by Mel Small
When Michael Chamas opened Bistro 222 in Dearborn a year ago October, he didn't expect the economy to tank so disastrously, nor did he expect it would take him a year to obtain a liquor license. But now that he has his license, he is well-positioned to attract diners with his imaginative Californian-Italian cuisine and reasonable prices.
Chamas, who had been cooking at La Dolce Vita after he left the LA Express in 2001, stylishly retrofitted the old Peaches on Michigan between Military and Howard. The walls of his intimate room, which seats 60, are decorated in subdued shades of eggplant, avocado, Portobello and Chianti, and are accented with dark wooden panels. The only false note would be the oilcloth table coverings, which seem a bit out of place with the graceful flatware, heavy silver and the lovely miniature flower vase.
The knowledgeable manager and sommelier, Anis Habhab, who previously worked at Joe Muer's and La Dolce Vita, scurries about out front assisting his efficient serving staff as they work their tables.
Chamas, whose menu promises "A Culinary Adventure," first began working in the innovative kitchens of Wolfgang Puck in California, and learned more about cooking from local celebrity chef and Survivor contestant, Keith Famie. That valuable background is evident in his unique creations, some of which originated at the LA Express. Starters ($6-$8) are highlighted by "April's crispy calamari," a mess of little cephalopod rings accompanied by a marinara sauce enlivened with red peppers, olives and garlic. Many of the dishes are named for being the favorite of a friend or family member. Thus, there are "Tim's Portobellos" swimming in olive oil, garlic, basil and vinegar and "Leon's" gnocchi stuffed with Asiago, pecorino and ricotta in a basil-tomato sauce.
Much of the fare is assertively spiced, such as the zesty and generous portion of bruschetta topped with tomatoes, onions and peppers, and small scallops sautéed in a tangy lemon-garlic sauce and artfully presented in three scallop shells.
Lunchgoers can keep their meals relatively light by choosing among five individual pizzas, a dozen sandwiches with potatoes and salad ($6.95-$8.95) featuring the curious, patented ground shrimp burger on ciabatta, and several entrée-sized salads, including Mediterranean with feta, cucumber, grilled pita, tomatoes and olives or the more unusual arugula garnished with grilled corn, tomatoes and crispy tobacco onions. Those skinny treats, which look at first like shoestring potatoes until you make the unpleasant visual connection to shredded strands of cigarette tobacco, appear on several other platters.
As for dinner, if you are going to pass on pasta for a main, you might consider one or two of the six variations ($11.95-$14.95) for your tablemates to share as an intermediate course, or primi piatti. For example, the dreamy little bacci (mother's kisses) are stuffed with Italian sausage tidbits and dressed in a marinara sauce. Or you could opt for the heavier, "David Allen" penne with vegetables in a pesto-accented cream sauce.
Most of the entrées are $15 or $16, a surprisingly low price considering the quality of the ingredients and the careful thought that has gone into their creation and presentation. Although several of the 11 choices have an Italianate tinge, the sizable portion of the thick, grilled-to order Angus steak with tobacco onions, green beans and mashed potatoes is all-American. On the other hand, "Donna's" creamy and crunchy risotto, with lush diver scallops and shrimp, is a wonderful creation redolent of the "Old Europe" once disdained by Donald Rumsfeld.
The delicate sautéed lake perch, complemented with a creamy caper sauce, atop a mound of garlic mashed potatoes is another winner. Vegetarians will enjoy the vertical eggplant tower with polenta, or the sautéed spinach and tomatoes, while chicken fanciers can order their bird garnished with Marsala or piccata sauce or prepared Parmesan-style. Lamb chops, the most expensive item on the menu, teriyaki glazed salmon, and crab cake with polenta and a basil aioli round out the versatile menu.
The excruciatingly long waiting period for the liquor license was worth it, considering the bistro's intelligently selected mixture of both familiar and somewhat obscure boutique varietals. And more than half are less than $30. Manager Habhab, who worked with master sommelier Madeline Triffon at La Fontaine in the '70s, takes pride in his small reserve list as well — for those few who are currently flush.
All of the desserts, except for the ethereal, ultra-light house-made tiramisu, come from the respectable outside supplier, Sweet Street Desserts.
Dearborn is off the radar for many local gourmands who, when dining in the burbs, tend to concentrate on the culinarily rich and diverse northwest or to some degree in recent years, Grosse Pointe and environs. The stylish Bistro 222 provides a reason, as a Michelin guide might recommend, to make a special journey to Dearborn. It is difficult to find such a satisfying — and affordable — dining experience in our area these days.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.