While its attractive art-deco-inspired brick, tile and wood exterior certainly sets itself apart from the adjacent buildings, don’t be looking for Antietam by scanning the block for its name. It’s here. It’s just not there. It does, however, have an address. Actually, two of them.
Punch in the coordinates of 1428 (or 20) Gratiot, Detroit 48207 on your GPS. Then, memorize the look of the exterior picture (a helpful photo is right here) because, tucked away in plain sight only a stone’s throw from both I-75 and the Eastern Market, is a VERY worthwhile restaurant experience. It’s only a sidewalk off Gratiot, right across the street from the Gratiot Central Market. Once inside, you feel more like you’re tucked away in a remote alley enclave than right off of a busy boulevard.
Antietam, so named after a side street a block or so removed from Gratiot, was itself (according to Detroit’s historical records) named after the infamous creek of the same name, running from Pennsylvania through Maryland into the Potomac. It was the site of a horrific 1861 civil war battle. If you trace that name back even further, it’s quite likely the creek was named by the native Algonquin Indians–“swift waters” [an-tee-tuh-m].
Entering Antietam through its ornately carved door, you’re immediately cocooned by the heavy drapery of its small vestibule wind screen, which, during the cold winter months is (I’m sure) of great comfort to those seated nearby in the “wood floor” room, one of two distinctively decorated rooms here. The Art Deco and 1930s-inspired décor throughout is warm and inviting, with a mixture of many found and restored treasures, including antiques from the old Hudson building. Its terrazzo and hardwood floors, exposed brick, mahogany-paneled and dark knotty-pine boarded walls, antique-silver mirrors, pressed-tin ceilings with both flapperesque lace-draped pendants and antique mold-blown milk glass lamps all work together. Add the 1930s jazz tracks, which were playing throughout the evening, and you could easily imagine Harlem’s Cotton Club in New York.
When I’m on my own, I rarely take a seat in the dining room, preferring, instead, to sit at the bar, which at Antietam has about 8 very handsome stools wrapped around a dark, wood-paneled back bar with both attractive and functional art pieces of the period. Even more important, the bar’s niches are filled with a nice selection of your favorite adult libations. Unless you’d prefer a pop, a.k.a. soda. Then? Well, you’re out of luck. Soda water, yes; juices, yes; ginger beer, yes. Coke, Pepsi, Sprite? Well right now, no. Hey, this is no fountain soda shop. This is the 30s. Remember that.
As mentioned, on the Saturday evening in late January that I visited, I sat at the bar next to a fabulous, free-standing candelabra with a picture-perfect wax drip goin’ on. They don’t miss any detail here. Next to me were a number of foodies who, like me, were casing this new, promising restaurant. This included a vegetarian couple, another couple from the far-flung western suburbs, a celebrity interior designer, and a personality from NYC, Genevieve Gorder, who made the trip to Detroit solely to take in our city’s cultural rebirth and emerging design scene. She said she absolutely loves what’s going on here.
On to the food: Antietam’s menu is currently printed on slender card stock, with three headings: Shared Plates, Small Plates and Main Plates. All totaled, 13 items were listed the night I was there. There is a separate beverage and wine list of similar size, with crafted cocktails, a few beers, Italian sodas, and wine, all of which are European, mostly French. I ordered two Shared Plates and one Small Plate to get a broader sampling of their fare. They were all delicious.
I began with the Pork Rillettes with beet crema. Rillettes (French) are meat (usually pork), which is ever so slowly cooked (almost poached) in fat until it easily shreds. It’s then preserved by placing it in a crock and sealing it with a thin coating of fat. Antietam’s version is presented in a small, hinged mason jar (crock) on a wooden plank (as are many dishes here). It was served with toasted, thinly sliced baguette crisps, a light, whipped-like beet crema for spreading, and a small, cold greens and radish salad. It’s enough for two to share and thoroughly enjoy. The Duck Confit with lentils du puy, lemon crème fraiche and herb salad was also excellent and prepared using a cooking method similar to the Rillette, except the duck legs are kept whole and the meat, once cooked ever so gently, is fall-off-the-bone tender and succulent. I’ve never seen it done any better.
Taylor, my barkeep/server that evening, highly recommended the Rye Cavatelli with ricotta, butternut squash and apple, the only dish of the three that came on traditional china, in this case a shallow bowl. Cavatelli is a narrow pasta shell shape reminiscent of tiny hot dog buns but usually made of semolina or Durham wheat flour. This cavatelli pasta used rye flour, and when paired with the sauce of ricotta, squash and apple, made a wonderful dish. It happens to be meatless, but you’d love it even if you’re not a vegetarian. I shared it with my vegetarian neighbors, and they loved it! Thanks, Taylor! Good choice.
Antietam has a casual sophistication about it, but make no mistake, it means business, both in the front and the back of the house. You don’t always get both. As for the rest, here’s my box score: *(5 being highest/best where numbers are listed)
Menu Intimidation Factor MIF: 4.5 While there’s a fair amount of French scattered throughout their menu, it’s not a large menu and they’ll gladly explain anything you’re not familiar with. Personally, I don’t mind the French terminology as long as they stay true to the method and ace it. And they did.
Dress: 3.5 Guys,you can walk in wearing (dress) jeans, but I’d accompany that with a sport jacket. You‘ll likely be surrounded by almost everyone else wearing smart casual. Having said that, you wouldn’t be out of place wearing a tux (spats are optional).
The Crowd: An eclectic mix of food knowledged folks looking for something in their wheelhouse and worth driving to Detroit for. If you’re lucky enough to be much closer, good for you. You may make this one of your regulars. Parking: 2.5 Ok, well, nothing is perfect. There is a limited amount of metered parking on both sides of Gratiot, and there are small lots here and there about a half block away.
Bang for the Buck: 4.5 Intriguing décor, innovative well-prepared cuisine, attentive service, and VERY reasonable prices.
Food Stuff: 4.5 Everything I sampled was prepared with the care and expertise that only comes from a dedicated, motivated staff. While the menu offerings are smaller than at many restaurants, what they DO put on the menu they execute well, and they cover most all of the food groups tastefully.
Energy, Vibe, & the Cool-Wow Factor: 4 Antietam doesn’t scream for attention; it just gets it. And actually, that’s kinda nice. It has a classy yet comfortable style that begs you to relax and enjoy it (even though on your first visit, you’ll want to roam around and check it all out).
About: Antietam is at 1428 Gratiot Ave, Detroit, MI 48207 and does take reservations by phone 313-782-4378 and e-mail. It is open for dinner only, Monday thru Saturday. The bar is available for your enjoyment at 5:00 p.m., with the kitchen accepting its first orders 1 hour later. It keeps the burners on until midnight, but the bar stays open a bit later.
Miscellaneous Stuff: They accept plastic and are wheelchair accessible, but the menu and intimacy of the dining rooms probably wouldn’t suit young children. Lastly, if you have a group of 6 or more, I’d highly recommend you book well in advance, so they can accommodate you properly.