A good restaurant can be like choreography — a precise movement of the waitstaff and managers; the speed in their step, how the eyes absorb their tables, how they circle the customers, and how precisely they and the kitchen time the arrival of dishes.
The energy and stride are kind of sexy, almost like a first glance and then a dance. You’re not quite sure how this might go, but it’s inviting, and you really want to find out.
The Meeting House in Rochester is that kind of sexy. Not in appearance, but in what it projects: It’s a good restaurant where there’s no need for anything showy or overt, the service is confident, and the emphasis is all on the food.
A good kitchen choreographs, as well, not only in timing, but with a clear statement on what it is through what it delivers to the table.
On all of those measures, The Meeting House dances very well.
A glance at its basically American bistro menu shows many of the same basic dishes found at a hundred other restaurants around Detroit. The difference here is the superior cooking.
One reason may well be the experience of the two owners, who both worked for years at the refined, yet casual Beverly Hills Grill on Southfield Road, which for decades has remained on countless listings as one of the top 10 restaurants in the metro area.
In December, general manager Jason Mood and chef Chris Johnson opened The Meeting House in a corner storefront in downtown Rochester, a space once occupied by Mind Body & Spirits — the certified organic restaurant in the green technologies movement that didn’t make it.
“It was time to do something new,” says Johnson, “and we wanted to see what we could do on our own. Rochester seemed like a great place to do it because there was nothing quite like this, and there hadn’t been a new restaurant here in quite a while.”
The Meeting House is the second big urban-styled restaurant to open recently in the way-north suburbs. It joins the elegant, casual Italian Silver Spoon in neighboring Rochester Hills, a venture of the former manager and three of the top kitchen staff from Il Posto, in Southfield.
The Meeting House has a lot of nice architectural touches. Instead of being one massive piece of glass, the storefront is a series of neo-industrial rectangular steel and glass windowpanes, a reflection of manufacturing plants in the early 1900s. It also conforms nicely with the surrounding architecture.
Detroit designer Patrick Thompson’s interior, on the other hand, is about as modern as you can get. It’s done in a hip industrial look, subtle gray-greens warmed up, a lot of stained birch and ash trimming, and three massive mirrors on the main dining room tilted down so that no matter where you sit, you can see everyone else in the dining room from above. The mirrors also make the restaurant look and feel much larger than it actually is.
Tables are all square four-tops in highly lacquered butcher block, highlighted by bright red chairs in a style best described as “ginned-up country.”
Lighting comes mostly from track lights sunk deeply in the high, blackened ceiling, but is bolstered by amusing decorative lamps hanging throughout the room — the simple three-bulb industrial sockets holding every type of mismatched incandescent bare bulb imaginable: globes, flickering candles, clear industrial, bug lights, frosted lamps, you name it.
The style of food at The Meeting House is eclectic American bistro blended with items from elsewhere in the world. There are also pizzas fresh from a wood-burning oven left from the previous restaurant.
After being led to our table, we ordered our drinks and some guacamole, which arrived with warm taco chips.
Guacamole is generally a good “finger-in-the-wind” test at a restaurant. Although it’s actually simple to make, many restaurants mess it up with too much chili powder and cayenne, or with disproportionate amounts of lime. The Meeting House’s version is as good as I’ve had anywhere. The key is to mash it by hand with a fork lightly and leave it a little lumpy (machine blending breaks it down too much). And an avocado’s flavor is actually delicate, so going extra light on ingredients is essential.
A bar menu appetizer of cheese and chips was anything but ordinary. The freshly made potato chips, dusted with cayenne, coriander, and onion powder, arrived hot and lightly salted in pint-sized paper bags stamped with The Meeting House logo and a small, round, cast-iron pan bubbling with Jarlsberg and parsley, which tasted remarkably like a cheese fondue I experienced in Gstaad, Switzerland.
Another appetizer, three braised chicken and pork-belly tacos topped with queso blanco and a side serving of pico de gallo, was superb, as was a dish of assorted fresh mushrooms — oyster, shitake, button, and wood ear — sautéed in butter and fired in the wood-burning oven with garlic, finely julienned white onion, and a dollop of warm goat cheese.
The main courses are also fairly typical, yet exceptionally good. Can there possibly be anything more to say about a piece of steak and french fries? Well, there is. First, this ain’t no three-inch cowboy cut, boys. Rather, it’s a lighter half-inch strip steak of very sensible size, spiced with just salt and pepper and grilled — perfectly cooked.
Grits are being used all over these days, and you’ll find them here, too. But here, Johnson tops his slightly coarse, cheesy grits with plump Gulf shrimp and crisped pork belly, mustard greens, and tiny green okra, cooked to just shy of slightly crunchy.
There are varied other mains, such as roasted ribs with mac and cheese, a braised lamb ragout on housemade potato gnocchi, and a littleneck clam fettuccini with braised fennel.
The Meeting House also has a second dining room in the back, a very airy room full of natural light that, from the exterior, looks like it might be a glass hothouse for plants.
On a recent rainy spring evening, a very experienced and traveled diner turned to another and aptly remarked, “The food here reminds me of good brasseries in France.” That really summarizes The Meeting House. It has the feel, the attitude, the casual nature, and excellence of good European brasseries. Yet as we say here, it’s pure Michigan.
The Meeting House, 301 S. Main, Rochester; 248-759-4825 D Daily
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org