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Rodin brings crème de la crème of French cuisine to Midtown

Herbs, butter, cuts of meat set restaurant a part, chef Williams says

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Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 12:09 pm, Fri Apr 5, 2013.

A new French-inspired restaurant, named for the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, is chiseling out a reputation for itself in Midtown.

Opened by Torya Blanchard and chef Kate Williams in December, Rodin has been teasing tongues for a while now — the corner storefront sat vacant with paper covering its windows for months, with no update on when it would open to the public. In fact, Rodin has been in the works for two years now, delayed, as many budding small businesses are, by funding problems.

But now it’s open, and business is booming — reservations are recommended. The restaurant serves what Chef Williams calls “French-inspired” small plates. That is, gentle twists on French favorites, such as Coq au vin chicken wings and Duck Confit Cassoulet. The dishes are designed to make French food more accessible to the public and appeal to a wide range of diners.

In French cooking, bread, cheese, and wine are central. What really sets the cuisine apart, however, are the herbs, butter and cuts of meat, Chef Williams said. Ingredients are made and implemented carefully.

“France decided to make cooking elegant and an art before the rest of the western world did … everything else followed suit,” Williams said.

The wine list at Rodin is extensive but not expensive. It was specially designed by Detroiter Putnam Weekley, who also designed the wine list for Slows Bar BQ. Rodin serves French wines exclusively, which may be intimidating to those used to the safety

and familiarity of words like “merlot” and “chardonnay.”

For those not familiar with French wines, they are described by the region they come from, not the grape. Luckily, the wait staff is prepared to link your preference in wines that you are familiar with to their French counterparts. Though the wines are exceptional, they are moderately priced, with the most expensive being the NV Bourgeois Family Selection, Crémant de Limoux and Cuvée Stephi Ebullience at $42 a bottle. Some wines are available by the glass, while others are only sold by the bottle. Blanchard said they wanted “out of the way” wines that will make an impression and keep people coming back to Rodin.

Inside Rodin at dinnertime, there’s the quiet sound of conversations and silverware on plates. The friendly wait staff knows the menu inside and out. Some diners are dressed formally, while others wear jeans.

The interior is subtle and radiates style, with tarnished original terrazzo floors and an unfinished ceiling. The walls are painted black to make the spacious interior a little more intimate and red curtains, donated by the Detroit Film Theater, adorn the large windows that give a wonderful view of Woodward and the DIA. Church pews, serving as booth seating, line the wall along Kirby Street. The walls serve as a rotating art gallery populated by local artists. Most pieces are for sale, and Rodin takes no commission.

Executive chef and managing partner Williams is a metro-Detroit native, born in the Northville area. With an interest in food, she attended Michigan State University for food science for several years before leaving to study at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. After graduating, she worked in Chicago and New York City at restaurants such as Perry Street and Wolfgang Puck. She moved home to the Detroit area intending to return to New York City eventually, but fell in love with the city.

She met Blanchard through the Park Sheldon leasing agent. Blanchard was looking for a chef, and the leasing agent introduced them. Proprietor Blanchard was born in Detroit and graduated from Wayne State with a degree in education. While attending school, she also studied French, and became a French teacher after graduation. She taught French for five years before opening Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes, located on the same block as Rodin.

Rodin also hosts event nights, such as live jazz on Saturday night and DJs each Friday. They hope to obtain a piano in order to host singers as well. Happy hour at Rodin is Thursday and Friday, 4-6 p.m., and includes $5 appetizers and glasses of wine. Blanchard encourages people to forgo the formal attire and attitudes if they wish.

The clientele is largely grad students and professors, although undergrads on dates sometimes wander in. With its fancy yet laid-back vibe and impressive food, it’s a great date spot. Owners hope the twists on almost traditional dishes will rekindle an interest in French cuisine while making it more approachable to Detroiters. Basically, Rodin seeks to take ‘fancy food’ to the masses.

“Let’s not take ourselves so seriously,” Blanchard said. “We’re all foodies. We all like food, and we all like good food. I just want everyone to relax and have fun.”

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