Friday, February 24, 2012

[EID Preview] John D

Adis Celic and Eddie Farah of John D Bistro. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

If you thought last year was a big year for Ferndale, this year is ... well, it's also going to be big, anyway. Progress and development continues to barrel forward with the recently-opened One-Eyed Betty's, and will continue strong over the next few months with Woodward Imperial, Local Kitchen + Bar, and John D Bistro.

First things first: let's escort the white elephant out of the room in the interest of moving up and on. Yes, this is the former location of Club Bart. Yes, it was sad to see this longtime Ferndale staple shutter - there I will agree. But here's what failed to get reported in the scant local media coverage of the closure (or was just conveniently overlooked in all the outrage over the bar being sold): Bart Starks, the owner of Club Bart, wanted to retire. He wanted to retire! This was no nefarious overtaking; it was just a dude who had served his time and made something cool who decided it was time for him to move on and leave the place in the hands of a new generation of owners who would honor the same spirit and make something equally cool. Cool? Moving on.

Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

The spirit of Club Bart is alive in John D. From the elevated stage above the bar (which doubles as a lounge space when there's no live entertainment) to the long ramp walkway leading to the back entrance, the skeleton of the space is very much the same - just updated. Owner Eddie Farah hired on architectural and interior design wundermensch Ron Rae to give the place a whole new look. It now has an understated industrial appeal but with plush tactile details like fuzzy booths ("Like Get Him to the Greek!" Eddie jokes) with a splash of leopard print, velvet drapes at both entrances, and a massive antique velvet Victorian headboard from a 19th-century bed. They ripped down the stodgy old wood paneling to reveal the exposed brick walls. The front windows are actually garage doors that will be opened to Woodward Ave. during the summer months. "JD" is carved on the outer door handles, paying homage to the "JOHN D" carved in Copperplate Gothic on the building - which is how the place got its name. (The carving, which dates back to the 1920s or '30s, was previously hidden by Club Bart's awning.)

Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.
Eddie will also stay true to what made Club Bart, for all it's shabby chic-ness, such a popular place to begin with: a wide variety of high-caliber live entertainment. "I plan on everything from jazz to blues to rock to crooners to dancers," he says. "I'm not going to label the entertainment because I want to be able to bring everything." The mentality at John D, much like the rest of Ferndale (and maybe that's why it all works so well) is "Come one, come all, and come as you are."

Eddie's whole family is a family of restaurateurs (his cousins own Anita's Kitchen just on the other side of Woodward from John D), but when Eddie decided to open John D, he wanted to do something a little different. "I come from a restaurant family so the next logical step was to own my own restaurant," he explains. "I didn't want to do what my family has always done, the Lebanese. I wanted more of a loungey kind of place. I didn't know what direction to go with the menu until I got Adis."

Executive Chef Adis Celic was the piece that was missing from John D. Most of you don't know his name yet, but you should learn it - this guy is a genius and he plays in the big leagues. He'll take John D from being "just another contemporary American bistro" and make into one of the most exceptional restaurants in metro Detroit, one that stands out heads above its competition. "This place incorporates all of my favorite places," Eddie says, listing off Ronin and Cafe Muse among them. "I hired the best team possible from design architecture to the chef. Now it's time to put up or shut up!"

If you're wondering why you've never heard the name Adis Celic before, he's relatively new to metro Detroit's dining scene. He's been cooking since 1996. His grandfather was a butcher and his father was a chef. He came to America as a Bosnian refugee in 1995 and "started working my butt off, and here I am."

John D PB+J; photo courtesy of Adis Celic.
He attended Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles and graduated at the top of his class. "My mom was very proud of that!" he smiles, then hesitates ... "I think it was top of my class. Maybe second. I had all the pretty colors on my robes, anyway." Tomayto, tomahto - the guy knows his food. After that he continued working in California, doing catering at the Langham Huntington hotel/spa in Pasadena, as the "omelette guy" for the UCLA football team, then as the Sous Chef at Aimee's Bistro in Redondo Beach. He then came to Detroit for his externship and worked with Eddie's father and brother at Alia's Catering. Considering the number of new restaurants scheduled to open in metro Detroit this year and how much in demand talented chefs are at the moment, Eddie is very much aware of how lucky he is to have snatched up Adis.

Adis's culinary training started in Italian then moved into French, and obviously there is his own family background that also informs his style. "My family is all about food," he says. "My background is about as rustic as rustic gets. My family invented rustic!" His parents still have lamb roasts in the backyard with a whole lamb on spit every two weeks; his mom still makes her own sausage. Adis would love to push some boundaries later down the line at John D: "Wouldn't it be cool to do something old school on butcher paper and sell it by the pound?" he asks excitedly ... Eddie just smiles. When writing the menu, Adis says he had "free rein but a lot of interesting judges." He teases Eddie by saying, "Some have a handicap on their palates! Just because you like it spicy doesn't mean everything has to be!" (For all the friendly ribbing, these two obviously have a great camaraderie.) Eddie admits, "When I finally trusted him my life became so much easier!"

Lamb sliders; photo courtesy of Adis Celic.
Everything at John D is made from scratch, right down to the mayonnaise. "If I have four hours of prep time I’m not going to spend it opening cans," Adis states. He wanted to construct a menu that speaks to Ferndale but is "just forward enough" - there is no molecular gastronomy here, no fumes or hydrogen. Adis describes it as being "a year or two into the future, not 20," bringing a little L.A. flare to Ferndale but in a non-pretentious, home-cooked way. "That's how I was brought up: on home-cooked food," Adis says. "We didn't ever eat out except for on special occasions. This menu is a total reflection of what I like to eat and what [Eddie] likes to eat."

They make the kind of food they want to eat when they go out, and put their own spin on it, but don't expect the same-old, same-old. Between Adis's and Eddie's cultural and culinary backgrounds alone, this place takes the concept of "fusion" to a whole new level. At 33 items, it is a relatively small menu with a lot of different influences - French, Asian, Italian, Bosnian, Mediterranean ... even Hungarian desserts. Items include a Chicken Oscar with lump crab meat and béarnaise, a vegetable Napoleon tower, lamb sliders served with pickled cherry peppers stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella, duck confit in a puff pastry, and the John D PB+J - foie gras with truffles, dalmation fig spread and an edible flower. Down the line, Adis would love to incorporate monkfish and elk onto the menu and focus even more on Michigan's indigenous wild game (elk, deer). There will also be weekly specials (including vegetarian specials) where Adis can get really creative.

Elk carpaccio; photo courtesy of Adis Celic.
Small bites are styled after Asian cuisine and geisha style like Umami Burger in L.A. "There is not a lot of vegetation and if so it is specific to the flavor," Adis explains. Think about it: if you're a woman (or with a female companion) who got all 'did up' to go out, the last thing you want to do is make a sloppy mess of yourself trying to eat an oversized burger. Thank Adis and Eddie for keeping that in mind.

They're using Zingerman's breads and cheeses and will eventually be serving Sunday brunch. The wine list will also be relatively small, with 15 wines by the glass and an additional 10 by the bottle, but will highlight unique, interesting and affordable wines. Four beer taps will pour craft and local beers that will be updated seasonally along with the menu. The one major departure from the old Club Bart is the completely revamped kitchen with all-new equipment. "I'm so excited!" Adis beams. "I feel like a 15-year-old kid getting a new Ferrari!"

There have been a lot of new restaurants that have opened in Ferndale recently and several more to come. But Eddie isn't worried. He has found that the community spirit of Ferndale trumps all aspects of competition, and the businesses all work together towards a common goal. "We’re all going to bring different people into the city," he says. "We all want people to come into the city."

John D opens to the public March 10, 2012.

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.