Friday, October 12, 2012

[EID Preview] KouZina

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.
Of all the buzzy words in the buzz-centric realm of foodiedom, “street food” is probably the buzziest. We’ve adopted the trend quite readily here in metro Detroit over the past couple of years, and now we have a pretty sizable collection of food trucks (the literal sense of the phrase "street food") and restaurants with street food-style menus (the brick-and-mortar interpretation of the trend). And what this has ultimately meant is tacos. Lots and lots of tacos. Tacos are far as they eye can see and the mouth can eat. El Guapo, Jacques’ Tacos, Taco Mama, Imperial (and let’s not forget the entirety of Southwest Detroit, where the early adopters and Yelp Elites first started charting new territories in search of the most “authentic” street foods) … oh yes, we have tacos.

What we don’t have is Greek food. Not real Greek food, anyway. As Greektown itself has slowly transitioned into something less than “Greek” – the old family businesses have moved or closed or sold, leaving barely a handful of “Greek” restaurants left, and even that is a source of quibbling as the chefs of these “Greek” places tend not to be Greek themselves – Greek families have spread out across greater metro Detroit. While some might bemoan the fact that the culture is no longer condensed to one colorful city street, the culture has been wholly assimilated into the surrounding suburbs – and honestly, that’s one of the things that makes metro Detroit so great: the fact that ethnic cultures are so fully incorporated that they no longer draw notice. If we didn’t have a Greek coney island and a Middle Eastern shawarma shop on every street corner, metro Detroit would be a very different place. A place bereft of cultural diversity. (...a place like Chicago.) And that’s actually pretty awesome.

But Greek coney islands have been through their own share of Americanization and the food they serve isn’t what any Greek would call “authentic.” Now there is KouZina.

KouZina opens Monday in Royal Oak, in the tiny little building that was home to the Zumba Mexican Grille for so many years. Partners Bobby Laskaris and George Xenos have repainted the walls, opened up the front by adding garage doors that will open to the patio during the warm months, and otherwise spruced the place up a bit with cool colors and stainless steel accents. (Please note: photos were taken mid-September while the building was still under construction.) The result is a modern, stripped down, somewhat industrial chic space that will serve stripped down street food.

“A lot of the Greeks complain that there’s nowhere to eat,” Bobby says. “These coney islands butchered the Greek cuisine!” Bobby is a long-time restaurateur from a family of chefs and restaurateurs. His father Panagiotis (Pete) studied at a culinary school in Athens and worked in high-end hotels and restaurants all over Greece before coming to Detroit in 1968. He worked at Hella’s (RIP), Grecian Gardens (RIP), and the Bouzouki Lounge (back when it was a Greek supper club, not a strip club … RIP). Pete is part of the Old Guard of Greektown, but would ultimately find success in opening restaurants in the suburbs (where Greek families were happy to not have to drive to Greektown to get real Greek food). He opened Athenium Cuisine in Southfield then Olympian Café in Allen Park. He then launched a concessions business in 1984, working at ethnic festivals at Hart Plaza and growing from there.

Bobby, now 40, started as a busboy in Greektown at age 15 (a job his dad made him get). It was in the family’s concessions business that Bobby really took off. He took over the business and made it bigger, catering events at stadiums and convention centers (including the Superbowl, the All-Star Game and the World Series that were all held in Detroit over the last decade). In the meantime, dad sold his other restaurants and retired.

Bobby never had any intention of opening a restaurant. “Growing up I saw my father working the hours and the days he worked and I was always afraid to get involved in a business like that,” he says. “I decided about a year ago to open a small store with Greek fast food but on an authentic level; no one’s doing that here.”

So now Bobby is opening his own restaurant, and he’s dragging his father out of retirement. “He’s been retired 10 years; he’s 73 years old and coming out of retirement for us!”

“I’m not working with your dad in the morning,” says Yianni (John), a college-age employee and cousin of Bobby’s. He turns to me to explain: “I’ll come in and say, ‘Hi Uncle, how’s it going?’ No ‘hello,’ no ‘how are you,’ just, ‘Why are you smoking? Don’t be like that dumbass over there.’” (Gesturing to Bobby.)

We all laugh. Bobby says, “He’s great in the kitchen though!”

There’s a jovial familial vibe here that will really be a defining element of this restaurant, the same sort of friendly family vibe that the old Greek restaurants of Greektown once had. Bobby plans on maintaining that at KouZina. “It used to be in the old days all the Greek restaurants had Greek waiters, Greek owners, Greek cooks. Sabas at Pegasus is the only Greek chef left. Greek culture permeated the suburbs, which is why Greektown is not so Greek anymore. The Greeks started downriver and spread out. The parents started restaurant businesses and the kids got educated, but the kids who got the education but grew up in the industry are going back to the restaurants. We’re going to hire a few young college-age Greek kids. ”

For the concessions business, everything is made fresh on the spot. Bobby wanted to translate that to KouZina – a small menu of fresh, simple items made from scratch. Pete will be in 4-5 days a week making everything in house. “It will be kind of cool seeing him in chef coats again doing what he loves!” Bobby says.

The menu will be very simple: gyros made with lamb and beef, chicken breast, and pork tenderloin, marinated for a couple of days in olive oil and hand-stacked every morning. The sandwiches will be served the traditional way with tomato and house-made double-strained Greek yogurt made daily, served on your choice of five different house-made pitas (in flavors like garlic herb, cracked wheat, and feta and tomato).

Pete will also be making fresh spinach pies and weekly specials that might include other traditional Greek dishes like Moussaka and grape leaves. They’ll also serve their homemade yogurt with honey and walnuts and fresh fruit like it is served in Greece for a lighter dish. Their Greek dressing will also be made in-house and their fries hand-cut. All in all there will be about five different items to choose from, and a combo order including a sandwich, fries and soda will cost you about $8-9 out the door.

The whole kitchen operation is open to the dining area. “The cool thing is you’ll walk in and see the whole process of everything being made in front of you,” Bobby explains. There will also be artwork from local artists hanging on the walls and available to purchase. Bobby is himself an art conservative as President of Atlas Bronze Restoration (aka Hamtramck’s Venus Bronze Works), which has restored bronze sculptures in Cranbrook, on Belle Isle and all over Detroit and the Midwest. “We want to be a little more progressive than other Greek restaurants around here,” he says. “There will be no Zeus painted on the wall!”

Later Bobby also hopes to get into product manufacturing (Pete’s second retirement will still be a long way off), but first things first: KouZina opens this Monday. And like all the good street food joints, they’ll be open until 4 a.m. on weekends.

Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 a.m.; Sunday noon to 9 p.m.

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.