Restaurant review: Besa is a stylish, bold addition to downtown Detroit scene
On the ground floor of the historic Vinton Building, Besa shines with thoughtful service and fearless, creative dishes
When I think of chef Kyle Schutte's mise en place in the kitchen of Besa Detroit — that is, a chef's ingredients all prepped and laid out for easy access — it makes me smile to think he may have a bag of Corn Nuts and family-sized box of Rice Krispies among his gourmet sauces, aiolis, spices and other ready-to-plate items.
A transplant from the West Coast, the accomplished Schutte has had his eye on Detroit for a few years. He was recruited by Besa's owners when the restaurant was still in the construction phase. The polished and interesting spot debuted last fall on the ground floor of the Albert Kahn-designed Vinton Building at Woodward and Congress.
Besa seems a little serious upon first glance, with its sleek cosmopolitan dining room designed by Neumann/Smith Architecture, modern light fixtures, proper wine offerings, a formal service style and white linen napkins. (Or black linen, which may be offered you're wearing dark colors, which I always am, so thank you very much.)
And make no mistake, hands-on owners Gerti Begaj and Mario Camaj are serious, mainly about hospitality, which is no afterthought here.
The servers are gracious, interested and super-informed about the menu, not only regarding ingredients but also in terms of how much to order and in what sequence.
With Schutte's menu, however, a fun-loving and bold side of the restaurant is exposed.
Let's start with the raw bar, which offers oysters of the day, snapper crudo, ahi crudo and a beef tartare that is both seasoned and plated unlike any you may have seen.
Made with Michigan Holstein beef, the tartare is mixed with oyster mayo, some citrus, dried blueberries for sweetness and spread onto a candy bar-sized piece of brioche toast. The bijou treat is topped with broken up Funyuns, as in the onion-flavored Frito-Lay junk food snack. The flavor and texture totally work.
It's small plates like these where Besa and chef Schutte shine and make you want to try more. The shareable Brussels sprouts dish dressed with sweet chili, Thai basil and mint is memorable long after the meal, and comes peppered with the aforementioned Rice Krispies. The cereal adds a crunch at the start of the dish and serves as a sponge to soak up the sweet sauce toward the end. The sprouts are cut bite sized but are whole enough to let your tongue enjoy the leafy layers of this superfood.
An absolute home run of a dish is the calamari. It's a great example of Besa's team not doing things the usual way, and it's really paying off.
Served as a pan-seared, sliced steak instead of as breaded, fried rings, this is the best version of squid I've ever tasted. The tender meat is deglazed in apple cider vinegar, and served with a smoky, buttery aioli. The pea tendrils set on top give a bright, earthy snap to the whole thing.
The sprouts and calamari are also on the lunch menu. Lunch is served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays, making it one of the few upscale, chef-driven restaurants open downtown for mid-day dining. (Seriously, with huge windows giving a panoramic view of the bustling of Woodward and Congress during lunch, Besa should grow be a go-to for business meals and daytime dates.)
Offered only at lunch, the avocado and toast is another small dish that is creative and flavorful. It's a thin piece of crustless, lightly toasted bread topped with an avocado spread and decorated with a slow-cooked egg in the middle, surrounded by dollops of hot sauce, tiny pickled red onions, radishes and, for a stratifying crunch, Corn Nuts. The $12 dish probably won't fill you up for lunch, though, so add some green curry soup or herbed French fries.
For a more hearty mid-day meal, the fried chicken sandwich is juicy and crisp, but instead of the expected slaw comes with slivered green papaya that adds a nice sweetness but makes for an unexpected texture.
If you splurge at lunch and go with the sea scallops, recommended by more than one staff member, you'll need something else. The $29 seafood dish is gorgeous and tender, but it's just three scallops on a bed of masa polenta with chunks of bacon and a sauce made with gochujang chili and white chocolate broth that is more sweet than heat.
Back to dinner, where the same scallop dish is offered, along with even pricier options like branzino (served sans head), a 16-ounce lamb shank from the certified-humane farm Niman Ranch and the Hudson Valley Duck Breast. The latter was beautifully plated but was not a favorite at the table because it was tough to chew.
Six desserts are offered, all $10 and plated with a level of sophistication what will make it hard not to whip out your cell phone for a photo. These include a caramelized brioche ice cream topped with strawberries, candied pistachios and ribbons of dried fruit. The chef has also created a toasted marshmallow semifreddo with fruit and nuts.
Besa, which seats around 135 in the main dining area, offers a relaxed-pace for dining. If you're going to order from different sections of the menu and have dessert, be prepared to settle in for two hours or more. Plan to spend $50-$100 per person, depending on your beverage style.
Lunch and happy hour is faster-paced and is a good way to experience Besa at a lower price point. The bar itself is a cool spot to people-watch through the restaurant's large windows.
One of Besa's managing partners, Camaj, is also the owner of Tallulah Wine Bar in Birmingham. He's brought his sommelier from there, John Cooke, to oversee the wine at Besa. Those with only a tertiary knowledge of wine will feel emboldened with the well-organized drink list presented on a digital tablet. If the selection overwhelms, just ask your informed server for a recommendation.
Besides the main dining room, Besa also has a lower-level lounge where a private chef's table can be reserved for 12-14 diners. There's also a small sidewalk patio on Woodward with just a few tables.
600 Woodward, Detroit
Rating: ★★★ (excellent)
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri., dinner 4-10 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 4-11 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 4-9 p.m. Sun. Happy Hour is in the bar-only, 4-6:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
Prices: Starters $12-$18 (oysters are $4 each), sides $7-$11, entrees $17-$52, desserts $10. Some items are less expensive at lunch. A bar-only happy hour menu is $3-$12 for food and $4-$7 for select drinks.
Reservations: Suggested for dinner, but likely not needed at lunch. Call, visit the website or use the OpenTable app. For booking the chef's table, call or e-mail at least a week in advance.
Noise level: Lively at dinner, much quieter at lunch
Accessibility: One small step from sidewalk to main entrance. The Vinton Building has an elevator for access to the lower level.
Parking: Street or garage parking where you can find it. Besa will validate for two hours for the One Detroit Garage is just across the street. Valet parking available 5-10 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. for $10.
What the stars mean
★ — routine ★★ — very good ★★★ — excellent ★★★★ — extraordinary