There’s really nothing simple about cooking with over an open fire. The technique seems straightforward, but, as anyone who's ever tried to cook anything over a campfire can attest, controlling heat over an open flame is tricky. So it seemed more than a little off the mark, when a press release arrived in inboxes stressing that Magnet, a wood-fired and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern-influenced restaurant in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood, was “simple.” With the restaurant’s opening scheduled for Friday, September 20, customers will be able to decide for themselves just how simple Magnet actually is.
Located in the former Magnet Radiator Works building across from Ochre Bakery, Magnet is the second project from the newly formed restaurant group Top Young Hospitality. The restaurant’s partners, who also operate Takoi in Corktown, include chef Brad Greenhill, developer Philip Kafka, beverage director Drew Pompa, and director of hospitality Christina Ponsaran. Magnet is designed as an anchor to several properties that Kafka is redeveloping along Grand River Avenue just west of Woodbridge, including the True North quonset hut development, the former Architectural Salvage Warehouse, and the Sawtooth building.
Magnet was designed by Ishtiaq Rafiuddin, whose architecture firm Undecorated regularly collaborates with Kafka’s development group on projects including two iterations of Takoi. Like Takoi, which was also built inside a boxy former garage, Magnet has a modular layout. The long dining room features 14-foot-high exposed ceilings and a large open kitchen where customers can see chef Greenhill’s team smoking chickens over a wood-fired grill and baking flatbreads in a wood-burning oven.
At the center of the space is a 32-foot-long rectangular bar. During a preview on Monday night, Ponsaran described the bar as a “pool” — a pretty accurate description given that the center bar is sunken into the floor so seated diners are placed at eye-level with their bartender. The walls along both sides of the restaurant are lined with walnut tables and booths for larger groups and nearly everything is covered in dark blue tile.
Like many chefs, Greenhill loves playing with fire. While living in Ann Arbor prior to the opening of Takoi, the chef started experimenting with cooking and smoking over fire. “I was roasting pigs or lambs and having these big parties,” he recalls. When it came to open his own restaurant though, wood-fired equipment was prohibitively expensive. “When we opened Takoi, we were on a budget,” he says. “Believe it or not, wood-fire cooking equipment is more expensive than gas cooking equipment.”
After the successful opening of Takoi in 2016 (the restaurant originally opened under a different name), Greenhill, Kafka, and then-partner Courtney Henrietta began planning their next project in Core City. Initially they envisioned Magnet as a trendy Detroit-style pizza restaurant. However, after a fire in 2017 gutted Takoi, the concept for Magnet evolved at into a more complicated restaurant with both gas and wood-burning equipment and a chef’s counter. “Coming back from the fire, I don’t want to say we were trying too hard, but we felt like we had something to prove,” he says. As the partners shepherded Takoi through its rebuild, they reevaluated the plan for Magnet again and decided to course-correct again. They did away with the gas-powered equipment and the chef’s counter, and refocused on wood-fired cooking.
Magnet’s equipment is fueled with oak and will also incorporate some cherry and apple wood to flavor some dishes. The restaurant’s oven is primarily devoted to baking the kitchen’s range of flatbreads including Israeli-style laffa bread, pita bread, and “topped” breads that are in some cases spread with lamb. One topped bread features brick cheese and a frico cheese crust — an homage to Georgian khachapuri and Detroit-style pizza. The flatbreads are designed to pair with several types of spreads including fermented farm cheese and chickpea dip with fried whole chickpeas.
The core of Magenet’s menu vegetarian and vegan with options like ash-roasted fennel and blistered corn with lacto-fermented blueberry dressing, pistachios, and chickpea straws. Customers can also find options like smoked prime rib and leg of lamb on the list. Prices range from $4 to $58 depending on the dish and there’s also a $65 tasting menu option. Greenhill says the menu will change depending on the produce that’s in season, with fall vegetables such as carrots, beets, cabbage, and sweet potatoes cycling onto the list in the next few weeks.
From the bar, customers can expect a wider range of wines offered primarily by the bottle. A short list of cocktails with a mix of vegetal, fermented, and Middle Eastern ingredients is also available alongside digestifs such as the restaurant’s house amaro. Magnet also serves several non-alcoholic beverages including a lavender-thyme soda and a ginger, tamarind, and fennel “Health Tonic” made by Toledo-based kombucha brand Boochy Mama.
Top Young Hospitality is also introducing a no-tip format with the opening of Magnet. Greenhill says that the discrepancy between how front and back of house workers are paid is a major concern for him, and adds that the tipping system has a troubling history. Nevertheless, he was cautious about trying a new format when opening Takoi. “When we were opening it like at that time, the Detroit restaurant resurgence was very fresh and new still and we just felt like it was maybe a little risky or a little alienating perhaps to both workers and consumers,” he says. Now that Takoi is more established, Magnet’s team feels more comfortable trying out a different system for compensating workers.
At Magnet, non-salaried staff start at a minimum wage of $15 per hour with higher pay rates depending on experience and skill level. This hopefully will allow formerly tipped employees to better predict their weekly pay without having to worry about slow days at the restaurant. Greenhill adds that roughly 85 percent of the staff is salaried and earns between $38,000 and $55,000 per year. “We want to foster a more equitable environment and more career-oriented work,” he says. Rather that including a service charge on bills, Magnet has incorporated the cost of the higher wage into the pricing on the menu.
Magnet is accepting reservations of roughly 70 percent of its dining room with the rest reserved for walk-ins. Online reservations are now open for Magnet.
Magnet is located at 4842 Grand River Ave.; open 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday with the bar open late from 11 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday; website.
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