Soul heir

1917 American Bistro gives soul food a bistro foundation



The word "bistro" in U.S. restaurant-ese long ago lost all attachment to its Parisian origins. There, it meant, as my food dictionary puts it, "a small café, usually serving modest, down-to-earth food and wine (the French bistrot means 'pub')." In this country, the word means whatever the proprietors want it to mean. In Detroit, it's been appropriated by such non-bistro joints as Angelina's, Assaggi and Atlas Global — much more ambitious, fancier and costlier restaurants than the term would allow in France.

But Don and Katrina Studvent's new place is a bistro, if there can be an American version with a soul food foundation, and no liquor license for a few more months. It's a bistro in the sense that it's a family-owned place that serves moderately priced, relatively simple dishes and simple meals. It's pretty, with a contemporary decor that includes beige velvet banquettes and leaf sculptures on one wall (and missable portraits with bubbles on the other) — and no sign of the insurance agency that was. When the license comes through, the plan is to emphasize wine, even to hold tastings. It'll be interesting to see what's recommended to complement catfish and baby-back ribs.

I want to call attention to the Studvents' very attractive prices: shrimp dishes for $10 or $12, chicken and catfish for $8 or $9, ribs or New York strip for $12. Many entrées come with two sides (fries, smashed potatoes, wild rice, garlic bread, green beans — not the long-simmered kind, give them a miss), or they can be ordered separately for just $2. When I compare the value received at 1917 to the mediocre $16 eggplant Parmigiana I ordered in a popular Italian place recently, I scratch my head.

The restaurant is a longtime dream, nurtured through chef Don Studvent's training days at the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, simmering through 15 years at Chrysler's Dodge Truck plant, and finally flowering the second week of November on the Avenue of Fashion, as that stretch of Livernois south of Eight Mile is known. Studvent claims to have regulars already, through word-of-mouth.

Some of those regulars have insisted on certain items for the $13 Sunday brunch buffet: catfish with grits, chicken with waffles. Other choices are fried potatoes, turkey sausage, country bacon, fried ham, fried turkey, omelets, French toast, fresh fruit, breads and pastries.

In the evenings, crab cakes are justifiably popular. Two large ones are just the right consistency, served without sauce, but they don't need one. Five fat and meaty wings, piping hot, make a good appetizer for two. A Caesar salad was disappointing: At first I thought it was iceberg, but it seemed to be Romaine chopped small, from the palest part of the leaf. Other diners gave compliments to the Greek salad. Other appetizers are potato skins, cheese sticks and steak bites.

Blackened catfish is deliciously peppery; it's available deep-fried too. I liked my shrimp scampi with linguine very much in spite of (or because of) the fact that the buttery, winey sauce was laid on with a heavy hand. Shrimp can also be grilled, deep-fried or Alfredo. Baby-back ribs are plentiful and appropriately tender, with a sweet sauce, delicious if not all-stars.

Both Studvent's ribs and his New York strip are a reminder why most folks remain omnivores despite all the cogent environmental, health and humanitarian reasons against eating meat, especially a big slab of beef with plenty of fat. Our portion was succulent, charred just a bit around the edges but rare within, just rich. A-1 Steak Sauce is offered!

Desserts are made in-house and they shine. The "chocolate sensation" cake looks like a normal chocolate cake but darker. It turns out to be intense, moist and probably the most chocolaty best that this very American cake can be. Cheesecake is served with a wonderful raspberry sauce and fresh berries.

Studvent chose the name "1917 American Bistro" because, he said, he wanted something that sounded "neutral." But what was happening in America in 1917? Yes, the Sherwood Forest subdivision, where the bistro is located, was founded. But President Woodrow Wilson was actually ending U.S. neutrality that year, by declaring war on Germany, joining the War To End All Wars. In 1916 Wilson had been re-elected under the slogan "He kept us out of war." Sound familiar?

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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