Two small plates smash-hits in a row; you'd think Detroiters had been suffering an agony of frustrated demand for the small but shareable. But more likely the reason behind the crowds at chef Andy Hollyday's Selden Standard near Midtown, and downtown at Wright & Co. a few months before, is simply the excellence of the food and drink.
As eager as anyone, I visited in November, when Selden Standard was just a week old, and had some complaints about food and service, most particularly an agonizing 35-minute wait between "courses." But a week later, the staff was in its stride, and every dish had me over the moon.
The small plates rubric has its advantages for the chef: You don't have to think about which side dishes to plate with the entrées; the customers mix and match for themselves. You don't have to fret about getting a whole table's choices done at the same time; the announced policy is that dishes will emerge as they're ready, even if that puts a meaty selection first and a dish of veggies last.
This is not a complaint — a little randomness never hurt anyone, especially if all the elements are five-star.
Besides, Hollyday is not all about what's easy on management. The place actually takes reservations. This practice, which can drive managers crazy with the no-shows but is a boon to those not wanting to stand at the bar for two hours, is vanishingly rare among new restaurants. Co-owner Evan Hansen (a former food writer here at MT) says reservations are "part of being hospitable. People want to be able to plan their day."
Plus the servers are bringing out bread on request! Yes, house-made bread with gluten in it! Which you can spread with butter to take the edge off while you await your first dish — remember that tradition?
These two breaks with recent restaurant practice are highly welcome. Otherwise, Hollyday is very much on the bandwagon of know-your-local-purveyor, including the urban agriculturists at Keep Growing Detroit. He also offers a long community table that seats 14, with patrons chosen randomly to rub elbows with strangers. The chairs are as close together as at a family Thanksgiving, but no one seems to mind; you can get tips from fellow diners on what to order, and you're not expected to share with anyone you didn't ride in with.
But it's the food that makes the place. I recommend the beef tartare, octopus, duck sausage, Brussels sprouts, roasted beets, and pumpkin tart. I also tried roasted carrots and roasted cauliflower and felt the flavors just didn't pop — but that was on my earlier visit, when the kitchen was new. An order of quail was tasty but mighty tiny, just two little birds. I almost sent back a glass of Canet-Valette (the cheapest red on the menu at $9), thinking perhaps the bottle had turned; it improved dramatically once the food finally arrived, but shouldn't a wine also taste good by itself?
The tartare was a tad salty, in a good way, like blood is salty. It's served with a bright yellow yolk of quail's egg and a biting pile of herbs for a salad; the sauce is one you'll want to use that bread for.
The octopi are beautifully charred and served with crunchy fennel, orange slices, red onion, and olives. It's a perfect combination. The duck sausage is warmly, not hotly, spicy and served with slices of tangy-sweet persimmon. (Persimmon is actually on the menu twice, a record for that fruit?) Brussels sprouts perform their usual magic but are greatly aided by not one but three umami-nous helpers: bacon, Stilton, and walnuts. Take that anyone who thought vegetables were a) boring or b) healthy.
A big dish of roasted beets is also served with a trio of supporters: candied walnuts, ricotta, and pomegranate seeds — sweet, creamy, and tart. Fantastic.
The pumpkin tart has a deeper flavor than any pie you've likely experienced lately, and of course it comes atop (not under) real whipped cream.
Next on my list to try: squid ink chitarra (pasta), celery root agnolotti (like ravioli), grilled scallions, sweet potato ravioli, flatbread with roasted squash and mushrooms, maybe a caramel apple sundae.
The Selden website says of its drinks menu that many of the offerings are "fairly uncommon," and indeed few of the beers are old friends. Our waiter said the staff had received some early complaints "that our drinks were too spirits-forward" — meaning, I suppose, that you could taste the liquors. The current online list, though, seems to offer plenty of mixings for the faint of heart. A "Jessi Sunset," for example, was reminiscent of a tequila sunrise.
I looked up my failed wine later and found that it came from a new and minuscule French vintner, so definitely a "small producer with a hands-on approach," as advertised. Next time I might quiz the servers on which wines come from the most established winemakers.
A big chunk of the Selden Standard staff followed Hollyday over from his former position at the celebrated Roast. That sort of loyalty to a boss says something, and judging by the results, everything it says is good.