The challenge for any restaurant, particularly a popular one, is to keep things fresh. If you've got a good thing going, it's easy to grow stagnant, to go into autopilot, or grow bored. Who suffers? The customer who's served the uninspired entree, the back-of-the-house crew experiencing restlessness, and ultimately the restaurateur who's invested in the business.
That's why a good shakeup is sometimes in order: new eyes to refine the menu and address any shortcomings. Earlier this spring, that's what occurred at Craft Work. Co-owner and chef Matt Dalton departed with business partner Hubert Yaro just over two years after the duo opened the West Village spot. After his exit, much of the kitchen staff was either shuffled into new positions or removed. In his place is chef Aaron Solley, who comes to us from dining haven Portland, Ore.
Solley had a shakeup of his own when he separated from the co-owner (both his business partner and girlfriend) of James John Café, a breakfast and lunch eatery in Portland's St. Johns neighborhood. He previously lived in Detroit in the aughts (when he worked at Opus One, Tribute, and Papa Joe's), so returning in April to gain his bearings made sense. Plus, he knew Dalton and was initially interested in helping out at Craft Work. That supporting capacity became a leading role unexpectedly, and he and the reworked crew have been updating the menu ever since.
What he walked into is a handsomely designed, 110-seat interior with deep woods and lots of natural light, giving it an inviting ambiance, and paired with a popular happy hour, Sunday brunch, and solid drink menu. Diners also flock to the place for familiar comfort foods with a twist like the fried chicken. What was lacking was the freshness that Detroiters are increasingly starting to expect from newer restaurants.
With his background in green Portland, Solley has begun to change that, starting with the sourcing of ingredients. Produce comes from urban farms like Fisheye, around the corner from the restaurant, while meats come from an exclusive deal the restaurant has with the Food Shed Exchange, a local meat and fish supplier. Solley has also been starting to explore composting and recycling options, which are plentiful in the West Coast city, but not so much yet here.
As for the menu, only that fried chicken and a tempura chicken salad remain from the previous offerings, though the dredge mix is now made in-house instead of with a pre-made mix. Bacon used in the entree's braised greens is also prepared in the kitchen, as opposed to buying it elsewhere, as are the cured and smoked meats that can be found on the meat and cheese plate.
Solley and team also pull from the area's robust Middle Eastern culinary traditions, with dishes like the Labneh Harissa creamy cheese that spreads nicely on Holbrook Market bread; the Bangs Island mussels, which come in a spicy red coconut curry sauce; and the veggie-friendly roasted beets and carrots with tahini, lentils, walnut tabbouleh, and lemon.
The menu still features a couple of meat dishes, but now you know where the protein comes from. There's the popular Beeler Farms pork shoulder with Asian slaw, soy, mirin, yuzu, and Sriracha sauce, and a Creekstone Farms New York strip (rubbed in sea salt and cracked pepper and served a la carte). Seafood is also again offered, but instead of having dishes like grilled trout from Wisconsin on the menu daily, the current fresh catch calls for finding whatever's best at the moment. On a recent visit, we ordered a 6-ounce, seared Alaskan wild salmon, served with morels. At $35 a plate, it was by far the most expensive meal, but we delighted in the lightly crisp exterior of the salmon and umami-rich seasonal mushrooms.
Two new burgers have also been added, the Le Big Mack Ave — made in an upscale Golden Arches vein, with two Angus patties, shredded lettuce, house pickles, onion, special sauce, and fries — and the Wagyu burger ($15), made with dry aged Wagyu and bacon patty, mayo, house pickles, and fries. The Le Big Mack Ave (get it, Pulp Fiction fans?) is offered on both the regular dinner menu at $9, as well as the happy hour offerings (adding to what our readers say is the best place for food during happy hour) for $6.
The taco del dia, or taco of the day, and meat and veggie skewers have both been added to Craft Work's happy hour fare in recent months, with nothing priced at more than $6.
Dessert has also been changed up, with an appealing strawberry rhubarb kuchen dreamed up by sous chef Stephen Schmidt, who's been helping along the way throughout the transition (coffee cake, roasted rhubarb, fresh strawberries, whipped cream, and sugar crunch). We also dug into a Solley creation, the peanut butter pie made with peanut butter mousse, ganache, and a chocolate graham crust. It had us thinking of either a giant Reese's or a Butterfinger.
In the world of restaurants, we know it can get tumultuous. In our growing scene in Detroit, we've seen a number of lauded eateries experience dramatic shakeups that are often hard to recover from. The trick is learning to roll with it, drawing from the good, and learning from the difficulties. Craft Work seems to have pulled off a smooth transition thus far, and we look forward to what's to come.