Tuesday, September 4, 2012

[EID Preview] Palate

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

I lived in Waterford what feels like a lifetime ago. Back then, there really wasn't anything worth visiting the area specifically for. You made do with what you had, and otherwise drove to other cities for what you wanted. West Bloomfield, Commerce Twp., White Lake, Wixom, Highland and Milford were all relatively close ("relative" because no matter where you go on that side of town, you have to drive around a bunch of lakes to get there). Commerce Twp. had It's a Matter of Taste. Keego Harbor -- the tiny byway town connecting Waterford and West Bloomfield through Cass Lake, Sylvan Lake, Orchard Lake, Pine Lake and a few smaller lakes -- had Jeremy Restaurant and Bar. West Bloomfield had a great wine bar and steakhouse that, much like every other place of real quality that opens in West Bloomfield, closed after a couple of years. At the time Brian Polcyn's Five Lakes Grill in Milford was still open and hadn't yet changed over to Cinco Lagos, and right across the street there was Sean O'Callahan's, a great Irish pub that served proper pints of Guinness and lots of Irish whiskeys. And that ... that was pretty much it.

But now! I rue the day I gave up that $375/mo. one-bedroom apartment (gas and water included; true story) because now the area is getting pretty cool and it is FAR (both geographically and metaphorically) from the hipster-riddled downtown Detroit I now call home. Now White Lake has the Root Restaurant (a short 15-minute drive from my old apartment, which would have meant MUCH more frequent visitations), and Milford has craft beer bar and sustainable from-scratch restaurant Palate.

The last time I was in Milford was a little over two years ago. Downtown Milford is a charming Michigan Main Street that, like so many other charming Michigan Main Streets, was decimated during the recession. Polcyn kept afloat by rebranding; a lot of other places weren't so lucky (O'Callahan's was one of them). On my last visit it seemed like every other storefront was shuttered and Milford was a dying downtown; now, Milford is once again a bustling downtown with nearly every storefront occupied with adorable independently-owned boutiques, cafes and restaurants. There is a flurry of foot traffic and lots of people happily dining on sidewalk patios. And inside the space that was once home to O'Callahan's, an enthusiastic couple are opening the bar/restaurant of their dreams.

When I sat down to chat with Bristol Arnold, who is opening the much-anticipated Palate (get your head out of Planet Detroit, people) with her soon-to-be husband Joe Hibbert, I experienced that moment when my professional decorum (as it were) was promptly discarded and I fell absolutely and entirely in love with them, their concept and their whole entire ethos and began to gush. These are Good People. And while there are quite a lot of Good People in this business locally (Michigan as a whole doesn't really realize how fortunate it is in this regard), it can be downright heartbreaking when Good People don't have good product. (And also when absolute bastards manage to get it right.) But Palate is Good People with good product, and now I have yet another place an hour drive from my home that I wish I could support on a daily basis. (Hey, apartments in Milford are damn cheap!)

Joe and Bristol met while both were going through some major life changes. A professional dancer who had worked for Disney, Royal Caribbean and even toured with Cirque, Bristol was looking for a more stable professional life which she found as a dance teacher in Walled Lake. At the time Joe was still a partner in Uptown Grille in Commerce Twp., a place that received rave reviews for its craft beer program and from-scratch kitchen when it first opened but ultimately took a direction Joe wasn't happy with, prompting him to leave. Bristol met Joe in the course of planning a friend's bridal shower at Uptown Grille, and if you think the whole concept of love at first sight is cheesy ... well yeah, probably it is, except for when it's true and then it really is beautiful to see. (Even for a stone-cold cynic like me.) These two are the real deal, and Palate is the product of their shared passions.

When Joe left Uptown it was without any animosity. "He left because he wanted to focus on his mission versus someone else's and not have to worry about someone else changing his plans," Bristol explains. And this steadfast refusal to compromise his own integrity is a professional trademark of Joe's: he grew up in Canada and got his start in the restaurant industry at Wendy's when he was 13 years old. When corporate America took Wendy's over and the food became all boxed and frozen, he left. He has since opened many restaurants and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the place functioning well and keeping the customers happy, whether that means cooking on the line or cleaning toilets.

Bristol herself had always had the dream of opening a coffee and wine bar and the name she had in her head was always Palate. "Palate" is a bit of a play, as the word (which refers to the roof of the mouth and is used colloquially to describe one's refinement of taste, though one technically has nothing to do with the other) is often confused with its homonym "palette," which refers to a painter's tool or collection of colors. "It's the part of your body that tells you what you like and what you don't," Bristol says. "But an artist draws on a palette, and food from the farmer comes on a pallet" -- referring to large, flat wooden shipping mechanisms, and yet another homonym.

To fully incorporate the palate/palette/pallet theme, Bristol and Joe worked with local artists for every detail in the restaurant -- from the used Dragon's Milk bourbon barrels from New Holland Brewing that were hand-painted with other local brewery logos to the repurposed pallets made into art pieces in the shape of a wine bottle and glass that are the focal point of the main dining room. Because they are also a family-friendly establishment (the main wall of the secondary dining room is adorned with the words "Be our guest," a nod to Bristol's days at Disney), kids get a chalkboard "palette" to draw on, which ties in with the theme but also has the added advantage of reducing waste.

"We're trying not to leave a huge imprint," states Bristol. "That’s why I chose not to give kids crayons and paper and instead give them a chalkboard and chalk. I’m doing everything I can to be paperless, even encouraging our vendors." They have participated in several fundraising events and festivals, including catering the VIP tent at the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival, and they always use compostable products for off-site events. (In fact it was through the MBG's Executive Director Scott Graham that Bristol learned a lot about leaving a carbon imprint.)

That same ethos can be seen in various touched throughout the restaurant, from the repurposed pallets and barrels previously mentioned to the reclaimed wood bar rail from a barn in Hamburg Twp. At the very heart of all of this is a commitment to using "what's around [us]," to procure as much as they can locally and work with local people, from farmers to artists to tradesmen. "It’s so much more than food; it’s education," Bristol explains. "We want to educate our consumers. We want people to support Michigan and bring a new economy to life here [by educating] everyone in our community about what they’re consuming and who they support." She adds, "We’re really grateful to have the resources we have in Michigan."

They buy produce from small, local farmers who can't afford the "organic" label. They make everything in their kitchen from scratch -- no microwaves, nothing frozen, nothing boxed. "Our team here is a labor of love. They like to make things from scratch. They know it’s time consuming but that’s what they’re passionate about."

Joe's own dream has always been to offer farm-fresh food with craft cocktails and craft beer at an economical price so that anybody can eat at his restaurant a couple of times a week; a kid-friendly place that the community would love and want to be a part of. The food at Palate is all farm-to-table, offering small plates and different types of cuisines from all over the world made from scratch using local products. Items include an "exquisite" hand-packed burger, cherrywood-smoked-bacon-wrapped scallops, lamb chops, and "true" Neapolitan pizza. (Bristol spent some time learning how to make Neapolitan pizzas in Italy, and upholds Antica Pizzeria Fellini as the local gold standard.) To further their goal of customer education, their iPad menus are interactive and show pictures of the food, the farms, the vineyards, and allow the customers the opportunity to find out more information on where everything on their plate and in their glass is from. (And once again, this wholly electronic system significantly reduces paper waste.)

Their craft cocktail menu was designed with assistance from mad scientist mixologist Dave Porcaro from Cafe Muse. They're offering 40 bottles of wine from small producers under $30 and all available by the glass. And of course, there is a huge emphasis on Michigan craft beer.

Thanks to Joe's many years in the industry, he has developed strong relationships with local brewers and distributors and has access to some pretty cool stuff ... but, spoilers! You'll just have to follow their Facebook page for those updates. Their staff are all Cicerone-certified beer servers and they have a $50,000 custom-built stone beer wall. The entire tap system and bar is optimized for maximum beer enjoyment.

And all of this is really the culmination of everything Joe has worked towards as a restaurateur all along. "Joe is adamant about quality; he’s not going to sacrifice quality," Bristol says of her future husband (they're getting married -- and moving, and opening the restaurant -- this month). "A lot of people have closed doors in his face. The charity work he’s done is endless; he has raised over a million dollars over the past four years [for local charities]. He raised $30,000 one night alone at a spaghetti dinner at Uptown. He’s just awesome! It’s not just what he does for a living; it’s the driving force that he has to help people. All of our leftovers go to Forgotten Harvest -- the breads, anything dry. [We're really] major into charity work and community!" Long-term Joe and Bristol hope to do even more to embrace and educate their community, like working with local schools on field trips to teach kids about kitchen safety and how to bake bread.

Both Joe and Bristol view Palate as a collaborative effort of many people, not just themselves. "I put so much time into including other people in this project," Bristol says. "It's not just about Joe and I. It's about employing local artists, local contractors, using all of our Michigan resources, and getting it going so when people look at it they can say, 'Hey, I was part of that.' Tons of people were part of this project and we’re proud of that and want them to be proud of it because that’s what’s it about."

She admits it took them a long time to get the restaurant ready to open (apparently some locals took to the almighty grousing grounds of the Internet to complain about it), but she simply says, "Good things take time and attention to detail. When you rush a project like this it doesn't do anyone any favors." As they get ready to open, Bristol is bubbling over with excitement. "The people we’ve been surrounded with are just magical. With us together and the people we have here the possibilities are endless!"

Palate opens today.