by Todd Abrams
How does a small restaurant in Grosse Pointe come to serve everything from Middle Eastern to lake perch? Ask chef Brandon Kahlich, who grew up in the neighborhood. He has worked at the Banyan Tree Resort in Phuket, Thailand, and spent some time as a private chef and studied at Detroit fine dining establishments — namely, the Whitney and the late Van Dyke Place. This varied résumé helps account for the global influence and Eastern-style simplicity of Bambu's fare.
Founded on the principles of elegance, creativity and freshness, Bambu has been serving for just about a year now. Lunchtime sees the largest crowds, drawn by creative panini varieties. For $9, order a Cubano panino filled with such pleasures as shaved prosciutto, honey turkey and avocado. The French Connection is packed with Black Forest ham and baby brie. Vegetarians will love the $7 Caprese panino, with its layers of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and pesto, or the Beyond Vegetarian panino, with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, artichokes and spinach. More panini come stuffed with chicken or turkey. There's even a Reuben panino. All of them are grill-pressed with precision.
Other handhelds come wrapped in wheat lavash and embrace veggies, turkey with Baja trimmings, or grilled Thai chicken. Salads ($6-$13) are just as diverse as the panini, ranging from the standard house and Caesar varieties to the more exotic Asian salmon and Mediterranean chicken. California's Sonoma region is represented by organic greens, cucumbers and sun-dried tomatoes topped with cashews and crumbled goat cheese. And if all else fails there is an Angus steak burger cooked to order.
Chef Kahlich's knowledge of Asian cuisine is most distinct on the appetizer menu in the form of brilliantly executed Vietnamese summer rolls. Chicken, greens and crisp carrots are bound by chewy rice paper and plated with a mild and delicious chile sauce — a flawless first course. Tender, steamed dumplings in a sweet chile sauce brightened by a touch of minced tomato make another pleasant beginning. Kahlich plans a satay starter soon. You can also try a serving of jumbo lump crab cakes, the meze plate, or soup of the day.
The emphasis on simplicity reaches into the dining room where approximately a dozen cloth-adorned tables are surrounded by cool green walls. Small mirrors and a bamboo plant or two finish the minimal decor. Large double doors open to city sidewalk, then Kercheval Avenue. It is elegant and comfortable dining.
Dinner entrées ($15-$22) are adjusted daily. There are three or four on a chalkboard at the entrance of the restaurant, generally covering the typical offerings of meat, fish and pasta. One Thursday night saw our table supporting a plate of crisped organic spinach and Asiago ravioli in a tomato-basil pomodoro salsa, pesto and fresh herbs, lively with its combination of textures and flavors. A strip steak of Australian Wagyu (Kobe) beef was cooked spot-on medium-rare and garnished with thin, tender asparagus, grilled white prawns and mashed Yukon potatoes.
Both entrées were fashioned ultra-rich through generous portions of nutty buerre noisette, otherwise known as brown butter. It's not uncommon for Bambu's daily features to share certain facets like this. And while the brown butter may have come across a bit too rich for the tender palate, there is no denying its indulgent appeal. Ask the city's police chief. He requests it every time he lunches there.
The side salad that comes before dinner often embodies a restaurant's attitude. Crisp, fresh greens drizzled with magnificently balanced house balsamic-Dijon vinaigrette are a good indication that Bambu is serious about its food. No iceberg here.
Desserts vary on a daily basis. Selections include treats like tiramisu and flourless chocolate cake, though you might find one of Kahlich's signature cupcakes appealing. The batter is handmade. The frosting is fluffy butter cream that's formed into all kinds of seasonal three-dimensional creations from spring flowers to holiday ornaments. They look almost too handsome to eat. But they are popular; Bambu sells around 700 a week.
Things are changing. Chef Kahlich plans to add standard entrées to the menu soon, including lighter, spa-influenced fare. Right now, drinks are of the soft variety only: soda, assorted hot teas and gourmet coffee. Bambu hopes to be serving alcoholic beverages — which have the tendency to make the overall experience better —within the next few months. These are good changes, and considering the level already achieved here, Bambu ought to be around for a while.
Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. No smoking.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.