Antietam, the lovingly restored art deco space on Gratiot in the Eastern Market district, was one of last summer's most anticipated restaurant openings, but it closed due to staff issues just a week or so after opening. However, the restaurant is reopening on Black Friday in the same space and under the same owner, but with a new staff, including two pedigreed chefs and an experienced beverage director. Eater spoke with the three of them to find out a bit about them and to learn just what guests will have in store when the restaurant relaunches next week.
Chefs Brion Wong and Jestin James Feggan, along with beverage director Albert DePompeis, are friends from the NYC culinary scene, and of the three only Feggan is originally from the area. This seems to be ushering in a potential new era of chefs in the city, as many, if not most, of the young chefs who came to open Detroit restaurants in recent years have some familial ties to the area. Wong and DePompeis are bucking the trend, as they were born and raised in New York and the Bronx respectively, moving to Detroit just a week ago solely to work at Antietam.
Feggan has a story more similar to that of other young local chefs. He grew up in the Detroit suburbs, working for four years at Ford before heading to NYC to pursue a culinary career. His highlights include positions at Shang in the Thompson Hotel, Bar Basque where he met Wong, and training in France. Wong, by contrast, had spent no time in Detroit, nor had he considered living here before finding out about the position at Antietam. He lists his former bosses chef Doron Wong and chef Alex Guarnaschelli as his biggest influences, and he has also worked with Evan Rich of Rich Table and at Nobu 57 among others. DePompeis, who is also new to Detroit, has worked with Todd English, Chalk Point Kitchen, and The Handy Liquor Bar, in addition to starting his own small beverage consulting firm, Paper Tiger.
So how do three friends from NYC with no current ties to the Detroit culinary scene end up in a restaurant in Eastern Market? It all started when DePompeis received a phone call from Antietam's owner, Gregory Holm. Holm was looking for DePompeis' assistance in creating a beverage program for Antietam's reopening. After visiting, DePompeis fell in love with the space. When he found out that Holm was still looking for chefs, he called Wong and Feggan to ask if they would consider applying for the positions.
The response? Feggan "laughed and hung up on him." Feggan's memories of the city, which he'd last visited a dozen years ago before his move to NYC, were of a decaying city in rapid decline. But he reconsidered, called DePompeis back, and both he and Wong were completely won over by the restaurant space. For Feggan, the change he saw in the city and the sense of pride and of community closed the deal. Wong says it was the restaurant's potential, and the "understanding that an opportunity like this does not come along every day" that led him to packing his entire NYC life into the back of a small car to move to a completely unknown city.
Asked whether Antietam's previous staff troubles had any effect on their decision to take the positions, they say it wasn't even a consideration. Coming from NYC, with its high restaurant turnover rate, they aren't worried. As Wong puts it, "We are seasoned and experienced industry veterans, and nothing about this particular job or invitation had any indication that it was anything but professional."
But they know that starting up in a new city will have its challenges. The biggest of which is the task of opening a restaurant with a menu and drink program they can be proud of in such a short amount of time.
For now, the group is looking forward to "summer and making friends!" They're trying to figure it all out, and quickly, on their own right now, and are anxious to meet the other players in the Detroit restaurant scene. Already they sense that Detroit has more demand for good food and drink than supply, they are eager to get involved.
The team is also ready to bring in the guests. They plan to offer "a highly curated culinary experience; a great room with great ambiance and cocktails and food to match." And that food is going to be not just "good" but "exceptional" according to Feggan, who with Wong has worked to create a menu that is seasonal, local, and French-inspired...for now. The menu will change at least seasonally, and they are careful to note that it's not bound by particular style rules or restrictions.
Wong has already been walking Eastern Market to meet vendors and farmers and to get a feel for what Michigan has to offer all year round. Feggan is in love with the flavor of the local root vegetables, and they seem to have had an effect on DePompeis cocktails as well, as he's featuring savory plays on classics, like his favorite the beet gin flip.
The French influence comes through in the choice of proteins, including duck (confit), rabbit (in a dish they call "bunnies and carrots"), braised oxtail (a favorite at early tastings) and even an escargot pâté. On the sweeter side look for a beignet, which is still in the works.
The drink menu will stay somewhat local, as DePompeis is enthusiastic about the state's craft breweries and unique wines, but he's still testing local spirits, and while he would like to use them, the flavor profile, local or not, is what he feels is most important. He will, however, be utilizing local produce (he has a centrifuge for clarifying juices in his apartment upstairs), and as much as possible will be made in house, including ginger beer and root beer.
Antietam reopens to the public at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, November 28, and will be open for dinner only (at least to start). The official kitchen hours are 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and the bar will remain open until 2 a.m. Reservations can be made by phone at 313-782-4378, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.