2017 Restaurant of the Year: Bistro 82

February 17, 2017 | Hour Detroit

At first glance, Bistro 82’s menu may look like any other French bistro: steak frites, escargot, foie gras. But a closer look at each and every plate reveals what sets Bistro 82 apart: its tireless commitment to seek perfection.

It’s easy to stick to what works; it’s another thing to scrap it and start over. This dedication to the craft permeates from the kitchen throughout the restaurant.

“What are we going to do to not be stagnant? What’s next?” says executive chef Derik Watson of the kitchen’s approach to food. “Everything we’re doing we try to do it better, then the next day we either try to change it or do it better.”

Since opening in early 2014, Bistro 82 has certainly not stood still. Dishes such as the cioppino and cobia have been on the menu for a long time, but when you visit the restaurant again, you notice the constant evolution of the dishes.

“It was a February opening, so warm, rich flavors are comforting, and the direction I was leaning,” says Watson. “That and the identity of the restaurant hadn’t really been established. The concept of course was, that of a modern bistro, hence the classics like steak frites, escargot, steak tartare.

“As we grew, so did the creative process,” he says. “As the seasons progress the flavors tend to lighten up [and] become more refreshing or bright, acidic, et cetera. Garnishes become what is available seasonally.”

The scallops, which have been on the menu since Day One, are a perfect example. Watson estimates there have been a dozen versions.

When we first reviewed Bistro 82 in our May 2014 issue, we noted that the scallops were served with a white bean mousseline and sauce Americaine, the rich, creamy, buttery, and slightly spicy shellfish broth-based sauce.

More recently, the scallops were the same — seared to perfection, not one degree over or under — but were accompanied with white chocolate, cranberry, chestnut puree, salsify, apple, and radicchio. At first glance, the sweet elements might seem too cloying. The radicchio on its own was bitter. But the sweet, the bitter, and the texture all came together on the plate.

The same held true for many dishes and over multiple visits. The ingredients and flavors of a Bistro 82 dish may change, but the foundation is the same.

It’s a solid foundation that’s been built under the direction of Watson.

Today’s food culture idolizes the celebrity chef, the larger-than-life persona that often dominates a restaurant’s image — and the food.

But Watson — who worked under top chefs such as Takashi Yagihashi at Tribute and Don Yamauchi at MotorCity Casino’s Iridescence, both previous Hour Detroit Restaurant of the Year winners — doesn’t fit that mold. He’s quick to point out that the restaurant’s success is not about him.

“I want [Bistro 82] to be bigger than me,” Watson says.

Bistro 82 isn’t the flashiest restaurant or the most cutting edge — and they don’t want to be. “The goal here is to not create what’s cool or trendy but a great restaurant that’s timeless,” Watson says, adding that they’re aiming to “establish a kitchen that would earn the seal of approval — like Tribute, Bacco, or Golden Mushroom.

“Are we there yet? No, but that’s the goal.”

We happen to think they are well on their way. For its subtle, precise, and elegant food, its impeccable attention to detail, its rock-solid consistency, and culture that celebrates its team, we have selected Bistro 82 as Hour Detroit’s 2017’s Restaurant of the Year.

Defining ‘New-School Cool’

Although Royal Oak has its share of interesting, diverse restaurants, it admittedly is not the first place that comes to mind when you think about fine dining. But in February 2013, Aaron F. Belen bought the former Sangria/Sky Bar space in downtown Royal Oak.

Belen, barely 30 at the time, decided to go all in, putting up more than $5 million to develop Bistro 82 and Sabrage (its sister nightclub upstairs).

It was, perhaps, a tad ambitious. Most of today’s new establishments are certainly less formal than traditional fine dining. And somewhat smaller than Bistro 82’s approximately 150 seats, as well.

“I hate saying ‘high-end’ or saying ‘fine-dining,’ ” Belen says. “The Lark was classic French fine dining — it was old-school cool. We wanted to be ‘new-school cool.’ ”

But that presented a challenge: How to strike a balance between being upscale and special, but not intimidating?

“We wanted it to have a Michigan feel to it,” Belen adds. “This is not Madison Avenue. How do you make it cool … and still approachable?”

Bistro 82 succeeds with a contemporary take that wouldn’t look out of place in any big city across the country. That’s by design. Its atmosphere was inspired by a number of visits to Chicago hot spots, from places with Michelin stars to trendy nightclubs that generated buzz.

To launch Bistro 82, Belen formed the AFB Hospitality Group and began surrounding himself with restaurant veterans and rising stars. He tapped Scott Sadoff as his director of operations, who had stints at Ocean Prime in Troy and P.F. Chang’s. General Manager Matthew Hollander (who recently left Michigan for an “incredible opportunity” in Las Vegas) did double duty, keeping an eye on the floor as well as offering his advice as a certified sommelier.

But the master stroke was landing the skilled and accomplished Watson to head up the kitchen.

Belen says Bistro 82’s real “secret sauce” was having this team develop a philosophy and mission statement, and then doggedly holding to it.

In the Heart of the House

Meticulous attention to detail and precision are hallmarks of Bistro 82’s culinary style. In the kitchen, blue masking tape is used to label everything and the rule is to cut the tape with a pair of scissors versus hastily tearing it. Something like that has no effect on whether the diner will enjoy their scallops or steak more, but the fact that the staff cuts the tape is symbolic of how the chefs and cooks work.

“Those details can inform everything we do,” says chef de cuisine Alex Dettwyler, an intensely focused chef who is known to bring a metronome into the kitchen during Saturday night service. “If we can’t get the little details right we can’t get the big details right. If we can’t cut the tape, we can’t sear a piece of fish. … Those details are what separate good restaurants from great restaurants, and we take a lot of pride in those details.”

Watson may have the title of executive chef, but he empowers the rest of the team to have input on the menu while challenging them at the same time.

The concept of team is almost a cliché, but at Bistro 82, that idea manifests itself in each plate. Take the bone marrow. The unctuous marrow is rich, the crostini crisp to a toast, the frisee salad bright with acidity from the well-balanced dressing. Each component has its place and its individual strength. On their own, they can be too rich, too bland, too bitter.

But together it’s harmonious and one component can’t succeed without the other, much like the kitchen itself.

Dettwyler cites an example. “I was working the opening shift and was supposed to go home at 6 o’clock and [was] looking at reservations, looking at weather [and] getting a feeling that something big is going to happen tonight. So I threw my chef coat back on,” he says.

The night just kept getting busier and busier.

“And then on cue Derik walks in the back door … still wearing his hoodie out of the cold [and] starts garnishing, wiping plates, and sending them out,” Dettwyler says. “That was a beautiful moment — especially [for] some of the cooks who haven’t spent a lot of time with Derik … to see him walk into that situation and jump in and help us in any way he could.”

A Legacy of Mentorship

Watson’s style of leading by example stems from his time working with some of the greats. Yagihashi, who built his reputation in Michigan as the executive chef at the legendary Tribute, says as a chef, you can tell pretty quickly if a chef has what it takes. With Watson, who worked with Yagihashi as a line cook at Tribute, he says, “I felt right away he could be very good.” Later he would ask him to work for him as his sous-chef at his eponymous restaurant in Chicago, which garnered a Michelin star.

For most of his career, Watson has always looked ahead to what’s next and not rest on his laurels. While at Tribute, he wanted to push himself as a leader, and took an executive chef job at Peabody’s. Then he moved to Las Vegas before heading to Chicago to help open Takashi.

He came back home to Michigan in search of something more challenging, and worked for Don Yamauchi at Iridescence. But he began to feel stagnant and bored, and took a year off, working odd jobs.

A friend connected him to Belen and Sadoff, and after the three of them clicked, they started planning what would become Bistro 82.

Here the chef has evolved into one who leads by influence and whose style is to “earn respect rather than demand it.”

Watson fuels motivation and creativity into his associates, says Norman Fenton, who hired in at Bistro 82 as sous-chef and was then promoted to executive sous-chef. At the time of his hiring, he says he was questioning what he was doing and the direction of his career. Then he got the call from Watson.

“He was very nurturing in the sense of helping you grow and spread your wings,” says Fenton. “Working for him is what help shaped the idea of where I want my own career to go.”

The experience helped Fenton move on to bigger roles, such as revamping the menu at Tom’s Oyster Bar and Ale Mary’s in Royal Oak before heading to Chicago to work for Grant Achatz’s Alinea Group. He now works at Schwa in Chicago, where he can “continue honing my skills under amazing chefs just like [Watson].”

The development of associates (Watson emphasizes they are not called staff) from dishwashers to the kitchen team has been one of his goals: The next position should be a step up. “No one makes a lateral move,” he says. “I’m personally reaching my goals [so] it’s really exciting to see Matthew [Hollander] head to Vegas [and] Norman moving to a large market and working with the Alinea Group and now with Schwa.”

He harkens back to the goal to emulate places like Tribute to earn that “seal of approval,” and establish a kitchen that “if you see it on someone’s resume, you would know that you’re getting a good cook, a passionate cook.”

Dettwyler is one who didn’t make a lateral move — he actually took a step down in order to work at Bistro 82. He was an executive chef in Ann Arbor, where he and his wife moved to from Pittsburgh so she could go to school. He came to “stage” at Bistro 82 (when chefs work for free in a kitchen to see if it’s a good fit for both parties) and was offered a line cook job because there were no open chef positions. It would have meant a pay cut, a long commute, and more hours, so Dettwyler said thanks, but no thanks.

But a nagging feeling stayed with him. “It doesn’t matter how hard it is, it doesn’t matter how poor you have to be, it doesn’t matter how much gas you’re going to spend each week. This is the route to the top,” he says.

Dettwyler called Watson a month later and asked if he could come back. He started at Bistro 82 a couple of days later as line cook, then moved up quickly, first to sous-chef and now chef de cuisine.

Pushing the Envelope

Now that the AFB Hospitality Group has opened The Morrie roadhouse in Royal Oak, Watson is overseeing the kitchen and menu at both places. That means he’s not at Bistro 82 “as much as he would like.”

Holding true to his goal of nurturing his kitchen team, Watson is leaving much of the menu conceptualization and development in Dettwyler’s hands.

Still, the two engage in a lot of back and forth in order to create the perfect dish. They communicate via phone and texts, and the conversation could start off simply with an ingredient such as bergamot, until the collaboration becomes a fully formed dish.

“Derik has changed a lot in past year and a half … from the guy who I was saying ‘Yes, chef’ to,” says Dettwyler. “Now … he’s more like the Yoda or the Obi-Wan Kenobi to my
Luke Skywalker.”

He adds that Watson and operations director Sadoff built the car; he’s just driving it and continuing down the path that’s been paved.

And the direction is always forward.

“How far can we push the envelope in terms of quality while still being viable as a business?” Dettwyler says. “Since I’ve started we’ve always had that established goal of being an institution — not just being a flash in the pan [or] a trendy restaurant that comes and goes.

“Part of that is looking at the future, taking the long view of things, and not being afraid to make hard decisions,” Dettwyler says, citing the choice to make all the bread for both restaurants in house as an example.

“[It] was a huge undertaking and it was a huge commitment, and now it’s just a part of what we do, just one more step toward perfection — something you never get to, but you’re pushing toward it every day.”

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