Albena is one of Detroit’s newest spots, located in the incredibly cool Siren Hotel.
On its website, Albena says it is “a minimalist approach to progressive dining.”
That’s as good a description as any, but Albena’s motto could just as easily be “Rethink what you believe a restaurant to be.”
Albena is an experience unique in Detroit, a redefining of the concept of “restaurant”.
Reservations? Nope. Instead, there’s an on-line ticket system. For $130 a person, you buy a seat at the appointed time.
Menus? No. Your ticket buys you a 90-minute tasting menu, with no hint of what you’ll be eating.
Restaurant? Not by any conventional definition. Your ticket buys you a seat at an 8-space counter, in a 350 sq. ft. space. If you’re not good with estimating space, this is smaller than most hotel rooms! And that includes everything: seating, kitchen, back room, etc.
Waitstaff? Nope. You’ll be served directly by Chef Garrett Lipar, or his sous chef, Emma. And you will watch as the food is finished and plated.
Because of this, Albena requires an open mind. It rewards with a unique experience, one heretofore unknown in Detroit.
And the food is amazing. Thoughtful dishes, meticulously prepared. New ingredients, prepared and combined in imaginative ways. Throughout the meal, I found myself trying, then rejecting, different labels for the cuisine: Nordic, forage, modernist, locavore. By the third course, I’d given up trying to label the food, and simply gave in to the one of a kind meal.
Do yourself a favor, and open your mind sooner. You’ll enjoy the dinner more once you quit labelling, and simply enjoy.
Shortly after being seated, Chef will present you with this dish:
The crispy brown topping is fried hen of the wood mushrooms, crunchy and redolent with garlic, topping a salsa verde, and a creamy, eggy custard. The dish is more substantial than an amuse bouche, a legitimate first course in the adventuresome menu.
It serves as notification that you’re in for a culinary journey.
The second dish is an eggplant dish, pickled in “last year’s ferment”, topped with–of all things–okra seeds. That’s right, okra seeds. Okra, that vegetable so indicative of Cajun cuisine, or, if deep-fried, a New South appetizer. I don’t believe I’ve ever given a thought to the seeds, at least until now. Here, the seeds are generously abundant, a caviar-like topping for the dish, providing the same “pop” and brine of roe. It’s a wonderful discovery, and a textural delight.
The third course is sparse, a large dinner plate holding four small vegetable squares. The vegetable is a Ronde de Nice squash, one found by Chef Lipar on a shopping trip to Eastern Market. In its natural form, this heirloom summer squash is shaped a bit like a miniature green pumpkin. In this presentation, the squash is cut into small thin squares, and barely cooked. The squares are held together with a red bean puree, topped with the squash seeds. The seeds have been cooked with apple cider vinegar, and a bit of serrano pepper.
I found myself eating this a single piece at a time, trying to savor the flavors of the unknown squash. It has a mild flavor, but the serrano eventually becomes more prominent, and you realize it’s a little bit hotter than you thought.
Then, the meal continued into a second act, bringing proteins to the fore.
Chef presented a plate showcasing chicken salad. What appears to be two pink footballs are actually thin strips of shallot, carefully assembled into small bowls to hold the finely-minced salad. The salad is deeply flavored, with a pronounced chicken taste, the herbal kick of tarragon, and the crisp kiss of celery. The salad is in a pool of chicken jus, an intense shot of chicken, with a few gooseberries as a garnish. This is delicious, and I wanted more.
I’d happily sign up for a lunch featuring this salad put into a grilled, buttered lobster roll bun.
Even better was the brisket, an unexpected course. Brisket is one of the more difficult meats to cook well, but you’d never know that here. The brisket is a generous slice of wonderfully moist beef, tender and succulent. It’s as comforting as mom’s meatloaf, a warm and welcoming embrace of the coming autumn.
In contrast, the next course holds the final taste of summer. The most beautiful plate of the night, this presentation is almost too pretty to eat. Described as a sweet corn pudding, this dish is topped with a chile corn crumble, pickled blueberries, starflowers, and oyster leaf. Each bite held a melange of flavors: sweet, hot, brine, sour. It’s a party dish; it makes you smile while you eat it. Not because of any memory–you’ve probably never tasted anything quite like this–but because you just know this has become one of your favorite things.
And because you are very, very happy to be here.
That pudding is also the transition to the dessert courses.
First comes a stone bowl with shards of . . . something. Chef explains this is a cinnamon meringue, topping a scoop of tomato and stone fruit gelato, and an assortment of stone fruits, berries, and tomatoes (because tomatoes are a fruit). The meringue is a crisp crunch of warm cinnamon flavor, and I found myself holding a piece of that while scooping gelato and fruit. The crispy texture was a bit reminiscent of a waffle cone, a textural counterpoint to the soft stone fruit and berries. Additionally, it was a warm contrast to the cold gelato. This is a bowl of opposites, and it works really well. My only regret was the meringue covered the beauty of the bowl when first presented, and it’s not sufficiently captured in the above photo.
So I took another shot, so you could see this beautiful arrangement.
The next course was also a frozen dessert. In this instance, and apple ice cream, drizzled with a caramel balsamic sauce, sitting atop house made marshmallows. According to Chef Lipar, the marshmallows are flavored with Asian pineapple weed, a wild-growing weed that can be found along Michigan roads.**
The closing course was a take on toast and tea. The tea was herbaceous, a warm taste of the forest. The accompanying toast was a play on a cinnamon roll, a quad loaf slice of ground seeds and nuts with a traditional sugar frosting atop the loaf. Together, they were delicious, a warm hug as you prepare to take your leave.
But there’s one final surprise, a trio of objects atop a small plank.
I’ll plead a bit of forgetfulness here, as my memory of the description disintegrated the moment I place the red candy in my mouth and realized I was eating a Chuckle.
Chuckles were the precursor to gummy bears and other assorted sour patch creations. They came five to a pack. The jellies were sprinkled with plain white granulated sugar, and they were basic. Five flavors per pack: cherry, lemon, licorice (ugh, did anyone ever eat the black ones?), orange, and lime. They were one of my favorite candies.
Well, at least four of the five were.
My nostalgia brain was doing backflips of joy while I was noshing on the cherry Chuckle a world-class chef had prepared for me. Whatever he called it doesn’t matter–I know a Chuckle when I taste one!
On the right was a dark, dark chocolate. It was my final taste of the evening, and frankly, that’s how all meals should end.
The middle scroll?
Oh, that’s the menu.
At the end of the meal.
Rethink what you believe a restaurant to be.
You can click on each photo to see the full-size shot. It’s worth doing, as there is some incredible detail in these dishes.
Albena is located at 1509 Broadway Street in Detroit. You can buy tickets at AlbenaDetroit.com, and choose your seating. Because there are only eight seats in the restaurant, you may need to book some weeks in advance. That’s OK; it’s worth it!
**Pineapple weed piqued my curiosity, so I looked it up when I got home. I’ll save you the trouble of Googling it, particularly since the word “weed” no longer has “unwanted or nuisance plant” as its primary meaning, at least according the the algorithm that brought up my results. So to save you the trouble of searching for the right weed in all the pictures of weed, here’s a link to a blog post from Southern Forager. Not only does it include photos of the weed in question, it also has a recipe for pineapple weed cheesecake. You can find it here: http://southernforager.blogspot.com/2013/05/pineapple-weed-cheesecake.html