When newspapers and magazines picked their restaurants of the year a decade ago, Rick Halberg’s places were always on the Top 10 lists. His cooking was stylish and delicate — a kind of nouveaux French provincial with dabs of California. And he was constantly attuned to new ideas, occasionally incorporating ideas from elsewhere to keep his menus fresh.
First there was R.I.K’s on Orchard Lake Road, a very popular, somewhat raucous American bistro. Then came his masterpiece: Emily’s in Northville — a tiny, lovely, delicate place in look, feel, and cuisine that could’ve easily been dropped into a pastoral setting in Napa or Sonoma.
In 2006, Halberg closed Emily’s and started over in institutional catering as the creative guy behind the Hiller’s supermarkets’ catering and food bar. Later, he became consulting executive chef to Eve, an Ann Arbor restaurant now closed.
Now, Halberg is back with a new restaurant, Local Kitchen and Bar on Nine Mile Road in Ferndale, where fresh and local food dominate the cooking.
Local Kitchen, which opened in the late summer, is a different kind of place for Halberg: somewhat brassy, very contemporary, and versatile. He also had a new business partner, Brian Siegel, owner of the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse in Shelby Township and other entertainment venues.
Three young chefs — Ricky McCormick, Tim Parker, and Kyle Grabowski — handle the kitchen, while Halberg oversees the development and selection of menu items and the dining room, and plays the general manager role.
Local is one of the loveliest and most welcoming restaurants to come along in recent years. It occupies the spot on Nine Mile Road formerly held by Via Nove — a pleasant corner with lots of outdoor patio space for summer dining.
There’s an inviting interior, soft gray-colored wall, and a vaulted glass front, in the middle of which sits a large, modern, wood-burning fireplace.
Tables and settings are simple and bistro style, and a long bar occupies the back wall, above which is the glassed-in front of a special-events dining room and complex looking down on the main dining hall and its roaring fireplace.
Dining today has moved away from refined eating — from light, fidgety, and complicated dishes — and back to old favorite comfort foods: mac-and-cheese, ribs, burgers, and mashed potatoes.
“Fine dining, as we did with Emily’s, has gone the way of the economy,” Halberg says. “We’re putting more food on the plate. And the comfort food that’s so popular now is certainly a heavier cuisine.”
But old favorites don’t mean less work for the kitchen. Halberg says it still takes as much preparation as the gourmet stuff. If anything, they make old comfort food in a more modern, complex way. “The way we do things, it’s still very much from scratch,” he says. “And we don’t take shortcuts — we use the best ingredients money can buy.”
As the name implies, Local is moving in the current wave of restaurants committed to using locally grown produce of all kinds — vegetables, meats, fruits, and baked goods. And the food very much reflects the trend and popularity of casual grill and bistro restaurants.
At dinner, one of our first courses was a large, sliced, fried green tomato rolled in panko bread crumbs and served with three side dipping sauces: a creamed goat cheese, a fig-like jam, and a red pepper puree. The slight crunch of the breading and firmness and tangy sweet tomato against the soft creaminess of the goat cheese were a delight.
Other appetizer offerings: barbecue beef sliders, sticky chicken wings in miso sauce and sesame seeds, and Sicilian meatballs.
Main courses, too, run a gamut of old standbys — from fried chicken and pot pie to hamburgers, tacos, and mac-and-cheese. The “chicken fried chicken” was a favorite at our table because of the extra-crunch in the panko breading. It’s pan-fried and topped with chopped tomato–arugula salad and a dollop of fresh pesto.
Another delight was the pork belly, more like a meaty slice of pork that faintly resembles a large cut of bacon, served with garlic sausage and white beans. Think of it as a Motor City cassoulet.
With pastas, there are two choices, both on the wide egg noodle, pappardelle: either an old fashioned-Bolognese sauce, or fresh chopped tomatoes, grilled zucchinis, olives, and basil. A gourmet-ish mac-and-cheese — made with Gouda, mozzarella, Gruyere, and cheddar — is delicious. However, the flavor of two slices of candied sweet bacon decorating the top struck us as just plain weird.
From time to time — everything is seasonal or dependent on availability — you may find ratatouille, polenta, poutine, fennel gratin, and fresh rapini.
These are much lighter and somewhat simpler dishes than the heavy-lifting culinary gems we found on a listing for a Halberg’s menu at Emily’s a decade ago: “sautéed foie gras on toasted almond brioche with mission fig jam, rabbit ravioli with caramelized onions and crisp prosciutto, cauliflower soup with roasted baby root vegetables and pan-crisped sweetbreads, and roasted veal chop with Périgueux sauce and a mushroom and sweet potato risotto.”
Those dishes cry for white linen settings with tinkling crystal, fine china, and expensive wine.
For those who miss those kinds of dishes, Halberg plans to add a few. “We’re going to have rabbit and a confit sometime soon. I’m working on that now. We want a good mix. We want to have the burger and mac-and-cheese eaters feel at home, and I want to take care of my old clients from Emily’s by doing some of what we used to do.”
The casual dining we enjoy is far more democratic, perhaps more American, in some ways. Dining has found a new level. We dress more casually, stand much less on formality, and like to eat in our defined comfort zones. Eating out used to be very aspirational. But that has been replaced by the pleasure of sharing simpler food with friends and having a good time, rather than showing off.
This is certainly better.
Halberg is also adding a feature: a chef’s table in the kitchen that seats up to eight, from which guests can spend an evening watching the energy of the kitchen as the staff prepare the dishes.
Local Kitchen & Bar, 344 W. Nine Mile Rd.; 248-291-5650. L&D Mon.-Fri., D&Br Sat.-Sun.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: email@example.com.