Chartreuse Kitchen mixes history and colorful style

Molly Abraham

When a restaurant is in an historic building, a little more should be expected of it. And Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, in the handsome 1926 high-rise that is the next door neighbor of the Detroit Institute of Arts, delivers the requisite extras.

In the ’20s, when the structure was new, it was a hotel, The Wardell, where Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived while Rivera was working on his now-famous DIA murals. Its restaurant at the time was called The Green Room. It isn’t recorded just what shade of green dominated the Green Room, but it’s highly unlikely that it was anything resembling the sharp, almost shocking shade that now sets the scene for the very contemporary decor and menu at Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, which opened in mid-May.

Yes, it’s the love-it or hate-it color of the French liqueur that now serves as a backdrop for the fresh, farm-to-table fare being turned out by executive chef Douglas Hewitt Jr. and proprietor Sandy Levine. Until now, Levine was best known for his Oakland Art Novelty Company in Ferndale, a retro cocktail lounge with a speakeasy spin. And as might be expected of restaurateurs who are unafraid to slather the walls with a controversial color, they are also willing to depart from a conventional menu style.

The small paper fold-overs, hardly bigger than cocktail napkins, do not list dishes as appetizers and entrees, but under the headings of cold dishes, vegetables and hot dishes, along with a selective list of cocktails, beer and wine, and, of course, Chartreuse, by the bottle, the glass or in a cocktail called the Last Word, a mix of gin, lime and maraschino along with the titular liqueur.

A nice touch — the notation on the menu that guests may bring a favorite bottle of wine if they wish, for a $20 corkage fee, and I suspect that will be taken advantage of.

Part of the reason for the brief menu is the size of the kitchen — small — and storage space — almost nonexistent — but the reasoning goes beyond the dimensions. It reflects the desire to offer ingredients that are as fresh as possible, handled with skill, but not over-handled. While each dish is highly detailed, plates aren’t fussy. The vegetables are from RecoveryPark Farms, the local urban farm that provides beets, carrots and pristine greens to some of the best restaurants in town, or from Tantre Farm in Chelsea, and they are notable.

Chef Hewitt has a nice touch with even the simplest dishes, typified by the potato treatment, just small boiled Tantre Farm potatoes teamed with green beans and a scattering of scallions, dill and bread crumbs, and also the smoked salmon brightened with goat cheese and pepper jelly.

Almost everything on the list of just 16 dishes is sharable, from the assertive grilled Spanish octopus with chorizo, pickled onion and fennel, to the elegant Alaskan halibut with polenta cake and a flourish of greens, thinly sliced radishes and dill-sparked green beans. Despite its brevity, the menu manages to offer a nice balance between meat, fish and seafood, and vegetables.

Not everything hits the target. The Spring Vegetable Caesar, for instance. Its take on the classic salad, with bok choy, red kale, grilled asparagus and peas dusted with pecorino Romano cheese, doesn’t improve on the original and leaves some diners pining for romaine. Back to the drawing board on that one.

On the other hand, lamb poke, a take-off on an Hawaiian dish, is one I hope will have longevity. It’s a mix of finely diced raw lamb, avocado and mango served with the addictive spicy house potato chips, and it is surprisingly light and appealing, as are the chips. Order some even if you don’t want the lamb.

A couple of housemade desserts are offered every night from a changing array and they are described by the servers since there’s no room on the miniscule menus to include them. They are typified by poached nectarines served with grilled pound cake, sweetened goat cheese and cashews tossed in whey caramel.

Servers are professional and courteous as they bring the colorful plates to the uncovered wood tables, and they choose their own garb, with just one proviso — no T-shirts.

The décor of the high-ceilinged, many-windowed room follows the culinary theme, with two major art installations that involve fresh and dried flowers, plants and herbs. Lisa Waud of Pot and Box is the artist who created a curtain of dried flowers and herbs that serves as a colorful room divider toward the back of the room. As the flowers fade, she’ll add new ones.

Chris Best of Ferndale’s Rust Belt authored the living wall of succulent plants near the long, poured cement bar, where some of the comfortable, high-backed chairs are directly in front of the food preparation area, bringing the kitchen and dining room together nicely.

Succulents in little pots are scattered on windowsills throughout the room, emphasizing the theme, which is set immediately with a mural in the foyer by the artist known as Ouizi, Louise Chen.

How fitting that the DIA’s new neighbor is artistic in almost every respect.

Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails

Location: The Park Shelton | 15 E. Kirby, Detroit | Call: (313) 818-3915

Web : | Rating:★★★★

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; dinner, 5-9:30 p.m.

Tues.-Thurs., 5-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Closed Sun.-Mon.

Credit cards: All major | Prices: Cold plates $7-$10, vegetables $7-$9,

hot plates $14-$29, desserts $7

Liquor: Full bar | Noise level: Moderate

Parking: Validated at the Park Shelton garage; other nearby parking lots and street

Wheelchair access: No barriers