After a renovation and a trip to Vietnam with some members of his staff, chef George Azar recently reopened his Southwest restaurant with more seating, a bigger kitchen and expanded hours
When Flowers of Vietnam popped up during Vernor Coney Island’s off-hours in Southwest Detroit in 2016, the restaurant and its chef, George Azar, started to earn more buzz than a chainsaw.
The combination of creative, authentic dishes, unpretentious location, stunning reviews and odd hours — it was only open weekends — made it all that more interesting.
GQ magazine named Flowers of Vietnam one of the Best New Restaurants in America last year. They gleefully describe the situation: “the son of Palestinian immigrants cooking Vietnamese food in a Greek diner in Mexicantown.”
That’s Detroit. I’ve seen a Russian chef slaying Japanese ramen in a Polish-Bangladeshi neighborhood (Rock City Eatery’s Nikita Sanches, when it was in Hamtramck) and not many cities have a chef blending Mexican, Italian and fine dining as Norberto Garita does at El Barzon.
Flowers of Vietnam reopened last month after a renovation that had the restaurant closed since March. It’s re-emerged a bit more accessible, and no longer a part-time coney. They added a bar area, grew the kitchen, expanded hours to five nights a week and the restaurant now takes reservations, too.
It still looks like a Greek diner, with counter seating, an open kitchen and wood paneling touches. The vibe is eclectic and not too polished. On the other side of the dining room from the busy kitchen is a large bar where the “shucka-shucka” of cocktail crafting can be heard over the loud music, which is a mix of electronic and throwback R&B jams.
One thing the renovation did not include was a sign change. When visiting, look for “Vernor Coney Island” in neon letters. There’s nothing that says “Flowers of Vietnam.” Azar, who says he doesn’t like doing things that are expected, isn’t totally sure why a sign with the restaurant’s name doesn’t seem right.
“I don’t want a sign,” he said. “I don’t know, it makes it hard to understand until you come sit down to eat. Then you’re like ‘okay, I see it.’ ”
He said he’s “bending” to the idea, though, and may post hours and the restaurant’s flower logo.
Azar took advantage of the downtime during the renovation and took a trip to Vietnam with eight of his core employees.
“I wanted to take the opportunity to go to Vietnam while I had the chance and I wanted to see how dialed in we were to the roots of the cuisine ... we just ate as much as we could,” he said.
He learned that the way he was making his popular Korean-fried caramel chicken wings was a little too sweet, so he tweaked them to make them nuttier. Served as four whole wings, these hit all the right notes and are worth the sticky fingers.
In addition to the wings, Flowers of Vietnam has a one-page menu of sharable Asian dishes like pho, fried salt-and-pepper shrimp and caramelized rib tips.
Two people can share four or five dishes and have a couple of cocktails for around $75-$100, which is on par with a lot of other new Detroit restaurants that have shareable plates, craft cocktails and a buzz in the air.
Azar says he’s trying to debunk the myth that ethic food or restaurants in this neighborhood must be inexpensive.
“If you think about it, there’s this subconscious disposition that ethic food should be cheap, like Mexican food, Vietnamese food ... I get major backlash sometimes about (my) menu prices,” he said. “Yo, I’m charging $15 for an entree-sized bowl of noodles, there’s like five garnishes, a bunch of herbs, grilled pork, an eggroll ... I don’t see why people think $15 for an entree-size portion is outrageous.”
It’s hard to argue with this. While it may not have similar price points to other restaurants on that strip of Vernor, Flowers’ prices and portions are in line with what other restaurants at this level are presenting in Detroit today.
Flowers of Vietnam, 4430 W. Vernor in Detroit, is open 5-11 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 5-10 p.m. Sun. Call (313) 554-2085 or visit flowersofvietnam.com.