ANN ARBOR - French bistro no more.
Mikette has undergone a complete revamp of flavor and identity as it debuts a brand-new menu with dishes inspired by European, Middle Eastern and North African Mediterranean cuisines.
"For the last three years, when I’d come here, I’d always say, 'I don’t want to eat here,'" said Baru. "And I love eating at my other two restaurants. Over time, I realized that it was really because it wasn’t what I had envisioned the restaurant being. So I finally got to the point of saying, 'We're going to reboot this restaurant, we’re going to re-think it.'"
Baru had initially opened Mikette to reflect his experiences while living in the south of France, which has a much different cuisine than the well-known classics from other regions. He enjoyed the Northern African influences in the food, the use of garlic and specialties like merguez sausage.
"It was this melting pot of not only people but the cuisine they brought in as well, and I enjoyed eating that way," said Baru. "I loved it and when I wanted to open a restaurant, this was always my idea of southern French. What we did not do was tell the story very well, so it became a French bistro."
The concept is similar to his other establishments and offers a variety of small, medium and large plates designed to share.
But not all of the French dishes are gone. Baru is keeping some of the classics on the menu.
"We have a lot of loyal guests," he said. "To make drastic changes is one thing, but to make sure that people are going to be comfortable coming to the restaurant and remember why they love it (is another). The Classics section is paying homage to what we’ve been and the items that they’ve enjoyed the most."
He said throughout the nine months it took to make the changes, he has also learned more about the community on Ann Arbor's north side.
"I have learned a lot about this area of town whereas before I had no idea," said Baru. "Realizing dietary restrictions, realizing how people dine here. The makeup of the community of this side of the town, to me it felt it needed something different. French can be delicious but it can also feel very stayed, and to me, that’s not why I got into the business. I got into it to make delicious food, to deliver on top shelf hospitality, to have a staff and a kitchen staff that was inspired, and guests who feel the energy of the room."
Much of the cuisine was informed by Mikette's sous chef, Hossayn Saddy who grew up eating home-cooked meals made by his Lebanese grandmother.
"I just remember as a kid my grandma being 4-foot nothing just being able to cook for a hundred people like it was nothing," said Saddy. "In a lot of Middle Eastern cultures, family and gathering revolves around food, so it’s always been part of my life. (With) Mediterranean food, there’s a lot of familiar flavors, but at the same time, it punches your taste buds. French food is a lot of butter and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food is just high acid, high garlic -- and it's healthy."
Also changing is Mikette's wine menu. New selections will be brought in from Mediterranean countries to pair with the food, though some staple French wines will stay.
"We want the wine to reflect the food, so we’ve expanded beyond just France to some Spanish, Portuguese, Moroccan, Lebanese, I found a nice cabernet from Israel as well, and of course Italian (wines)," said bar manager Timothy Hodgkiss. "Pretty much the entire continent of Europe, if they’re making wine, and they approach the Mediterranean, we’re going to try and carry it."
The cocktail and non-alcoholic beverage menus are still undergoing changes, but Hodgkiss said to expect house-made sodas, shrubs and fresh juices.
I spent more than a decade living in Tel Aviv, frequenting "hummusias," indulging in Middle Eastern classics in the old city of Jaffa and everyday Mediterranean cuisine, so these are flavors that are very familiar to me.
The chefs have been able to capture the bold, surprising flavors of the region while putting their own twist on classic dishes.
Standout starters are the Carrot Lentil Dip blended with curry, clam juice and topped with roasted cumin seeds, the bold, lemony Tabbouleh with Israeli couscous and the Buffalo Cauliflower -- cooked in a sweet and sour paprika sauce with tahini and toasted almonds. "The cauliflower dish was just from the heart for me," said Saddy.
The Fennel Salad is bursting with flavor with feta, sumac, scallions, mint, dill, lime, olive oil and a more local ingredient: dried cherries.
The smaller dips and salads -- priced at 3 for $18, or 5 for $29 -- are served with Roman flatbread, handmade and grilled daily with a generous sprinkling of za'atar, which Saddy makes in-house using 13 spices.
The kebabs are traditionally char-grilled and range from $16 to $24 depending on the protein. The chicken kebab comes with a tart dill tzatziki that is balanced by sweet, grilled onion. The tender hanger steak kebab is served atop a charred eggplant tahini spread topped with fresh, flavorful tomatoes.
"At first, being at a French restaurant, I didn’t know exactly how the transition was going to be," said Saddy. "But I can honestly only see great things happening here. It’s a great location and there’s a lot of diversity in this part of town. I really think that we’re onto something."
To learn more and see Mikette's new menu, visit www.mikettea2.com.
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