While the hit taken by the hospitality industry has been essentially universal, some stories stand out because of what was happening before the coronavirus lockdowns. Detroit, of course, has been a story for a very long time—struggling as it has been for the last four decades to revive its once and former glories.
Interestingly, rent fatigue in cities like New York and San Francisco at last saw young creatives making a beeline for Motor City in recent years, seeking reasonably priced apartments, and the thrill of “anything can happen here” that disappeared from NYC a long time ago. And one shining symbol of this new era of possibility was the Shinola Hotel, opened in January of 2019 in the historic Woodward shopping district. It was the sort of hotel that would these days be more likely throwing open its doors in Brooklyn or Silver Lake, with its unapologetic hipster signifiers—rustic furnishings, nostalgic Americana, factory-style windows, hanging globe lamps—and its goal of acting as a social hub for the city’s invigorated mediarati/culturati.
If you hadn’t guessed, it was indeed a branded project of Shinola, the Detroit based accessories purveyor who had gained international cognoscenti approval and financial success over the last several years with their zeitgeist-tapping watches, bags, belts, etc. But another very big name was also attached to the project: exalted NYC Chef Andrew Carmellini’s NoHo Hospitality (The Dutch, Locanda Verde, Lafayette) were overseeing the restaurants, both of which were instantly adopted by the local trend-setters and -seekers.
Indeed, Carmellini’s San Morello deftly brought the laidback charm of the Sicilian Coast to Woodward Avenue, with dishes like chicken rosalina, black shells puttanesca, and lamb meatballs with whipped goat cheese; while The Brakeman now seems the perfect place to blow off steam in such troubled times—a handsomely designed craft beer hall, with a unique selection of drafts, amazing fried-chicken from the adjacent venue Penny Red’s, plus foosball, ping pong, and shuffleboard, the latter two of which happen to be very of-the-moment with the cool kids.
On the occasion of the re-opening of both, we chatted with Chef Carmellini about the noble struggle back to normality. He was also kind enough to share a few of most popular recipes from San Morello.
What is new about the experience at the Shinola restaurants?
At all the restaurants, sanitation and safety protocols in line with Michigan’s state health guidelines have been put in place. This includes staff wellness checks, face masks, and social distancing requirements, and surface disinfectant protocol between uses. As far as the experience, it was important to us to create the warm, friendly and comfortable atmosphere that our guests have come to expect, while maintaining safety as a top priority. For the food, we initially thought to create new menu items, but after listening to the community we realized they were craving the dishes they know and love, like San Morello’s sheep’s milk ricotta or the rosalina chicken, and we prepared to have those ready for them.
How do you see the near future of the Detroit restaurant scene, and the near future of American restaurants in general?
I think the future is unpredictable. I’ve run restaurants through disasters before, like the September 11 terrorist attacks, which many thought Manhattan restaurants would never recover from, and we proved them wrong—so it’s hard to say. Independent restaurants employ more than 10 million people, so my goal and the goal of the Independent Restaurant Coalition right now is to fight to make sure that a majority of those jobs don’t disappear for good. I will say that based on our re-openings in Detroit, I do think that the concept of eating a meal together at a restaurant is still important to communities, something people will always seek out when they are ready, possibly even appreciating the experience even more than ever. So I am optimistic.
How had things been going at your restaurants at the Shinola before the lockdowns?
I’m very proud of what my team has done in Detroit. The team that relocated there is loving the city, they’ve bought homes there, and have really ingrained themselves in the scene. Seeing the quality and success of the whole hotel itself has been impressive; and having celebrated its one-year opening anniversary in January, the restaurants were really settling in nicely there.
What has characterized the re-opening experience?
Make no doubt about it, it is hard. At the same time, it feels great to be at work. Essentially restaurant people are like tuna fish, we swim or we die. It’s nice to take a break, but there is that high that comes from working together on a team and taking care of people the best way you can; and the desire to do that is at the core of all of us.
Three Recipes from San Morello
Sheep’s Milk Ricotta with Hot Honey and Garlic
Chef Andrew Carmellini
Every chef loves playing with complex flavors and textures, but this dish is a great reminder that straightforward, delicious food always makes people happy. We whip the ricotta with a splash of milk to give it a fluffy texture, and spread it on grilled semolina bread drizzled with spicy honey and crunchy herbs & garlic.
For the whipped ricotta:
2 cups Sardinian sheep’s milk ricotta (if you can’t find this, use the regular cow’s milk ricotta) 1⁄2 cup whole milk
2 to 3 tablespoons Mike’s Hot Honey
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or coarse sea salt 2 to 3 tablespoons Mike’s Hot Honey
For the garlic chips:
1 cup extra virgin olive oil 6-7 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
For the crunchy herbs:
6-8 basil leaves
1 cup canola or other neutral oil
Beat the ricotta and the milk together until the mixture is light and fluffy, using a KitchenAid with the paddle attachment if you’ve got one, or a whisk and a medium-sized bowl if you don’t. Add the table salt and mix well. Set aside.
Place garlic and oil in a small pot over medium-high heat. Stir constantly until the garlic begins to fry. Remove garlic from oil as soon as the garlic starts to caramelize and drain on paper towel. It will continue to cook and darken a few shades after you remove it from the oil. Reserve the remaining garlic oil for serving. Allow the garlic to cool and set aside.
To make the crunchy herbs, use a pot to bring canola oil to 350°F and add herbs — be careful as it will splatter. Stir consistently for about 15-30 seconds, then remove herbs and place on paper towels to dry.
To serve, place the mixture in a serving bowl and drizzle with Mike’s Hot Honey and the crispy garlic and herbs. Spoon over a little of the reserved garlic oil and finish with pinch of fleur de sel. Serve this with a board full of grilled semolina bread. I guarantee you won’t be able to stop eating it.
Image by Nicole Franzen
Chef Andrew Carmellini
Makes 30 meatballs
For the meatballs:
3 T olive oil
1⁄2 cup onions
1 clove garlic, chopped
1⁄2 t coriander
1 t fennel seed, chopped
1 T chopped rosemary, chopped
1 lb lamb, ground
1⁄2 lb merguez sausage, approx 8 links (or 2 links hot Italian sausage if you prefer), with casings cut away
1⁄2 cup dried breadcrumbs
2 whole eggs
1⁄2 t salt
2 oz fresh goat cheese
For the sauce:
1⁄4 cup olive oil
1 cup onions, diced (approx 1 small onion)
1 1-lb 12 oz can San Marzano tomatoes (about 15 tomatoes) plus their juice 1⁄4 t peperoncini
1⁄2 t salt
1⁄2 t sugar
1⁄2 t Sicilian oregano
1⁄4 cup grated Pecorino
To make the meatballs:
Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Add the coriander, fennel seed and rosemary. Cook together 1 minute, so that the aromas of the spices and herbs are released.
Remove to a bowl and place in the fridge to cool.
In a large bowl, combine the sausage meat and the lamb with the onion-herb mixture, the breadcrumbs, the eggs and the salt. Mix well with your hands.
Roll the goat cheese into roughly 1⁄2-inch balls (the size of a small marble).
Take approx 2 tablespoons of lamb mixture. Roll and press it into an oval. Use your thumb to create a large goat-cheese-ball-sized dent in the middle, and drop the goat cheese ball inside. Pinch the mixture up around the ball to close up the hole and roll the meatball between your hands till it’s golf-ball-shaped. Repeat until you’ve used up all the goat cheese and the lamb mixture.
To make the sauce:
Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until the onions start to soften, approx 1 minute.
Add the canned tomatoes and juice, the peperoncini , the salt and the sugar. Mix to combine.
Cook over medium-high heat for 10 minutes, until the flavors combine and the sauce is reduced. Add the oregano and mix well.
Add the meatballs and ensure they’re all covered in the sauce. Reduce the heat to low, so the sauce is at a very low simmer, and cover. Cook for 10 minutes, until the meat is cooked and the sauce takes on the flavor of the meatballs. It’s very important that the liquid never comes to a boil: you want as slow a simmer as possible, so the flavors really come together, the cheese melts and the meat becomes rich and tender.
Ladle the meatballs and sauce into 4 bowls. Sprinkle with the cheese. Serve immediately.
Image by Joe Vaughn