Eating at an excellent restaurant should feel like a few hours at an amazing destination. Eating at Antietam, one of the latest additions to Detroit’s fine dining scene, feels like escaping to Paris in 1925, when Fitzgerald and Hemingway first met in the Dingo Bar. Antietam serves French-influenced dishes and plays big jazzy melodies inside a restored Art Deco building where you will find subtle hints to Detroit’s past.
The building still has the original ornate tin ceiling and rose compass floor, a motif that is repeated in the chair design and wood paneling. There’s also the sign that says “Ladies Lounge” was from the late J.L. Hudson’s Department store in Detroit.
Alcohol is served in a bar so tight, there is a crawl space for the bartender to enter and exit. The bar, also an antique, evokes the feeling of aged men calling each other “old sport.” This is one of the places where you can order “The Last Word,” a drink invented at the Detroit Athletic Club in the early 1920s.
Antietam’s version uses gin, green chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino, lime and garnished with a cherry macerated in rum. It is a strong drink designed as an aperitif. The bartender recommends trying Antietam’s Bonal, a spirit made from gentiana, a French wildflower. Bonal was once handed out to flagging cyclists competing in the Tour de France.
Each plate contains an intentional surprise. Their menu is worded cryptically. When guests pick an item based on their perception of a flavor profile, the dish served surpasses, yet fulfills, its description. Take the Terrine of Oxtail with burnt scallion and apple jelly. I ordered it expecting a classically prepared fancy meatloaf. The terrine blew my expectations. After braising the oxtail, it took two people 40 minutes to pick through 60 pounds of oxtail to yield 35 pounds of meat. After adding oxtail fat, it was stuffed in a mold until it was ready to be sliced and seared. The terrine slices had a caramelized crust that broke into a wonderful ratio of tender meat and soft fat. The burnt scallion turned out to be the sauce under the diced mirepoix. The apple jelly, made with crab apple, granny smith apple, and mustard, balanced the dish.
For trio Chef Brion Wong, Chef Jestin James Feggan and beverage director Albert DePompeis, food and drink is a playful mental game. Balance is the single word that says a lot of things. The bran flavor in their rye cavatelli was balanced with the light and creamy ricotta and the spark of lemon in the diced granny smith apples.
They reached the same restrained balance pairing an herb salad with the carrot tart. The moist tart had the consistency of a quiche. The tart’s warmly sweet carrot filling was seasoned with cardamom. The crisp salad’s spicy radicchio and peppery arugula added the foil.
The culinary trio treat the kitchen like their laboratory. The porcini foam used in the Entrecôte de Boeuf is repeatedly altered to improve the taste, cost and efficiency. The version I had was made with an immersion blender using only milk and porcini powder. The milk’s viscosity holds bubbles longer and it naturally wants to foam at a warm temperature. The foam’s strong mushroom essence elevated the well-executed rib-eye steak and fingerling potatoes.
Antietam marries culinary skill with traditional sensibilities. An ingredient only makes it on the plate if it makes sense. They take food that makes people happy and use technique to get the most out of it.