In Paris, it’s not uncommon to find yourself sitting at a table on the sidewalk, watching cars go by and shoppers bustle past. Nestled between the greengrocer’s display of fresh fruit and the butcher’s sparkling cases of meat, fresh, beautiful, delicious food is served. Why, then, should it be so strange to eat above a food emporium here in Michigan? Papa Joe’s Market has opened a restaurant to fill this curious vacancy, and it’s an innovative, thoroughly global gourmet experience.
Bistro Joe’s occupies an expansive mezzanine above Papa Joe’s in Birmingham, with views of Woodward from a brightly lit patio area, as well as surprisingly impressive views of the marketplace below. Ron Rea’s interior design evokes a continental, modern and somewhat quirky feel with such details as modernist lamps hung next to panels made of wine cases. You’re at once a part of the market experience, yet divided from it.
The friendly and attentive front-of-house staff gives diners enthusiastic service, the welcoming hospitality doesn’t feel fake or forced. Servers are highly knowledgeable and clearly love the items they’re recommending, and even food runners can ably describe the dishes they bear to table. At dinner, our server gave a command performance, displaying superb menu knowledge and exceptional service, deftly recommending wines, dishes and preparations with full explanations upon request.
Chef Jacques Van Staden describes the mission of the kitchen: “We are taking the food, and cooking it how it should be cooked.” This simple proposal speaks volumes, and the plates that issue forth from the open kitchen prove that these are not empty words. The menu at Bistro Joe’s is one page, but packed full of offerings, all interweaving familiar flavors and presentations with international influences from Portugal to Japan to North Africa. All of it is spectacular.
Small items are offered all day, including a uniquely presented tuna “tacushi,” a playful fusion of tacos and sushi served atop a block of wood nearly 5 inches tall. Foie gras makes an appearance here, served with candied fruit and duck confit. Charcuterie, cheeses and seafood, both raw and cooked, add a classic bistro feel to the appetizers, as do pickled items that pervade the meal. Everything is crafted with care and served with flair.
Lamb is presented superbly at Bistro Joe’s, in the lamb sandwich and the lamb chops. The sandwich is a marvel of cucumber, mint, garlic, yogurt and succulent slices of lamb; the chops, part of the “butcher’s block” menu of chops and steaks, come with a sauce, a starch, a vegetable and a salad. Seafood cataplana, a Portuguese-inspired dish (named after the ornate copper vessel in which it arrives) with clams, shrimp, scallops, mussels and a white wine cream sauce, is expertly cooked, each item at the perfect doneness. The steak frites dish pairing an 8-ounce (or 12-ounce) strip steak with a choice of sauces and a generous portion of perfectly executed fries deserves a look.
Beignets are absolutely delicious and worth seeking out specifically. They are fried fresh to order, dusted with powdered sugar, and served still hot with sauces suitable for dipping or filling. Airy and sweet, they are the perfect ending to a meal, and would make a fitting afternoon snack too, especially at only $6.
The wine list is massive — it includes every bottle in the store’s extensive wine collection, plus a $15 uncorking fee. Servers are well-versed in the featured and printed offerings on the wine list, however, and will certainly help you find something to suit your palate. Craft beers from Michigan and beyond and specialty cocktails round out a complete drinks menu. (A full bar all night attests to the quality of service.) Lemonade at lunch was also incredibly refreshing, and coffee service — ranging from drip to French press to espresso — is available and excellent.
Chef Van Staden and the Bistro Joe’s team have created a marvel of a restaurant: it is at once a place to stop while you shop and a place to take your friends and loved ones, but also a place to take your business meetings. It is a home for culinary precision and creativity, contained within a fruit and vegetable market. Most of all, Bistro Joe’s should be a destination for anyone seeking a superb culinary experience.
Aaron Egan dines for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.