With the recent deluge of restaurant openings in Detroit, it’s easy to understand why some of the new and very worthwhile venues in the suburbs have gotten overlooked lately.
I think, however, that Detroit has just about gotten to the point where each new restaurant opening is neither brave, remarkable nor a surprise, and honestly, that’s a good thing. They’ve turned the corner, they’re on their own, and the training wheels are off.
And as the culinary pendulum begins to swing back a bit towards what’s new in the burbs, a growing restaurant hospitality group known playfully as Peas & Carrots has plated up a number of northwest side venues for your dining enjoyment.
Started in 2012, Peas & Carrots’ first eateries are the popular Beau’s Grillery and MEX in Bloomfield Hills and Social Kitchen & Bar in Birmingham.
You can now add two more to their lineup—Au Cochon and Arthur Avenue, also in Birmingham.
Under the helm of Peas & Carrots are chef and partner Zack Sklar and COO Josh Humphrey, who in less than five years have now opened five restaurants in Southeast Michigan and whose ambitions are seemingly aiming to dish up even more growth in the near future.
I recently stopped in to check out Au Cochon (and subsequently its adjacent dining space Arthur Avenue) to take in the newest fare being served by this up-and-coming restaurant group.
Opened in September of 2015 and located at 260 N. Old Woodward in Birmingham’s Palladium entertainment district, Au Cochon (translated to “The Pig” in French) sits side by side with its culinary companion Arthur Avenue. Depending on your tastes, you can choose casual French-inspired fare in Au Cochon or casual Italian fare in Arthur Avenue. Both share the same kitchen and bakery, which prepare everything from sauces to breads and pastries in-house.
On this visit, I chose Au Cochon and sat (as I usually do at ANY restaurant) at their handsome zinc-topped bar that extends nearly the length of the dining room.
While the exterior of Au Cochon (as well as Arthur Avenue) is Euro-Brasserie contemporary, the inside design cues are more traditional.
Reminiscent of what you might expect to find in one of Paris’s outlying arrondissements, you’re greeted while standing on a classic bistro floor of 1’ x 1’ white ceramic tiles with black accents; above is a ceiling of pressed-tin tiles. Red leather upholstered booths, antiqued mirrors, milk-glass pendant lighting and smaller details like small etched-glass tea lamps on their aforementioned zinc-clad bar all fit together nicely.
The bar, I might add, has a nice selection of wine,beer, premium spirit pours and craft cocktails. If you happen to enjoy Whiskey and Bourbon,you may just have found another Birmingham watering hole.
Besides the well-stocked bar, in keeping with the casual, relaxed, unpretentious nature of brasseries, the plate ware, flatware, glassware and whatever else their food and beverages are served in or on, are simple, minimally decorated and functional.
On to the food.
When you’re reviewing a restaurant, the last thing you really want to do is draw attention to yourself, and that’s particularly hard to avoid when you’re alone and yet ordering way more food than you can possibly eat. It’s even MORE difficult when you’ve decided to seat yourself at the end of the bar and thus only 3 feet away from the expediting Chef Mark Barbarich’s open kitchen. But in order to see nearly every dish on the menu plated, I decided to give it a go. My strategy was to chum up to whoever was seated next to me, so I could dissolve into the dining scene without looking too conspicuous.
It worked. I had a number of great conversations with three different couples throughout the evening (all their first time there), and we shared some great conversation (as well as one of my dishes to get their opinion). In fact, Au Cochon has a warm, very congenial atmosphere, which, being only a block from the Emagine Theater, makes it a good date-night choice as well.
Being that Au Cochon bills its cuisine as French-inspired, I figured I’d start out with the French Onion Soup, which as simple and as basic as it is, still trips up more than a fair number of kitchens that use salty, artificial bases and copious amounts of sherry and either underdo or overdo the amount of crouton and cheese. It can be a real litmus test for your expectations thereon out.
It was quite good. In fact, I might have actually enjoyed the entire crock had it not have been that I needed to reserve my appetite.
Given the name Au Cochon (The Pig), I knew the appetizer simply named Bacon was in my future (especially because I saw numerous orders being plated up as I enjoyed my soup).
Better than ¼” thick, Bacon is Au Cochon’s adaptation of the ever recently popular pork belly (which is where bacon comes from). This version, sliced like bacon, is broiled then finished with a glaze made from Bourbon, Honey, Vanilla and Cider Vinegar then seasoned with freshly cracked pepper. It was absolutely fork tender and a must for ANY bacon lover.
As a Bacon side note, you can also enjoy this bacon on their Wedge Salad and on their Cheeseburger.
You don’t often see Frog Legs on local menus. When I do, I try and make room. These legs are fried in what I’d describe as a light tempura batter and then nested on a pool of Herb Beurre Blanc, which has a subtle tarragon influence. While they were quite good, you most often see them prepared breaded then sautéed in butter and garlic and with a different type of sauce. Maybe it was the Beurre Blanc that threw me?
By now, I’d made friends with some seated around me and, of course, with my bartender Lauren who, as it turned out, had once worked at Gold Cash Gold, one of the first restaurants I reviewed well over a year ago.
Not in the mood for their house Cheeseburger, either one of the two steaks on the menu, or the Chickpea Crepe, I asked Lauren to choose my entrée from one of the three remaining items. Without hesitation, she immediately said I HAD to get the Skate Meunière, which is served with duchess potato and a centerpiece of chilled, charred cauliflower salad. The Meunière part of the name comes from the French classical brown butter sauce by that name, which is accented with lemon and capers.
If you’ve never had skate wing, you owe it to yourself to try it. Its sweet, light, almost crab-like flesh is delicate and fork tender. The portion here was VERY generous for its $23. So much so that when I discovered that the two couples seated next to me had never tried skate, I shared some with them.
They were astounded. It was love at first bite.
Au Cochon’s in-house bakery makes four desserts on their menu, all of which are European or French influenced as well. While their Pithiver, Sticky Date Cake and Pot De Crème looked tempting, I chose the Profiteroles, which are crème puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with a warm chocolate ganache. It was a nice choice to end the meal.
A word about the service.
When you seat yourself at the bar, you always have a server at your disposal, so to speak, and that (because I need instant service gratification) makes it my usual seating choice. However, in this case, not only was I seated at the bar, but the chef was expediting directly to my right. On all but one occasion (dessert), he handed my finished dishes to me directly after coming off the cooks’ line.
I did, however, pay a great deal of attention to how service was being performed throughout the restaurant. Throughout the evening, it was attentive, efficient and friendly.
As for the rest, here’s my box score. *(5 being highest/best where numbers are listed)
Menu Intimidation Factor MIF: 2.5
If France was a band and “Food” was its greatest hit, Au Cochon would do a nice cover. This isn’t haute French; it’s Brasserie French, meaning it’s food you know, will easily recognize, and will hopefully enjoy.
Taking into account that you’re in Birmingham, the home of au courant fashion for the Northwestern suburbs, if your wardrobe is lacking casual chic, a dozen shops surrounding Au Cochon will gladly outfit you for the evening (in comparison, the meal will seem cheap). Otherwise, take your design cues from observing any 12 to 16-year-old shopping in town, go home and try to cobble together anything resembling casual chic, and keep an eye out for the fashion police when you return.
The Crowd: 4
I didn’t take a poll, but I’d bet a paycheck 75% of the crowd lived within a 5-mile radius, making them mostly Bloomies. The rest are a mixture of pre- and post-movie date nighters, exhausted shoppers, after work hangers on and a few foodies that migrate to anything that sounds French. A nice mix.
Two nearby deck lots have free 2-hour parking, and there are street meters on Old N. Woodward directly in front of the restaurant on both sides of the street (which only take quarters…honestly).
Bang for the Buck: 3.5
Reasonably priced food and drinks, attractive décor and a very congenial atmosphere (with street view) add up to a nice bang for your Birmingham buck.
Food Stuff: 4
I must say that running two menus (Au Cochon and Arthur Street) from one average-size kitchen is challenging enough. That Au Cochon is open 7 days for breakfast, lunch and dinner is, well, exceedingly ambitious needless to say.
The dinner menu’s 10 Appetizers ($4 to $15), 4 Salads ($10 to $13), 7 Entrées ($11 to $48), and an ample list of “Sides” give plenty of choices (albeit light on the vegetarian offerings). All of the dishes I sampled were well prepared and seasoned.
Location: 260 N. Woodward Ave., Birmingham, MI 48009