After two years restoring a former bank vault, navigating the uncertainties of not just running a restaurant but opening one during a pandemic, and plenty of tasting survey data, cocktail bar and restaurant Shelby finally opened its doors in the Financial District.
Tucked away in the basement of a ten-story office building on Shelby Street in downtown Detroit, owner Tarun Kajeepeta describes the design of Shelby as “classy but unassuming,” allowing people to appreciate the little details found throughout the space. Kajeepeta also owns Coffee Down Under next door, the Australian-inspired coffee shop which greets customers upon descending the steps on their way to Shelby.
Designed by Detroit- and Boston-based architecture firm Primary Projects, there are many contrasting design elements at Shelby, which still hangs on to vestiges of its earlier life as a bank vault. Velvet seats mix with metal and stone. Terrazzo countertops match the restored floors. The eye-catching back bar was built by Fillmore in Woodbridge. The bank vault itself now acts as a seating area. Despite knowing the restoration would be a big undertaking when he first set foot inside the space two years ago, Kajeepeta says he immediately saw its potential, specifically as a speakeasy concept.
“It was very dilapidated, no electricity, the walls were kind of crumbling, rust everywhere,” he tells Eater. “But you could just see it, and you’re like, this has so much potential.”
Mirroring the overall old meets new vibe, chef Matt Tulpa’s approach to the menu is “intentional, thoughtful, familiar.” For the current prix fixe menu, Tulpa says the idea was to feature dishes that would hint at what would eventually be on the a la carte menu. For example, the shrimp cocktail has a spicy tomato marmalade currently used on the lamb shoulder entree. Lamb and shrimp together is an old-school combination, Tulpa says. For Shelby’s lamb shoulder, he grinds dried shrimp with chile flakes, sears the lamb shoulder, and encrusts it with the mixture.
Shelby’s version of beef tartare focuses on the beef and less on the accompaniments and dressings which can sometimes overpower the meat. Tulpa uses chuck rather than tenderloin to give the tartare a beefier flavor. The beef layering continues with a dressing of beef mignonette with shallots, vinegar, and pepper and garlic aioli on the bottom. Crisp leaves of iceberg lettuce are sprayed with beef garum. Dried herbs preserved from the summer are sprinkled on top. “The kicker [to the dish] is smoked beef heart,” Tulpa says.
Tulpa keeps food at Shelby playful as well with dishes such as the “Escar-no,” a vegetarian version of escargot made with cremini mushrooms, parsley breadcrumbs, and mushroom bouillon.
The menu for Shelby was shaped over the past year after a series of tastings. Kajeepeta, who describes himself as a very analytical person (no surprise for someone with a degree in business from the University of Michigan,) had people fill out surveys after trying dishes. He then studied the data for each dish. “I got some pretty funny looks from the team, like are you serious right now?” he says. “But I think it worked. And so I’m very pleased with where we landed.”
Tulpa, who works primarily as an independent chef and eventually plans to open his own spot, helped build the menu with chef John Yelinek as Shelby gets up and running. Eventually Yelinek (Roast) will take the reins in the kitchen, changing the menu seasonally. Yelinek says he’s looking forward to taking advantage of Michigan produce this spring, like morels and ramps.
“I’m really excited to come up with some ways to preserve those and have them as a pantry staple that we’re able to use in different formats throughout the year,” says Yelinek, adding he will preserve other fresh ingredients to use in dishes throughout the year.
Like the food, cocktails at Shelby lean classic with a twist. For instance, the clarified milk punch is an old recipe receiving a “fresh take” from head bartender Desmond Oliver (Oakland Art Novelty Company, Hammer and Nail). The process is labor intensive, starting with infusing rum and cognac with fruit and tea for about 24 hours, then curdling milk with the booze mixture, and finally straining out all of the milk solids. Non-alcoholic offerings on the menu include drinks like the Smuggler, featuring house-made zero-proof whiskey mixed with maple and ginger and shaken with an egg white.
Oliver’s approach to cocktails is “to get back to the roots. I’ve just gone so far forward [in previous jobs], and now I’m trying to look back and see simple ideas executed really well, and how to elevate them.”
The bar lists six cocktails on the prix fixe menu, with between 12 and 16 drinks planned in the future.
For now, Shelby offers a three-course prix fixe menu with two cocktails priced at $99 per person and a cocktail tasting menu for $30 per person. With Michigan only allowing restaurants to open at 25 percent capacity, Shelby is limited to just 18 people inside its 73-seat space. Offering a prix fixe menu makes sense at the moment for Kajeepeta. An a la carte menu is planned for when it’s safe to do so, he says.
Even with staff recently receiving the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and installing a new HVAC system which circulates air out of the space faster, the decision to open Shelby was still a difficult one.
“There’s no certainty on what’s going to happen in the future. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and waiting it out, we want to at least put our best effort forward,” says Kajeepeta.
“I’ve got a really great dedicated team here, who stuck through me with all the things that have gone on. I owe it to everybody to at least make an attempt to make it work,” he adds. “I think that what we put together is something really special.”
Open Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday - Sunday, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Check out the menu here. Reservations required.
607 Shelby Street, Detroit. shelbydetroit.com.