While the growing number of restaurants surrounding the Campus Martius district of downtown Detroit have largely dominated the narrative over the past several months this year, what we're most excited about is a few blocks away in the Harmonie Park section of town.
We're talking about the Vertical Detroit restaurant and wine bar, perhaps the most innovative new establishment to hit the scene. Gone is the gutted, industrial storefront feel that many of the downtown gastropubs have favored as of late. Instead the space, situated on the garden level of the Ashley apartment building, pays meticulous attention to design and showmanship.
That has a lot to do with the people behind Vertical. The owners — father-daughter team Jim and Remy Lutfy — have a long history in the wine business. Jim Lutfy got his start in the 1980s, selling wine in the family's Cloverleaf Market. He went on to open Fine Wine Source in Livonia, while Remy studied winemaking at the University of California, Davis, and Napa Valley. The duo spent the past 18 months obsessing over everything, from transforming what would ordinarily be a drafty, cold, below-street-level space into a warm, inviting dining room and bar, as well as conducting a nationwide search for knowledgeable sommeliers.
Architectural firm Rossetti Associates was brought on to design the space, making use of rich colors and textures to highlight the building's historical charm, while giving the space a sleek, modern finish. Unlike other apartment or hotel lobby restaurants around, this place is uniquely independent. The 75-seat restaurant is broken up into two parts, a spread-out dining room with tables made out of reclaimed wood and a cozy bar in the back. The spot's happy hours are already a favorite for downtown dwellers, DJ sessions every Thursday add to the spot's lively spirit, and a built-in wine shop offers a collection of some 325 to 350 bottles from around the world.
Servers are seasoned veterans in the wine business and know how to approach the indecisive customer who may not be well versed in what to order. They're eager to field questions about which reds or whites pair well with the dishes. The biggest draw on the wine menu are the vertical flights, in which guests are given three small pours of three different vintages of the same wine from the same vineyard, giving them a taste of its evolution. We tried the 2010, 2011, and 2012 vintages of the Cabernet Sauvignon by Alpha Omega in the Napa Valley, priced at $55, on the higher end of the vertical menu. Consistently dark and layered, each had notes of smokiness from tobacco, with hints of sweet found in plum and black cherry. Of the three, the 2011 vintage seemed the most balanced — not too dry, not too sweet, with a lingering, generous finish. Guests can also choose from more than 40 by-the-glass wines, many of which come from Italy and California.
Now on to the food. The menu leads diners on an epicurean journey, with choices for any appetite and price level. For starters, we sampled the grapes that, covered in Brie, red wine gastrique, and pistachio tuille, were the perfect sweet accompaniment to another glass of red we tried, a 2013 Etude "Lyric" Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara. We found an earthy, umami balance in the form of the asparagus, with a rich, smooth porcini cream, topped off with mushrooms.
Small-plate selections are meatier and designed for sharing. Large squares of butternut squash, topped with tiny greens, candied walnut, and Parmesan sage "cavier," are elevated with brown butter that helps lock in a rich flavor. The tuna crudo made with a gribiche sauce with avocado has a ceviche kick to it, and is served with toasted bread slices. Though this dish aspires to be complex in its preparation, it fell flat with our dinner guests. The charcuterie and cheese board, which like the dinner tables comes from reclaimed wood, on the other hand, was the winner here, with a heavenly spread of triple cream Brie, thin, salty slices of jamon serrano, spicy chorizo sourced locally from Corridor Sausage Co., a very sharp cheddar, figs, grapes, honeycomb, candied walnuts, and roasted pepper. Each ingredient complements the other, and if what you're seeking is an ideal companion for your wine, this is highly recommended.
Next come some decisions. You can go with a heartier choice of composed small plates that consist of choices like a rack of lamb, the Vertical Grind burger, or the Amish farm chicken. Or you can steer for one of Vertical's daily specials. We couldn't resist the charm of general manager Todd Allen, who suggested two specials, both of which included impressive cuts of filet mignon. One came accompanied with scallops (which can also be found alone, on the sharable section of the menu), the other was topped with foie gras. The beef comes daily from Eastern Market and the freshness is abundantly apparent. The center is perfectly red and juicy, while the outside has an almost crispy, sweet texture. The scallops are a seared treat, and a side of savory diced potatoes and a quail egg atop the filet round out the dish. The foie gras, also available as a small plate, sits on top of the other filet special, making for an overload of senses.
Chef Alex Knezevic prepares many of the entrees sous-vide, a method of cooking in which food is sealed in an airtight bag and placed in a temperature-controlled bath of water for an extended period of time before being seared. This French style of cooking ensures the inside is properly cooked, while retaining moisture.
If all this isn't enough, the dessert menu also has a wine-centric twist, with a variety to choose from, to add to a selection of sweets. While that triple cream Brie with a bit of honeycomb could easily stand alone as an ideal dessert, we also opted for a poached pear. The accompanying curried mascapone could have used a touch of lightening up, but no worries, we're already fully intoxicated by this unique addition to downtown.
Now see: 21 photos inside Vertical Detroit restaurant and wine bar