Fine Dining Crafted Tableside
Detroit diners who visit Marais are treated to culinary presentations.
Detroit is a different city. After a few brave restaurateurs and food pioneers set up shop in what had been a barren business land, a couple more chefs and artisans followed. And then more and more. Meanwhile, community residents have worked together to develop urban farming and other outreach programs. Now, it’s safe to say Detroit is on its way to becoming a burgeoning food mecca in the Midwest.
This means more competition for places like Marais, even though the upscale French restaurant sits just outside the city in Grosse Pointe. But competition and this evolution are good things. Chef/owner David Gilbert has used the escalation in standards and consumer expectations to think outside the box when it comes to keeping relevant, pushing past competition, and finding alternative revenue sources. Or maybe, it’s more about re-thinking inside the box.
“Restaurants are great, but if you don’t diversify, a restaurant will only do so much for you—especially in Detroit these days, where in the last couple of years maybe 150 restaurants have opened,” says Gilbert, an alum of Chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. “Our goal has never been to open multiple restaurants, which can stretch you thin. Instead, we’re trying to give back to our community by having as many [options] within our four walls as we can to give different people more reasons to see us.”
The revival that led to the creation of so many new restaurants has also contributed to Chef Gilbert’s mindset. “It’s helped give my wife and me the [motivation] to think of ways to introduce fun, cool things and give back to our community.”
Marais opened in September 2013, and in the last year Gilbert has introduced a weekly farmers market in the restaurant’s parking lot, converted the cocktail bar to a coffee bar and pastry takeout for morning breakfast, and introduced tableside service to bring more excitement to his dining room.
For the farmers market, he acquired special permits from the city government so a tent could be set up to showcase seasonal fruits and vegetables from the farms with which he’s cultivated relationships. The market has given the farmers another avenue to sell their goods and also allowed Chef Gilbert to sell some of the extra food he might have. Not to mention, it’s been a great marketing tool for the restaurant.
“The response has been tremendous because there was not a farmers market in this area,” he says. “You have people walking by all these crates of beautiful produce, and it makes them realize how we cook at the restaurant.” During the markets, held on Saturday and Sunday mornings, Gilbert will also offer the restaurant’s rotisserie chickens and ducks, which are sourced from small, sustainable farms.
Inside the restaurant, Gilbert transitioned his bar area in the mornings to offer coffee, popular pastries, and hand-made croissants, which are prepared in the traditional way and take three days to make. He learned this art from spending years working in patisseries and restaurants throughout France.
“We’ve had an amazing brunch service, and everyone would always want to take home more of our pastries, so we turned that into its own business,” he says. To round out the morning selection, he offers Intelligentsia coffee drinks as well as fresh-made doughnuts and crepes, both sweet and savory, which are made in front of customers on a French machine.
These days, competing in the fine-dining space has gotten even tougher, with more chefs opting to go casual and some even branching into fast casual. There’s more pressure on chefs and restaurateurs to think of new ways to make fine dining exciting, accessible, and approachable so that consumers will be willing to spend on these concepts. For Gilbert, the competitive edge came in the form of creative tableside dining, which he introduced earlier this year as a way to bring some of the exciting aspects of old-school fine dining to his guests and to pay homage to the traditions born in France.
“What we’re finding today is that great food is just one aspect of the dining experience; customers nowadays are looking for an entertainment aspect to go along with great service,” Chef Gilbert says. “If guests have a boring server or bad service, good food only goes so far.”
His solution at Marais is to begin each guest’s meal with a presentation of opulence: Servers roll out a tableside Champagne cart with a range of iced Champagne varietals selected by the sommelier. Guests can also select from a variety of caviars rolled out on a wooden cart, then scooped up by the servers, and served with accompaniments.
During the meal, for guests who order steak tartare or Caesar salad, servers will roll out carts with the ingredients for those dishes, mixing them fresh at the table. And yes, Gilbert uses a raw egg yolk for the tartare, but he sets the yolk atop the meat rather than have the servers crack an egg at the table.
For dessert, there are carts for cheese presentations, as well as dramatic deliveries of cherries jubilee and bananas Foster—showcasing brandy, copper sauté pans, and flames.
Gilbert considers himself lucky his staff has wholeheartedly embraced the tableside dining. “We have always been champions of fan interaction with our service,” he says. “I’m also lucky because our service team consists mainly of [restaurant] veterans who like to cook themselves, so we encourage them to have fun with tableside service.”
To train the staff on the tableside service, Gilbert hosts demos every week and promotes regular practice to refine skills, and everyone learns how to do tableside so they can support each other when busy. “We’ve tried to give our customers what they asked for,” Gilbert adds. “Giving back to our neighborhood and even to those from other areas who come to our restaurant has been so rewarding for us, but also for them.”