March 4, 2010 at 1:00 am

Molly Abraham

1917 American Bistro is a work in progress -- but already cooking

Lump crab cakes are hot sellers at 1917 American Bistro in Detroit. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

A straightforward menu, without flourishes or excess verbiage, is a plus for any restaurant.

And the menu at this attractive new restaurant on the Avenue of Fashion, as Livernois has been known for generations, is exactly that.

It is dominated by well-prepared basic dishes ranging from grilled shrimp, salmon and chicken to blackened or deep-fried catfish. Three cuts of steak (New York strip, T-bone and ribeye) and baby back ribs (which arrive at the table already coated in a sweet sauce) are at the top of the gentle price scale in the $12 to $15 range along with newly added lamb chops.

Preparations are simple -- grilled, deep-fried, blackened or, in the case of salmon, baked -- but if someone wants, say, poached salmon, they may have it. There's certainly an emphasis on fresh vegetables among the side dishes. The other day, the array included baby spinach, asparagus, broccoli and green beans. Other items on the list of sides include very good garlic bread, mashed potatoes, French fries and a blend of wild and white rice.

The appetizer list has a bar-food approach, with sharable chicken wings -- the entire wing, bones and all, not just a portion of it -- potato skins and cheese sticks along with the more upscale steak bites and crab cakes, the latter one of the most popular dishes since the restaurant opened in November.

The people behind 1917 American Bistro are chef/proprietor Donald Studvent and his wife Katrina. A series of photos hang from the ceiling on thin strands of wire at the catchingly named place. They show the progress from stripped-down storefront to what has become an attractive restaurant.

It's an effective decor touch, pointing up in dramatic fashion just what has been accomplished in a very short span of time by the couple.

From the day they began gutting the space, only three months went by until the restaurant was a reality, leading Donald Studvent to say he thinks they have achieved something of a speed record.

I'm inclined to agree. It usually takes a lot longer to make it happen, given the hoops aspiring restaurateurs have to jump through before realizing their dreams.

The attractive spot, done up in soft shades of yellow and warm beige with soft lighting from the big front windows, track lights and hanging lamps has a noncommercial feeling about it. Tables seating just 49 are well-spaced under the high ceiling and the place has a serene aspect underscored by the feathery green fronds of tall potted plants.

It certainly looks finished, but it is still a work in progress in terms of what the proprietor hopes to offer in the near future, including a rooftop terrace for "dining overlooking the Avenue," as well as a second-floor dining room that will include the bar when the Class C liquor license arrives.

That also will spawn a series of wine tastings in which Michigan wines will be emphasized -- the result of a wedding anniversary trip to the Traverse City area where the Studvents discovered the wealth of local vineyards.

Typical bar beverages, however, are not yet available. For now, soft drinks, smoothies and raw fruit and vegetable juices, coffee and tea are the options.

Service is friendly and caring by a staff in crisp white shirts and black trousers, and they reflect the personality of the chef/proprietor who regularly comes out of the kitchen to chat with every one of the guests.

And for those who wonder about the 1917 in the restaurant's title, that's the year the surrounding Sherwood Forest neighborhood was established, a nice little touch of history.

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Donald Studvent, left, and his brother, Anthony Howard, present classic ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)