Worthy Setting

Elegant dining in Rochester’s century-old Chapman House

Entering the century-old Chapman House in downtown Rochester is like taking a stride into the past to experience elegant dining in an imposing French country house.

Chapman House, with its wide stance symmetric sandstone-like façade and tri-arched Italian entry, could have been airlifted from the lovely old homes along Chicago Boulevard in Detroit’s Boston-Edison district, and plopped down in this Oakland County city.

But Rochester has its own history. Chapman House was built in 1916, the same style and same size as the homes of Detroit’s then-new millionaires.

Photographs by Joe Vaughn

William Clark Chapman was a local industrial entrepreneur who made his fortune in textiles and fabrics, and opted to stay up north of the burgeoning new auto city. He and his brother owned Western Knitting Mills…a historic site now occupied by Rochester Mills Beer Co.

Chapman’s heirs occupied the house until 1973, after which it housed a succession of businesses, then an interior design studio. Then it sat vacant.

A few years ago, a partnership led by investor Geoffrey Dancik began a long, costly renovation, putting the exterior back to what it had been. The interior was also refreshed with adjustments and new utility lines needed for what is now an elegant new restaurant in a rarified atmosphere.

Architectural restoration firm Quinn Evans of Ann Arbor handled the conversion and preservations of the interior of the mansion.

“They went through the permit process for one year, before starting construction on historic renovation,” says Curtis Nordeen, Chapman House director of operations. “Then it was all about replacing the electrical, new plumbing, digging out the basement to house restaurant equipment. After that, they had to add an elevator on the back of the building to meet ADA (Americans for Disabilities) standards. It was a lot of long, hard work.”

In June, Chapman House reopened as a restaurant. And it’s one of the most unique new dining spots to open in the metropolitan area’s northern region in many years. The superior food in equally elegant surroundings comes from a French-leaning continental menu that is fitting to the atmosphere, style, and service. In other words, it’s classy.

The nice flowing open feeling of the rooms, the early evening sunlight pouring in from all side of the mansion, and the charm and intimacy of the open, uncluttered second-floor dining room all make Chapman House comfortable and breezy.

It was designed to be simple and never overdone, in an ambience of elegance, with dark wood floors, soft gray walls with wide swatches of white trim, and cool neo-classic wrought-iron chandeliers and wall sconces.

Some 15 chefs, bakers, and assorted cooks and crew support the kitchen. The reception and dining room, or front of the house, has a staff of 20.

The menu is refined and skillfully done, with just seven first courses and six entrées, each artfully and lovingly prepared, peeled, poached, diced, plated, sauced, and served.

One don’t-miss item is the crusted slice of terrine, just the correct density, thickness, and homey goodness that a French country terrine needs to offer. The delicate sweetbreads arrive, their exteriors slightly crunchy from the light flour coating in which they were pan-cooked. Delicate inside, they were creamy and just slightly springy at the bite. The main course of skate wing was lightly sauteed and sauced with butter finished off with a squeeze of lemon and what seemed a touch of wine.

The fresh, pure-white sturgeon with skin-on one side fell effortlessly at the touch of a fork into its bed of fresh tomato broth sauce.

Likewise, the roasted chicken and seared duck breast duck were perfectly prepared.

The menu is the creation of executive chef Chris Cason, assisted by his sous-chef brother, Dan. Chris trained at Culinary Institute of America, and has worked for super-chef Takashi Yagihashi at both Tribute in Farmington and later at his Takashi restaurant in Chicago. Brother Dan came up through The Root Restaurant and Bar in White Lake, and Café Via, the Townsend Hotel, and Fiddleheads.

Both have been involved in Chapman House since the planning phases.

“One reason the menu is brief is because of the kitchen,” Nordeen says. “The kitchen is actually very small. I’m quite proud of what they are doing in such restricted area. That’s really a big deal,” Nordeen says.

“What that (space limitation) also does is to give the brief menu more time for Chris to put depth into the food,” he says. “We start with everything fresh. Trying to execute a big menu in that way would get challenging.”

The wine list, assembled by sommelier Lauren Letzmann, is carefully structured with interesting assortments from Oregon, Washington, California, France, and Italy.

“Lauren put together a list that pairs off nicely with the food,” Nordeen says. “It also considers the division of the food because we are so seasonal. So depending what they bring (seasonally) to market, that’s what we serve. We have tried construct a wine list that takes that into account.”

The list is focused on French and American wines, and has a couple of unique little reds, such as a Loire Valley cabernet franc.

There is something pleasantly antithetical to the throwaway American character in the brevity of the lean menu at Chapman House. We are so habituated to vast arrays of choice: the aisles at Wal-Mart or Meijer, for example. We are not used to so few choices of such high-caliber quality.

But that’s a good place to park your brain for a couple of hours — and it begins when you start up the walkway to Chapman House.

The staff was working in perfect unison just a month after opening. This warm, new, elegant fine dining restaurant, with a knowledgeable waitstaff, excellent service, and superior kitchen, is certain to take its place before long as one of metro Detroit’s most worthy destination eateries.

311 Walnut Blvd., Rochester; 248-759-4406. D Tues.-Sat.

Christopher Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: editorial@hour-media.com