Wishy-washy chefs usually make wishy-washy food. Perhaps that's why it often takes a headstrong, confident chef to make great food, to have the willingness to take spectacular risks and potentially fail in order to succeed even more spectacularly.
And headstrong, confident and -- by his own admission -- arrogant is exactly what you get with chef Zack Sklar of Birmingham's new Social Kitchen & Bar.
"I love food, I love people, I love the hospitality business. When you do what you love, the money comes later, the success comes later, says Sklar. "If you focus your efforts on quality and the integrity of the product and developing relationships, you'll be successful if you love what you do. So I'm 26 and I'm opening the most ridiculous restaurant ever. You're going to freak out when you see it."
If Monday night's soft opening was any indication, there will be plenty of hyperventilating when diners receive their plates from a menu stuffed with taste-bud-seducing, heavy comfort food. An invited crowd kept the place humming all night long.
The Birmingham bistro takes over the space on Maple formerly occupied by Tokyo Sushi, which Sklar, with input from local restaurant designer Ron Rea, meticulously redesigned. It features the city's largest outdoor seating area and its first rooftop deck.
Jana Ecker, Birmingham's planning director, was impressed by Sklar's passion and energy when he came before the city to compete for one of two available bistro licenses against seven other applicants. "The city commission voted -- I didn't -- but my opinion is he had a very unique menu, he had a lot of different gourmet food items that we didn't already have in town, with unique presentation. His concept was a little different and more contemporary than anything we've had," she says. That includes a new utilization of the pedestrian passageway east of the building.
The move from running a catering company to running a full-service restaurant is brave, although certainly not unexpected for Sklar. The Farmington Hills native started his Cutting Edge Cuisine in a Culinary Institute of America dorm room in Hyde Park, N. Y., while working on his degree at the alma mater of foodie heroes Grant Achatz, Anthony Bourdain and Michael Symon. But Detroit called to Sklar, and in 2008 he took Cutting Edge Cuisine out of his college digs and into Michigan, building it into a successful business that caters events for clients such as Dan Gilbert and Neiman Marcus.
"The reason I moved back to Detroit was because I wanted to give back. In New York I was one of nine caterers doing what I was doing. So I figured if I come to Detroit I could maybe monopolize the market and start a restaurant group, and that's what I'm doing," says Sklar, who had dreamed of attending CIA since middle school. "We do stuff for everyone and all clientele, but we manage to capture that higher-end, upper echelon clientele as far as the catering goes. Really eclectic, out of the box kind of food. like we're serving food in Altoids boxes, an Altoid granita as an intermezzo. The food is fun. I don't want to call it kitschy, but a lot of it is cool and fun and different."
Tonight marks a turning point for Sklar as the doors of Social officially open. He picked everything from the chalkboards to the place mats and insisted on building the rooftop patio. The menu of what he calls "refined comfort food" is stacked with intriguing items (Sklar can deliver a mouthwatering riff on a Reuben sandwich that involves giant gougères) and eye-catching presentations. It will feature craft cocktails with fresh-squeezed juices, and everything from breads to charcuterie is done in-house.
"It's about taking the food that people love and making it what it's supposed to be, making it what it used to be. Everything that we're doing is from scratch. We're making turkey sloppy joes, but every part of it is from scratch. The pickle that goes on the sloppy joe, the buns are made in-house. We're doing crispy Brussels sprout chips with almonds, capers, parsley and garlic," Sklar says. "The food is just really interesting. My business partner wanted to have a steak on the menu, so we'll do classic steak frites, but I want to do it the right way -- blanch the potatoes, cook them a second time, sous-vide Wagyu New York strip, then finish it, sear it, baste it."
Restaurant designer Rea met Sklar when Sklar was 12 years old and immediately took notice of the young man's fascination with the food industry and drive for success.
"My older clients will get mad at me, but the young restaurateurs have seen so much. They've traveled, they've been around, the Internet has influenced them. They can look at anything on Google. They've visited the best restaurants in the world. And they come back with a vision, and that's what's cool," says Rea.
"(Social) is extremely casual. A lot of the design has to do with budget. We had to squeeze. It wasn't an open checkbook by any means. It was very well done because the building was cool to begin with. Everything we did was driven by what we had to work with. I think it's going to be a smashing success," he says. "I think it's another venue to go to that's unique and very well priced. I'm sure the food will be absolutely phenomenal. It's a great package: Food, service, visual, in that order. It's much needed in town."
Even though it's been a significant amount of time since he worked the line in a restaurant, talk to Sklar for 10 minutes -- or 10 seconds -- and it's clear that this is a man with supreme confidence. He is fronting mostly his own cash, alongside the silent partner, to open Social and is already close to moving forward with a second location in downtown Detroit.
The restaurant business, he says, isn't really all that different than the catering business, especially when it comes to the pressure cooker environment in which he thrives.
"You plan an event for nine months and you work on it and you sweat about it and you change the menu and you baby it and then you see it come to life and you have three hours to make it happen. You're off site cooking on ovens that are on propane tanks in a tent and you're cooking for the who's who of Detroit and you just make it happen. All the pressure's on you," he says.
"It's just like this restaurant -- I've got hundreds of thousands of dollars and people's salaries and my reputation, and I love it. I love the pressure. I love knowing that I'm going to make this happen and I'm going to make it the best damn restaurant in metro Detroit."
More Details: Social Kitchen & Bar
225 E. Maple
Fare: Approachable comfort food made from scratch. Each dish has something special, be it the caramelized cornbread in the strawberry salad, the grilled cheese delivered on onion-poppy naan or the diced chorizo in the mussels appetizer broth. Dishes come in brown bags, on rimmed baking sheets, in cast-iron skillets, even cookie jars.
A full wine list features a color-coded key to help diners choose the right pairing.
Scene: Urban cool, with wide-plank stained wood floors, unfinished wood wall accents, exposed ductwork, and a white/wood/orange-brown color scheme. Diners can choose from low or hightop seating, indoor or outdoor spaces, and, in a week or two, the chic rooftop area. High ceilings provide relief from densely packed tables. Kitschy-cool adornments include Warholian soup can art over the kitchen and a can't-miss chalkboard that is half-map of Detroit, half-butcher chart. Ersatz techno and conversations from neighboring diners fill the tall, open spaces.
Price: Dinner menu: appetizers $6-$15; salads $8-$11; sandwiches $11-$15; entrées $21-$28 (strip steak is $54); sides $5-$8; desserts $7-$8. Lunch will include a $9 all-the-ingredients-you-can-add salad option. Wines available by the glass or bottle, and cocktails are competitively priced.
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight daily. Call aheads accepted; reservations for five or more.