If ever a season cried out for a hit of sun, warmth and optimism, this is it. Charles Sorel, raised in France but with the Caribbean personality of his native Martinique, is providing some at his month-old breakfast-and-lunch spot in Corktown, even as other restaurateurs are tumbling about him.
Asked the source of his confidence, Sorel says that, when he arrived in Detroit a year ago, he found many restaurants in the metro area overpriced. After researching the cost of raw materials at Eastern Market, he settled on "a menu where I get my share and the customer gets his share."
His small space — filled for lunch even during the brief blizzard of Feb. 21 — has bright yellow walls and bright yellow napkins. It's accented in green and turquoise and is adorned with paintings in primary and other cheerful colors. Outdoors, a patio with raised beds for perennials hints of pleasures to come, and Sorel has the beginnings of a greenhouse in which to raise tomatoes and herbs. Next door, the crusading Michigan Citizen newspaper afflicts the comfortable; Sorel is the founders' son-in-law.
Although the place won't serve beer and wine till at least summertime, Sorel, again optimistically, named it "Le Petit Zinc," French slang for a local bar. "Zinc" refers to the shiny zinc-topped bar itself, where at this point patrons sit for crêpes, salads, sandwiches, cheese, ratatouille and coffee. The menu presents all the items in French with translations.
Sorel opened in early February by taking on most chores himself, from cooking to cleaning to shopping. A terrific response thus far has enabled him to hire waitstaff and chef Molly Motor of the late Zaccaro's. The plan is to upgrade the offerings by doing more in-house — baking bread, making chocolate from cacao, finding fancier coffees. (The current option is a French roast from Indonesia that Sorel describes as "earthy, with a chocolate finish.")
I can't say enough about that ratatouille, which I sampled inside a big, thin but not fragile crêpe, folded square. The vegetables seemed both to taste fresh and to profit from the flavor-concentration that stewing imparts. Chicken may be added, which is surely unnecessary. You can also get the stew as a side dish or on a baguette.
Equally fine is a goat cheese-spinach-pine nuts crêpe, very mellow — pine nuts will smooth out anything. The chevre is marinated in olive oil and rosemary. And also wonderful is the crêpe with smoked salmon, spinach and hard-boiled eggs, all ingredients generous, an inspired combination. Ham and Swiss (or Brie), French sausage (somewhat salami-like), mushrooms, and feta with mushrooms are other crêpe choices.
The same elements are repeated in the salads, many of which include slices of fingerling potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. It's an inexpensive way to bulk up a pile of greens without adding meat. I loved greens topped by whole walnuts, potatoes, tomatoes (redder and tastier than most) and a healthy dab of goat cheese on a slice of warm toasted baguette. Another salad piles roast chicken, potatoes, tomatoes and string beans on the greens, with a lovely, light vinaigrette. These salads are not overdressed! A traditional salade Nicoise puts tuna together with string beans and anchovies, and a salade du Nord pairs smoked salmon and cucumber.
Sandwiches are served on baguettes from Avalon, with a side salad. The saucisson cornichons might remind you just for a second of a Cuban sandwich, with the bright pickle flavor, but the sausage is so much more interesting, and the bread is toasted crisp, not flattened. Other options are plates of cheeses or charcuterie.
One of Le Petit Zinc's engaging traits is the way it serves beverages. Tap water is brought in a wine bottle; pour your own. Three-dollar lattes and hot chocolate are served in huge yellow or green bowls, no handles.
For dessert, there's an array of simple crêpes, including the obligatory Nutella but also butter-sugar, lemon-sugar and chocolate-banana.
The enthusiastic response to Le Petit Zinc makes me want to congratulate my fellow citizens for not retreating during this recession. I'd think many folks would be back to basics, looking for the kind of comfort food that came from Mom's kitchen. Perhaps it speaks well of us that for some, at least, organic greens and good bread are basics.
For now Le Petit Zinc is open only till 6 p.m., but Sorel hopes to stay open till 10 p.m. or midnight in the spring.
And the Neighborliness Award goes to ... Phil Cooley of Slows Bar BQ, also in Corktown. Sorel says that without Cooley, he couldn't have opened. Cooley walked him through the whole permit process, spending hours and days at the City-County Building out of the goodness of his heart. There's a guy who's thinking of the neighborhood.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.