There’s a magic in Detroit’s iconic buildings coming to life once again, repurposed from their original intent into something fresh and new. And they seem to make particularly good restaurants.
Take, for example, the addition of Selden Standard in Midtown to the city’s restaurant scene. New owners breathed new life into the space, which was a former commercial laundry, turning it into a restaurant that serves fabulous food.
Or consider the castle-like Grand Army of the Republic building, referred to simply as the GAR. The ground floor of the triangular former Civil War veterans club, which sits on a little island where three downtown streets intersect — Grand River, Cass, and West Adams avenues — now houses Republic and the Parks & Rec Diner.
Now, here comes another transformation: The new five-story, 100-room Foundation Hotel and its terrific restaurant, the Apparatus Room, are located in the building at West Larned Street and Washington Boulevard that housed the Detroit Fire Department Headquarters for around 80 years.
In 2013, Detroit’s emergency services, police and fire, were merged into a new joint headquarters on Third Avenue, over by the MGM Grand Casino, and the old main firehouse appeared to be done.
This past May, it reopened as the Detroit Foundation Hotel, sporting a fancy modern overhang and new entrance on Larned, while the former fire engine bay area on the Cobo Hall side is now a soaring, echoing, bright dining room with great food. Chef Thomas Lents runs the kitchen. Lents grew up in Southfield and Battle Creek and moved around the country as a chef, before returning home to launch this restaurant.
The big red truck doors are still there, and the interior is very much as it was, except for the addition of a fancy bar in the middle of the cavernous hall, and a mix of hip modern furniture and long banquettes in assorted colors and materials scattered between two and four top dining tables.
For decades, those of us who worked downtown couldn’t help but get a shot of reassurance and comfort walking past that fire headquarters building, with its enormous bay doors open in summer months, and seeing fire fighters lounging outside on folding chairs, the noses of their great shiny red metal and chrome beasts poking out the door.
Inside the white-tiled walls and pillars of those great bays stood the engines and hook and ladder. Boots and helmets sat at the ready on the running boards. Meanwhile in the kitchen on the first floor, mythical pots of firehouse chili or franks and beans bubbled away.
On a personal note, my wife’s uncle was once a captain in that firehouse, and he showed her how to slide down the famous firehouse pole from the second to ground floor (no doubt a little outside department policy). But it remains a fond memory to her.
Today, the old firehouse menu has given way to the cooking of chef Lents, whose acumen runs more to langoustines in a creamy sauce, lamb tartare, and pine-roasted carrots than to chili and beans.
The arrival of Lents, previously the chef at Chicago’s Sixteen, which garnered two Michelin stars under his watch, made a big splash here when it was announced he had agreed to return to Detroit.
Lents, the son of a college professor and a teacher, began working in restaurants at age 14, and soon found himself wandering all over the country in kitchen jobs. His stops included Quince in San Francisco and Everest in Chicago.
It wasn’t until Lents landed in Las Vegas and the kitchen of the great French master, chef Joël Robuchon, that true inspiration, opportunity, and a desire to do this very seriously combined to direct him.
Robuchon, who by then was opening one restaurant after another around the world, eventually raised him to the position of chef de cuisine at Joël Robuchon at The Mansion in Las Vegas. He also took Lents on the road.
Back in Chicago, Lents underwent a life-changing experience: colon cancer.
“It knocked me for a loop,” he says. “It really reprioritizes what you do with your life.”
The notion of helping others by passing on what you have learned and what you know became a central part of Lents’ new thinking. Out of that came the idea about coming back to Michigan, which led to Apparatus.
What’s immediately noticeable and exciting about the food at Apparatus is the bright, almost brilliant intricacy in flavor patterns found in everything we tasted. The cooking is very refined and highly skilled.
Take a simple dish like the braised farm chicken, which is slow roasted at a gentle heat so that it retains all its juices, and when served, is moist and plump; the flavors are deeply concentrated. Lents serves the dish with kale.
“I always like to showcase the ingredients because we take a lot of care about where we get them and the quality of what we buy,” he says.
One delicious example is the pork used in the ragu of his cavatelli pasta. It comes from a producer across the border in Canada who raises milk-fed porcelet piglets, which are known for their delicate flavor. He also serves a confit shoulder made from the same pig.
The menu also includes a delightfully fresh English pea soup served with a minty spring onion cloud. Among the first-course offerings, we enjoyed the lightly spicy spring vegetable fritters that had a pleasant crunchy exterior and were moist, warm, and bready inside. Likewise, a savory, cumin-flavored lamb tartare arrived sitting on a small round of piadina flatbread.
The reception of the public to the restaurant —and the hotel — has been a mix of curiosity and sentimentality. “A lot of people have come in to see it because they remember walking by here years ago or with their parents,” Lents says. “But it’s all been good and encouraging.
“The place is as busy as you ever want to be, full every night, in fact,” Lents says. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done here, and the effort everybody has put into it.”
Stop by the Apparatus Room for a visit and I suspect you’ll be giving Lents an “Amen,” on that.
250 W. Larned St., Detroit; 313-800-5600. B, L, and D daily, Br. Sat.-Sun.
Christopher Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org