Food & Drink

Review: Hazel Park's Joebar left us feeling salty

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Joebar is the latest addition to a small group of businesses and restaurants that chose working class — and increasingly hip — Hazel Park to set up shop. If you hold even a marginal interest in Detroit's food scene, then you probably heard or read about its buzzy March opening.

And in that buzz you also heard a lot about Joebar's neighbor, Mabel Gray. Setting up shop next to a lauded restaurant run by James Rigato — arguably metro Detroit's best chef — is a savvy move by Joebar owner Joe Vaughn, and that alone is worth a mention in an article. But what didn't feel right was the degree to which Joebar linked itself to Rigato and Mabel Gray.

After the March 13 announcement of its upcoming debut, several of the Detroit media's food pages worked Mabel Gray into the subsequent stories' headlines. (We're guilty as charged — more on that in a moment.) In an interview with another outlet, Vaughn stated that Joebar is "the brother" restaurant of Mabel Gray, connoting relation. Beyond that, Mabel Gray landed in all the stories' ledes with statements like Joebar is "a collaboration" with Mabel Gray. And so on.

With those kinds of suggestions, how could anyone not come away believing that there was a meaningful Joebar-Mabel Gray affiliation? In fact, after reading the initial stories, I called Rigato for comment on his new project. He explained that he didn't own or have a stake in Joebar. It was a brief clarification and he didn't seem upset, so I didn't think much of it.

That led to a short story in the MT food section with a headline that read "Joebar to open Wednesday next to Mabel Gray in downtown Hazel Park." It wasn't until a few days later that my mistake became clear. Those I spoke with about Joebar talked about the new Rigato project — even some local restaurant industry folks were misinformed — and that continues to this day.

Of course, the situation benefits Vaughn far more than Rigato. Rigato is a thoroughbred, skilled chef. Vaughn, a photographer-turned-restaurateur, obviously understands food, but is trading in elevated bar fare. His stature is increased if he's linked to Rigato in the press.

What's the defense? Well, there's a community narrative in every comeback town like Hazel Park, especially among those who are hip and early to the game. But this smells different. And, yes, a former Mabel Gray line cook manages the kitchen, but chefs switch kitchens all the time.

Of course, a few good meals can make everything right. Joebar's elevated bar food — dip sandwiches and communal drinking, specifically — looks interesting on paper, even if this is a genre that's feeling redundant now that it's 2017 and there are seven similar concepts in Ferndale alone.

But several of the ideas failed in practice. The Good Morning Vietnam is sort of a take on the bahn mi with barbecue pork loin served in a hoagie roll along with a fried duck egg, pickled vegetables, basil, cilantro, jalapeño, bean sprouts, and pork fat mayo. It arrives next to a dipping bowl of pho, though the pork's high salt content doesn't encourage dipping, and it marred otherwise perfectly flavorful pig.

I encountered a similar problem with the JoeDip, the bar's take on a French dip, which runs $14. It arrives with its pile of thin-sliced prime rib crusted with sea salt kernels, but the salt overwhelms and dipping in salty au jus seems like a bad idea. Beyond that, the beef was well done, while dips should hold a mess of thin-sliced rare meat.

The brightest spot was the Dad Jokes — a fancy grilled cheese with cheddar, Cahill's Irish porter cheddar, provolone, Reny Picot Gouda, herbed butter, house pickles, and a horseradish beer mustard on a brioche. Another vegetarian option, the BBQ Pulled Jackfruit, didn't work as well, though that might be because jackfruit is in general an overrated food.

All three snacks our group tried — the potato wedges, sweet potato fries, and fried pickles — suffered from way too much salt, and were overdone, while the pickles arrived encased in too much batter.

But there's more to Joebar than the food, and the cocktails are where it excels. The stiff lemongrass Old Fashioned is a solid drink, for example, and the interior's dark mid-century vibe with exposed materials makes Joebar a good place to enjoy drinks. So maybe that's the approach — drink a lot and the bar food's salt becomes a good thing. That's a winning formula for a lot of establishments, but the relation to Mabel Gray remains a stretch. 


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