak, rib-eye, and lamb chops, and gives them a different treatment. He does the same with pasta and pizzas, offering a roasted cauliflower risotto with toasted garlic and mascarpone, and a pizza topped with Stilton, duck confit, caramelized onions, and béchamel. It’s all unusual and intriguing.

There are restaurants, such as Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, that seek out the best recipes in the country to archive and reproduce as purely American dishes. The Dirty Dog scans an even wider realm, taking traditional American recipes along with those we’ve absorbed from China, Japan, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, and reinterpreting them.

Since opening two years ago, the Dirty Dog has risen to become one of metro Detroit’s top two or three venues for daily jazz. As Neimanis, who also is the general manager, says, “This is designed on the model of the smoky jazz clubs of the ’40s and ’50s, but without the smoke.

“I figured that, this being that small of a club, I could really focus on making everything the way that it’s supposed to be.”
— Chef André Neimanis

The interior looks 1960s pubby, with heavy tavern-like beams of dark wood crossing the ceiling and down the walls. The red-panel fabric walls are dotted with posters of jazz musicians and framed oils. Vintage-look wrought-iron carriage lamps and chandeliers provide dim lighting. (Waiters will provide flashlights for reading menus.)

The Dirty Dog name carries over into a wonderfully kitschy large oil painting above the bar that depicts a mama spaniel and her black-and-white pups. The tables are topped with white cloth and black napkin combinations with clean Pottery Barn-like white ware used to serve the wide-ranging menu items.

That classic club ambience, combined with the food and the music, make for an absorbing and transporting evening of dining and entertainment that has left more than one visitor asking if they’re really in New York or Chicago, Washington or Los Angeles. Negative as the remark may seem, what it says is that visitors leave with their expectations exceeded.

And why not, when such performers as George Benson, Mose Allison, James Moody, Stanley Jordan, Johnnie Bassett, Thornetta Davis, Wendell Harrison, and others play or sing just a few feet from your dinner table four nights a week?

The one drawback is that you can’t just drop in at will and get a table. Reservations are a must, because dinner is arranged around the musicians’ sets. Seating times are 6:30 and 8:30 each night, plus 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays only.

The Dirty Dog is the concept of the grande dame of Detroit’s jazz community, Gretchen Valade, who also owns Mack Avenue Records. A few yeas ago, Valade opened her checkbook to save the foundering Detroit International Jazz Festival. She has also served as board chair of her family’s company, Carhartt, the Dearborn-based maker of rugged work clothing.

While the star-studded entertainment soars from the bandstand at the front of the house, Neimanis and a staff of six to eight orchestrate the behind-the-scenes performance in the kitchen.

Although he has worked in many other kitchens, this is the first over which he has had dominating influence over the menu, something he has dreamed of since childhood.

“This place has been a blessing for me to show off the passion I have for food — finally,” Neimanis says. As a child, while other kids were watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Knight Rider, Neimanis was glued to the Julia Child and Graham Kerr cooking shows.

“My mother would say, ‘Why do you like to watch that?’ ” Neimanis says. “I don’t know why, but it fascinated me. I’ve talked to other chefs about this, and that’s one of the things you discover a lot of us have in common. Ever since I can remember, I watched those shows.”

Along the way to the Dirty Dog, Neimanis trained at The Breakers in Florida and several area restaurants. He was chef de cuisine at The Hill Seafood and Chophouse and executive chef of the former Sparky Herbert’s, both in the Pointes.

Today, he admires the intricate yet simple cooking of Thomas Keller of the famed The French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New York.

Neimanis likes to call his food American Bistro, with the techniques of classic French cuisine. More accurately, Neimanis’ cooking might be called New American Classical, to coin a term.

Like other chefs — particularly on the two coasts — Neimanis puts an upscale spin on simple American fare. Some of it is done delicately, some of it outrageously, but it’s always executed with impeccable cooking. Some of his cooking is done “sous vide,” a slow, low-temperature cooking under vacuum for many hours, a technique developed and perfected by the current generation of modern French cooks. It preserves color and texture and intensifies flavor.

As for spin, consider the humble and totally American macaroni and cheese. At the Dirty Dog, it becomes lobster mac ’n’ cheese. All familiarity with the dish’s original look disappears when it arrives at the table on a square white plate, looking more like a dainty baked cube of white lasagna with a golden-yellow top crust. The cheese and macaroni are pressed into a block poised atop a dot of creamy béchamel-like sauce, micro herbs surrounding it, and flanked by cuts of lobster tail and the intact red meat of a lobster claw.

Similarly, Neimanis takes our national food, the hamburger, and morphs it into a distant cousin. It looks the same, but it’s utterly hedonistic.

This burger begins with ground Kobe beef cooked as you wish. Then come the after-market upgrades: a sizable piece of foie gras seared to a pink inside, grilled Vidalia onion, and sautéed fresh morels (when available, fresh porcinis when they’re not). The burger is finished with just a kiss of blue cheese and stone-ground Dijon mustard on a butter-grilled bun.

With it is another distant cousin — no plain-old French fries here. Neimanis makes the king of French potatoes by frying them in duck fat.

The Dirty Dog’s burger needs a user’s guide that says never, ever add ketchup; you’ll ruin it. Second, know that it might be classified on the cardiac-health scale as “heart stupid.” Third, don’t even try to lift this thing by hand. It demands to be eaten slowly with a knife and fork.

Among the soups, the Creole shrimp and sausage is more like a gumbo, topped with cumin cream and a touch of hot spice on the back palate. It’s dense and rich without being overwhelming. A mushroom “latte” is a bisque-like creamy soup served in a V-shaped glass cup and finished with a dash of truffled whipped cream, giving it texture and an earthy flavor that’s divine.

Included in the tapas menu are three chili-lime shrimp on a long platter dressed in a tangy and intense lime butter with aromatic chopped cilantro leaf. The baby tempura lobster with arugula and fennel and Creole mustard is not to be missed, either.

There’s nothing not to like on the menu.

All told, there’s something poetic in the Dirty Dog experience. There’s a feeling of coming full circle in that the music and the food originate with our immigrant grandparents. Whether they came by choice or force, many wore durable work clothes manufactured by the grandfather of the Dirty Dog owner.

Now, those immigrants’ grandchildren sit at the granddaughter’s Dirty Dog Jazz Café, being culturally “clothed” — as Adderley might have explained — by food and music remade by people who learned the rules and how to break them. Detroit full circle — remembered and reinvented. You’ve got to love it.

97 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe Farms; 313-882-5299, L & D Tue.-Fri.; D only on Sat.

Cook is the chief restaurant critic for Hour Detroit.