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When Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere set out to open an East African restaurant in Detroit, “we didn’t know what we were doing,” says Mamba, who worked in sales and marketing, while Nijimbere was a human rights worker. Though the refugees from Burundi were navigating the same bureaucracy and complicated systems that go with opening a restaurant that other owners encounter, an added challenge was they didn’t see many refugee-led restaurants that not only served the food of their homeland but provided opportunities for people who looked like them.
Pop-ups in 2017 helped them build a loyal following, and in February 2021, they had soft openings with limited dinner seatings and takeout, with the grand opening in April.
Many diners today don’t trust where their food comes from, Mamba says. They want to know who is making the food, and that’s the need that Baobab Fare fills.
“We try to build the relationship between food and people and build trust. That was a need which was there.”
Menu items include satisfying scratch-made samaki, flash-fried fish cooked with peppers and garnished with onions, plantains, yellow beans, and rice; mbuzi, slow-roasted goat shank, a Burundian staple; and the signature nyumbani, tender beef that’s been braised for five hours in tomato sauce. The hearty portions are accompanied by vegetables like a fresh corn salad or peanut-stewed spinach as well as yellow beans and rice.
As restaurants started to reopen after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, first at half capacity, Mamba says business was booming, but much like restaurants in Detroit and beyond, Baobab Fare “didn’t have enough people in the kitchen.” But they knew they had to stay focused and be patient to keep going with what they had worked so hard to build.
The clientele of Baobab Fare is diverse, Mamba says. “You come to the restaurant, and you see everybody — all genders, every ethnic group, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Black, Asian, African. That’s what I love. … Honestly, my fear when I started [was] like, ‘Who’s going to come eat this food?’ And then you can see the power of food to bring people [from all walks of life] to the room. It’s amazing.”
As restaurateurs, he says, he and Nijimbere feel a responsibility to give back to the community.
“We can now help people,” he says. On Mondays, when they are closed, they offer up the space to other small businesses and pop-ups like Konjo Me, owned and operated by Helina Melaku, an Ethiopian immigrant. “So then they can pop up; they can start building their own community.”
Looking ahead to their own future, Mamba and Nijimbere have started working on the retail side of the business, including their line of passion fruit drinks and coffee. And even though Baobab Fare is just a little bit over a year old, they’re already thinking of expanding to a second location. It will be the same concept, scratch-made and healthy East African fare, but the goal for the next spot is to empower the manager to own it, to be the role models for a new generation of restaurateurs that they had hoped to see when they were coming up.
Baobab Fare, 6568 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-265-3093; baobabfare.com
Like many restaurateurs, Ignacio Gerson and Javier Bardauil had a hard time finding workers for their new restaurant, Barda, when they were preparing to open last year.
So they built a team with diverse talents, passionate individuals who were willing to put in the work in the restaurant, which focuses on Argentine cuisine that showcases the country’s rich culinary diversity beyond the steakhouse.
“We were having these fitness classes from the cook who was a personal trainer, and then the photos for our social media were from another cook who was a photographer,” Gerson says.
Bardauil, a chef with an impressive culinary resume that includes working with renowned Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, adds, “That was the crew. People who never worked in a restaurant before. That was amazing. … That team brought us here.”
“Here” as in being chosen as a finalist for this year’s James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, which recognized an establishment that opened in 2020 or 2021.
“We have 80 percent of that first team still with us,” Gerson says. “We’re proud of that because, [for employees], it creates a feeling that being at the restaurant is like being at home.”
Gerson and Bardauil, childhood friends from Buenos Aires, long dreamt of opening a restaurant together. When Gerson moved to Michigan in 2016 after his wife accepted a new job, he visited the city and saw the potential to bring an Argentinian restaurant to Detroit.
“I didn’t see any kind of representation for our culture,” Gerson says, noting the large Mexican community but lack of representation for Latin America in general. “So I called [Bardauil], and I said, ‘Remember that dream we had back then? I think I found the place.’”
Barda took over the space formerly occupied by Magnet and carried on the wood-fired concept through the lens of Argentine cuisine, which is heavily influenced by Spanish and Italian flavors.
“All these immigrants coming from Europe created this amazing fusion,” Gerson says, adding that Argentinian restaurants are not just barbecue joints. When European immigrants came to Argentina, they melded techniques from their home countries with Argentine food. That fusion is what they’re showcasing at Barda.
The many cultural influences can be seen in dishes like the roasted cauliflower, which is bathed in a traditional Piedmontese bagna cauda.
Bardauil also takes inspiration from other South American countries, as demonstrated in dishes such as the Peruvian potatoes with huancaína sauce and the Peruvian tiradito, scallop with corn and habanero tiger milk. The menu is also driven by the seasons. “I don’t know what’s gonna be next. I don’t have a clue,” he says.
The constant at Barda is the foundation of its cooking: the wood-fired oven where Bardauil and his team employ ancestral methods of Patagonian cooking to create dishes like the Carne y Hueso (“flesh and bone”), creating an interesting interplay of raw (beef tartare) and cooked (bone marrow); a juicy pork tomahawk; and a hefty short rib. Fire also figures prominently in the desserts, such as the Burnt Alaska.
A little over a year since launching Barda, Gerson and Bardauil are already looking ahead, toward more destinations in Core City. But more on that in a future issue.
Barda, 4842 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-952-5182; bardadetroit.com
The Dixboro Project
Housed in an 1880s-era barn, The Dixboro Project in Ann Arbor is three dining concepts in one: The Boro Dining Room & Bar, where you can sip on a wide assortment of whiskeys and mezcals before partaking in Bolognese and N.Y. strip; The Boro To Go, the outdoor deck that serves up wood-fired pizza and beer; and Dixboro House, a place to indulge in a super luxe tasting menu that begins with caviar and hors d’oeuvres and ends with a dessert spread.
The experience is unlike anything else, says Louis Maldonado, chef and partner of The Pulpo Group, which comprises The Dixboro Project, as well as Ann Arbor’s Sava’s and Aventura.
Maldonado — who was born and raised in California and has worked in several acclaimed kitchens including The French Laundry and Cortez, which earned a Michelin star while he was there — says he started looking for new opportunities when life in the Golden State was becoming unsustainable for him and his family financially.
That’s when he saw an ad for The Dixboro Project. He applied, but the timing wasn’t quite right. Then about three years later, Sava Farah, the CEO of The Pulpo Group, reached out. A week later, he was visiting Ann Arbor, and a month later, he was moving out to Michigan.
That was March 1, 2020.
“And my first project honestly was shutting down the restaurants,” Maldonado says.
While it was frustrating to the new Michigan resident to suddenly not have a restaurant to work in, he says the shutdowns gave him and Farah time to reimagine the venue. The halting of construction on the property led them to create the three distinct concepts.
“That’s when we decided to make the separation of The Boro, which is our more day-to-day dining,” Maldonado says, “and then Dixboro House being tasting-menu only.”
The property itself has been home to a restaurant for more than 100 years. Former establishments include The Farm Cupboard, which was famous for its fried chicken dinners and Sunday suppers, and The Lord Fox in the 1950s and Roger Monk’s, which closed in 2016. Maldonado wants to be the next steward to build on the legacy.
“Career-wise, [The Dixboro Project] is what I’ve been aiming for,” Maldonado says. “That’s what I wanted to be involved with; I want to be the caretaker for another 50 years and create that legacy restaurant … like Commander’s Palace [in New Orleans], French Laundry [in California], Canlis [in Seattle].”
The Boro To Go cafe and bakery — featuring wood-fired pizzas, to-go meals, baked goods, and coffee — was the first concept to open with carryout in December 2020.
Next was The Boro Dining Room & Bar, which still featured the wood-fired pizzas but elevated the dining experience several notches with an emphasis on premium proteins and a pasta program with heavy French and Italian influences. It’s where families doing pizza and salads dine alongside couples on date night.
The newest concept is Dixboro House’s tasting menu, which launched in February. The progressive menu usually starts off with hors d’oeuvres and caviar, then advances into different ingredients presented in multiple ways. For example, a spring menu featured three different presentations of hamachi. The courses can range from 11 to 22 plates depending on what Maldonado comes up with given what’s available and what’s inspiring him at the moment.
Now that the high-end tasting concept is up and running, next up on this born-and-raised Californian’s agenda: starting a farm on the premises within the next five years once the restaurants have settled into a groove.
The Dixboro Project, 5400 Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor; 734-669-3310; thedixboroproject.com
Doug Hewitt and Sandy Levine, the duo behind the popular Midtown restaurant Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, started planning Freya four years ago because they wanted to bring a more accessible tasting-menu restaurant to Detroit.
It took a while to find the right place for their newest restaurant, which specializes in New American cuisine highlighting local ingredients, but they finally landed on a former drill company building in Milwaukee Junction in 2019. The space needed a full demo, so it would take another two years to open.
At Freya, the food is still locally focused, like at Chartreuse, but more elevated and intricately plated now that there is more room in the kitchen compared with the small space at Chartreuse.
While the fare is indeed sophisticated, it is still approachable, with familiar flavors and ingredients. A recent menu started off with lamb kofta with fermented beet yogurt and pine nut gremolata; crab and lobster with white asparagus; and pork wrapped in prosciutto served with nettle gnocchi and spruce tip cream. There was also a Dover sole, but instead of a traditional whole-fish preparation, it was fashioned into cabbage rolls with savoy cabbage and shrimp mousseline.
The menu is built around the best possible ingredients available at the time. “[The menu will] change based on a single delivery an hour from service,” Levine says.
The idea was to create a tasting-menu restaurant that offered a special experience that would be more accessible to more diners compared with the tasting menus of New York or California restaurants, which can cost upwards of $300.
Levine acknowledges that at $85 per person, Freya’s price point is still out of reach for many people, but they’re still hoping to “provide as close to that kind of experience as possible, while also making regular people comfortable in the restaurant. Because I felt like in a lot of the tasting-menu restaurants that [Doug and I have] been to, if not all of them, those two things didn’t really exist [together].”
As a longtime entrepreneur, Levine says one of the biggest issues facing restaurants today is the lack of diversity, both in the dining room and among staff, and at Freya they try to address some of these inequities.
“Having worked in Detroit on and off for more than 20 years now, I feel like it’s the most segregated it’s been, [more than] when I was a server and manager,” he says. “It’s something that we [at Freya] are always conscious of, and that’s a big part of why the restaurant is priced the way it is.” The general manager, Thor Jones, is also working on a program to help train young Black people for positions in the kitchen.
Another troubling issue is the pay structure for workers, Levine says. “There’s just this vast difference between what servers make and what kitchen staff makes,” Levine says. “I’m hoping that we’ll continue to see changes to this setup, so that things are a little bit more equitable between the front and the back of the house.” Freya and the neighboring Dragonfly cocktail bar are trying to get there. There is an auto gratuity of 22 percent. Anything above that goes to the kitchen staff, who don’t normally receive tips, adding several dollars an hour to their paychecks. “It’s not equitable, because the servers are still [making more] relatively speaking, but it closes the gap a little bit.”
Freya, 2929 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit; 313-351-5544; freyadetroit.com
High-end New American cuisine, but make it Michigan: That’s the food of Madam at the luxurious Daxton Hotel in Birmingham.
Rece Hogerheide drives that vision. Before taking over as executive chef earlier this year, Hogerheide honed his craft working at farm-to-table restaurants like the now-shuttered Gather in Eastern Market. He also founded Felony Provisions with the late Jason Osburn, where the two specialized in fermentation, butchery, cheesemaking, and charcuterie.
Now Hogerheide is bringing that handcrafted, locally focused ethos to a larger stage through the globally inspired fare offered to not only Madam, but the hotel as a whole.
The Daxton Hotel works with 30 different independent farms ranging from urban farms to larger commercial farms that grow organic produce or raise heritage animals, Hogerheide says. With Daxton’s dining room that seats 90 people, as well as 151 hotel rooms, a banquet space, and private dining rooms, Hogerheide has a lot of plates to prepare and food to buy. Being able to spread sourcing among several farms allows him not just to flex buying power but to support more local farmers.
“I drove two and a half hours out to the farm to pick up more chickens to make sure that we had the quality that we can stand behind,” he says. “I stand behind the quality food that we always serve and the people behind it, and that’s a lot harder when you get into larger-scale [operations], which is why we work with so many different farms to ensure that there’s no gap and we always have the best possible quality products.”
Those products form the basis of the creative and flavor-forward dishes on Madam’s menu, such as the popular hand-rolled mushroom soup dumplings and the forbidden rice, two of the most popular appetizers since the restaurant opened last spring.
The dumplings, which are a take on traditional Chinese soup dumplings, epitomize the craft and philosophy of the Daxton Hotel food offerings: It’s not just about supporting local farmers but making sure nothing goes to waste. After locally sourced mushrooms are cut and prepped, the leftover pieces are used to create a stock for
“I want to be extremely aggressive with this property to ensure that we are doing our utmost diligence to reduce the waste that we’re outputting not just from a business perspective but [from] a global citizen perspective, and as a part of the economy and the ecology of the area around me,” Hogerheide says.
Madam, 298 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-283-4200; madamrestaurant.com
Metropolitan Bar and Kitchen
Located in the former home of Craft Work and the Harlequin Café, Metropolitan Bar and Kitchen, with a menu that’s heavily skewed toward Latino flavors highlighting local ingredients, fills the role these beloved neighborhood gathering places played in West Village.
The menu changes often because of the restaurant’s relationships with growers and foragers, but some dishes not to be missed if on the menu include the Maduros Tostadas with plantain, Peruvian green chili, and Oaxaca cheese; the Detroit Double Cheeseburger with West Village neighbor Marrow’s pasture-raised beef, house pickles, zip aioli, and brick cheese; and the chili butter cabbage (yes, we said cabbage — just get it and thank us later).
The space is also home to Metropolitan Variety Store, which offers a curated selection of beer and wine as well as locally made snacks and to-go meals from the restaurant and local businesses like Yellow Light Coffee and Donuts.
In starting the store, co-founder and store curator Ashley Price says he engaged neighbors on Nextdoor and Facebook to find out what residents wanted to see in the community. He found there was a need or desire for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free items as well as a walkable spot to stock up on staples.
“Our mission is to bring the marriage of specialty food and drink to the public from both sides of our space,” Price says.
When you walk into Metropolitan, in between the restaurant and store is a slim bar area that plays host to pop-ups, providing a platform for up-and-coming as well as more established chefs and mixologists to show off their skills.
The neighborhood has long been a dining destination in Detroit, and Metropolitan has earned its place as a gathering spot, quickly carving out its niche as a one-stop shop for food lovers in the city.
(At press time Hour learned that Chef Brendon Edwards had moved on.)
Metropolitan Bar and Kitchen, 8047 Agnes St., Detroit; 313-447-5418; metropolitanvariety.com
Inspired by the comforts of a Japanese grandmother’s home cooking and driven by a mission to use only sustainable seafood, Sozai brings a unique Japanese dining experience to metro Detroit. While there are more familiar items on the menu, like the Pure Michigan roll with Great Lakes walleye, tempura onion, and cucumber; chicken karaage; and shrimp tempura, the menu is secondary to the real draw of the restaurant, which is the omakase. The term literally translates to “I leave it up to you,” and once you take a seat at one of the seats at the handcrafted sushi bar, you leave it up to the capable hands of owner/chef Hajime Sato and his sushi chefs to create a meal tailored to you.
Sato, who ran and operated sustainable sushi restaurant Mashiko in Seattle for 25 years before moving to Michigan a couple of years ago, is trying to raise awareness of the omakase concept, which isn’t as common in Michigan as it is in New York or Los Angeles.
The omakase options range from the hama, a seven-course chef’s choice dinner that includes a wanmono (typically a soup), two kobachi (side dishes), an assortment of nigiri, a makimono (a roll), a creation from the kitchen (usually a heartier dish like an entree), and dessert, to the kappo, a four-hour culinary journey of traditional and unique Japanese dishes. The kappo is an experience like no other in metro Detroit. You call to make a reservation, at least three weeks and sometimes months in advance, like we did, and Sato will quiz you to make sure your tastes align with the menu. Luckily we passed and on a recent evening enjoyed 20 courses ranging from sea snails to abalone stomach, paired with unique and rare sakes imported from Japan.
While the different omakase options have a general blueprint, the menu is tailored to the diner. “Every omakase is different,” Sato says. “We even change it in the middle of [the dinner] sometimes.”
Besides providing a dining experience that goes beyond the typical sushi bar, Sato is dedicated to serving sustainable seafood, keeping in mind traceability, fish populations, fishing methods, and farming practices.
“If one company dominates the entire supply chain, one false move, then the entire thing collapses. So how can we diversify that? How can we support more local fishermen in Florida, local fishermen in Boston? … That’s what I’m trying to establish so that [the supply chain is] more versatile. Go get the from the local guys instead of the big guys. Just small things like that make a huge difference.”
Sozai, 449 W. 14 Mile Road, Clawson; 248-677-3232; sozairestaurant.com
In 2019, Brendan McCall and David Landrum (Supergeil’s executive chef/partner and owner, respectively) were in Berlin at a trade show called Bar Convent. While in Germany, they feasted on many döner kebabs — a Turkish-style sandwich featuring meat or vegetables with garlic sauce on pide bread — and thought the flavors would work well in Detroit.
The Kreuzberg district of Berlin boasts a vibrant art culture, beer gardens, and nightlife — much like Detroit, says Supergeil bar manager Ryan Sparks, and in addition to döner kebabs, they wanted to bring that vibe and experience to the Motor City.
The menu at Supergeil (which means “super cool” in German) is built on the sandwich that started it all: the döner kebab, with three variations — lamb and beef, chicken, and eggplant. But the culinary influences go beyond Germany, borrowing from Mediterranean coastal towns. “The food program is influenced by the Balkan region with Georgian and Spanish [influences],” Sparks says. “The menu changes based on what is in season. [McCall] is also a farmer and is very passionate about using the freshest ingredients possible.” On the lighter side, the tins offer a little feast featuring some type of canned seafood served with pickles, potato chips, and rye toast. The heartier fare includes Steak Frites Iskender with blistered tomatoes, chili butter, and peppers and Sevillano Fish and Chips with cumin, sumac, and lemon pickle aioli.
Landrum also opened Two James Spirits across the street, so Supergeil’s beverage menu features only the Corktown distillery’s spirits. “Being part of a distillery, we can only use the products that we either make or import. That limits us but breeds creativity with the bar program,” Sparks says. “We use a lot of cooking techniques to make liqueurs and syrups to create the flavors we are looking for in our cocktails.” They make their own liqueurs and tinctures in-house, as well as house light and dark beers.
It all adds up to a super cool experience.
Supergeil, 2442 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-462-4133; supergeildetroit.com
Through their construction company, Ryan Construction, Tim and Nicole Ryan built restaurants for others. But Nicole, who grew up in an Italian American family where food played an important role in her upbringing, had a dream to build her own. Once the kids were off to college, the couple decided it was time to make that dream a reality in the form of the locally focused and globally inspired restaurant Sylvan Table.
With 5 acres in Sylvan Lake, Nicole wanted to make something unique. After doing some research, she was inspired by barns turned into wedding venues, so she found a partner to source a 300-year-old barn from Maine and bring it to Michigan in late 2019. That barn forms the basis of the main dining area, which is grand and vast but still welcoming. After restoring the historic structure, the Ryans and their team added a solarium and built a massive, open scratch kitchen with an 8-foot wood-fired grill and a wood-fired pizza oven.
With that kind of ambience, chef Chris Gadulka says, “That’s where my challenge begins. Now I have to make sure that the food matches or exceeds the ambiance, which is no small feat.” The New American menu is heavily driven by seasonal produce. The on-site farm features everything from grapes and berries to wild chives and hops. But, “with the business that we do, we will never be able to 100 percent source just from us. At our busiest last year, if I were to take our busiest and do it for two weeks, and only source from our farm, our farm would be barren at the end of those two weeks,” Gadulka says. The rest they source from other local farmers, all of them within about 250 miles or less.
“We realize we can’t get everything locally,” Ryan says. “But as far as fruits and vegetables go, we definitely can. There’s so much to choose from here locally. Why go elsewhere? Like, you’ll never find an avocado on our menu.” That’s because they’ll be using calabacitas, which make a mean avocado toast, Michigan-style.
Sylvan Table, 1819 Inverness St., Sylvan Lake; 248-369-3360; sylvantable.com
Since she was a young girl having her neighbor’s daughters over for afternoon tea, Warda Bouguettaya envisioned having her own food business someday. Now the founder and owner of Warda Patisserie is the 2022 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Technically, Warda Patisserie is not new. It operated as a bakery in a shared space in Eastern Market’s Trinosophes for a couple of years and before that was mainly an online-based business posting tantalizing tarts and other stunning pastries on Instagram while delivering to local businesses. What is new is that Warda Patisserie opened its own dedicated space in Midtown last year.
Inspired by owner and founder Bouguettaya’s experiences in Algeria, France, and Asia, the innovative and sophisticated pastries span from financiers in unexpected flavor combinations like mango black sesame and matcha strawberry to halvah (a Middle Eastern sesame seed candy) chocolate chunk cookies.
Supporting local farmers and sharing their stories is also paramount for Warda Patisserie, which incorporates Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables in quiches, tortas, and tarts. In opening the Midtown location, Bouguettaya posted on Instagram: “It doesn’t feel like a second location to us. It feels like our first, own space, where [my husband] Mohamed and I invested so much of our sweat, money, and time building a space and a menu that reflects us, our past and present, and our vision for the kind of atmosphere and hospitality we want to offer our customers.”
Warda Patisserie, 70 W. Alexandrine St., Detroit; 313-262-6977; facebook.com/warda.patisserie
Plus, Casual Dining Standouts
Que Pasa Taqueria
Birria, a dish from Jalisco in Mexico, is nothing new. But the traditional savory stew typically consisting of oven-roasted goat in adobo has exploded in popularity in recent years, thanks to countless Instagram and TikTok feeds full of videos featuring tacos being dipped in cups of steaming broth. Que Pasa Taqueria kicks the fusion up a notch with the Birria Pizzadilla, a large pizza-sized quesadilla cut up into slices, the perfect size for dipping into a cup of consomme. Que Pasa Taqueria, 33874 Dequindre Road, Sterling Heights; 586-693-5045; taqueriaquepasa.com
Satellite food truck
Founded by a group of longtime restaurant workers, including chef Brennan Calnin, who used to work at Townhouse Detroit, the food truck — serving menu items such as a Piri Piri chicken sandwich, Seitan cheese-steak, and Party Potatoes — has built a fast following since posting up at local breweries and festivals last year. The Satellite team posted recently on Instagram: “We’ve dedicated ourselves to two things: creating a better working environment for ourselves and anyone we have the means to bring with us, and exploring flavors and foods we love to eat and share. We try to break down any and all boundaries and destructive work habits that were hammered into us during our careers,” the Satellite team posted recently on Instagram. Satellite, Ferndale; satellitehospitality.com
Super Crisp, the second business from chef Mike Ransom, who founded the popular growing local noodle empire Ima, has entered the fried chicken wars (yes, that’s actually a thing) with its inspired take on the sandwich. Upon opening Super Crisp earlier this year, Ransom posted on Instagram that he and Ima director of operations Rob Stone had “dreamt of a super fun and craveable sandwich shop inspired by [Ima’s] flavors.” The twice-fried chicken has that satisfying crunch and is punctuated with flavors of yuzu and ginger, complemented by Kewpie slaw, pickles, and lemon mayo. Super Crisp, 4830 Cass Ave. Ste. C, Detroit; 313-474-8880; supercrisp.com