For a city founded by a French merchant, named after the French word for “detroit,” and dubbed the Paris of the Midwest, there aren’t many French restaurants in Detroit — or the area, for that matter. Of course, there’s Cuisine, Paul Grosz’s restaurant in the New Center, its longevity just as impressive as the neat and impeccable contemporary Franco-American menu. But for the most part, there is a void in French cuisine. It’s not for lack of trying: in 2018, James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Young opened The Standard Bistro & Larder in Ann Arbor, and a few years earlier, David Gilbert launched Marais in Grosse Pointe. The Standard was Young’s longtime dream, while the Marais was Gilbert’s vision to bring a fine dining restaurant on par with Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry or Grant Achatz’s Alinea in metro Detroit. Both are no longer open.
Step into The Statler, a French-American bistro located on the first floor of the City Club Apartments on Park Avenue in downtown Detroit, directly across from Grand Circus Park. The space is where the historic former Statler Hotel, which hosted celebrities like Harry Houdini and Zsa Zsa Gabor, stood before it was torn down in the early 2000s. When it was built there Over a hundred years old, the $3.5 million (over $70 million in today’s) Italian Renaissance Revival style hotel, the most expensive and luxurious hotel in the city at the time. Photos of its storied past can be seen in the restaurant’s hallways, including a framed menu featuring dishes like classic shrimp cocktail, braised short rib, roadhouse-style frog legs, and more.
Today’s Statler offers rustic preparations and deep flavors of French bistro standards like braised short rib (no frog legs, though) in a sophisticated yet welcoming setting reminiscent of an elegant grand café, with dark wood , chic burgundy banquettes and lots of natural light entering through the windows on sunny days. It reminded me of the classic, charming neighborhood bistros where I spent many quiet afternoons while visiting Paris a few years ago. The 165-seat dining space was designed by Patrick Thompson Design, who has created restaurants like The Meeting House in Rochester and the newly renovated Elwood near Comerica Park.
The menu was put together by Executive Chef Daniel Scannell, one of 72 chefs in the United States with the coveted distinction, and James Oppat, the executive chef of Joe Vicari Restaurant Group, of which The Statler is a part. Executive chef Lea Perz, who trained at the famed Culinary Institute of America and previously worked as a pantry and cook at Forest Grill in Birmingham with Brian Polcyn, runs the kitchen.
My table mate and I started a recent meal with steak tartare and country pie. The steak tartare is simple and classic, with capers providing levels of acidity and crunch that jump on the palate like popcorn (it could have used a touch of salt). Crispy egg yolk on top is an exciting twist on the usual raw yolk that garnishes tartare. I would have liked a more substantial vehicle for the tartar than what appeared to be canned water crackers. The getup was similar to that of the country pâté, so why not add the toast?
We tried the pâté de campagne twice: the first time the texture was a little off, almost floury, like it had been overworked and reheated, and the bacon wrapped around it was falling off. My table mate, who made his fair share of pate, was unimpressed and wouldn’t order it again when we returned another evening. Luckily he relented, as it was sumptuous and perfectly executed the second time around (he devoured more than half of it). It comes with cranberries, mustard, pickled red onions, pickles and toast, with all the elements complementing the bold and assertive flavors of the pâté. Other appetizer options include Eggs & Caviar, Scallop Rossini and Moules Marinière (fresh mussels steamed in a spicy red sauce).
As for appetizers, the star was the Escargots Henri Maire: wild snails from Burgundy with garlic butter fondue, parsley, Pernod cheese and profiteroles. The fondue was sublime, smelling of garlic with the luxurious sauce balancing out the perfectly cooked snails. The profiteroles were crispy and airy, an amazing feat considering everything was swimming together in a bowl instead of the usual special dish that separates the snails; the fact that everything has retained its texture and shape is a testament to the craftsmanship of the kitchen.
The starters are generous and plentiful. Braised prime rib is one of the most popular dishes, our servers told us, and in a meat and potato city like Detroit, that’s no surprise. I looked at the tables around us, and most of the time my other diners had also ordered the short rib. It’s cooked over low, slow heat, to the perfect level of fork tenderness, so it cuts easily like butter but doesn’t disintegrate or disappear into the rest of the dish. While the short rib was well seasoned, it was the vegetables that really shone on the plate. Each was ostensibly prepared and cooked separately, and each tasted vibrant on their own – the carrots retained their chewy sweetness while the parsnips stood out with their more nutty character.
We also tried the roast duck, an inspired and modern take on duck à l’orange served simply but elegantly with a Grand Marnier sauce poured at the table over half the roast duck garnished with grilled shallots and kumquat rind. The duck was roasted to tender perfection (I would have liked a bit more crispy skin) and the kumquat added a bright citrus kick to the dish, a surprising twist to the usual orange that can make the duck taste delicious. incredibly sweet orange. The Statler’s version wasn’t too sweet but maybe a bit too subtle – more kumquat flavor in the sauce would have enhanced everything. The steak fries boasted a New York steak bathed in faux bearnaise, but the crispy fries were the better half of the dish.
Wines by the glass include Old and New World selections. We tried a silky smooth French pinot noir which complemented the hearty dish. The list of bottles also includes Old and New World bottles, which range in price from $44 to $550.
Dishes are a satisfying prelude to stunning desserts, presented on a nearly 5-foot-tall wood and gold dessert cart. There are French dishes like creme brulee and chocolate ganache cake, but these are the more interesting and creative options that are worth the calories. The citrus mix was an imaginative take on key lime pie, with creamy clouds bursting with lime flavor atop a rectangle of graham crackers. Chocolate banana cream pie is reinterpreted and beautifully presented as a scoop of chocolate with salted caramel dramatically poured in, melting the chocolate sphere to reveal the creamy interior.
While the vibe is upscale, with servers wearing jackets that say The Statler and wiping up crumbs between courses, the service is welcoming and down to earth. A waiter told us some dad jokes, which I hated and my husband loved, and the catering manager asked me if I wanted ketchup with my steak frites (I declined). You may feel like you’re in Paris when you’re at the Statler, but the warm and friendly service takes you back to Detroit.
The Statler has a large open-air patio with a dedicated side for those just coming in for a cocktail. There’s also a market stocked with groceries, pastries, coffee, wine, and other staples as well as takeout (including the short rib), for downtown dwellers.
Bistros are deeply woven into the fabric of Parisian food culture, and from takeout to happy hour and nightlife, The Statler argued it can be that place for those who live downtown. But more than that, it looks like Detroit finally has another destination for Detroit Metro diners looking for French cuisine.
The Statler, 313 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-463-7111; Dinner, Monday-Sunday; Brunch, Sun.; statelerdetroit.com
This story is from the July 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Learn more about our digital edition.