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French roots meet Detroit flair at Bar Pigalle

By: Aaron B. Cohen | June 22, 2022

Coney-Style Steak & Frites, photo courtesy of BUREAU

Those closely following Detroit’s restaurant scene know that Bar Pigalle has been a long time coming. The new Brush Park eatery, set to open this Thursday, is a passion project conceived in a time before masks and vaccines were popular discourse – certainly before Detroit restaurants faced the brunt of a virus dead-set on keeping people away from public spaces.

The pandemic has been nothing short of kryptonite for innumerable dining institutions throughout the nation. And yet – as is the case in all instances of adversity – look hard enough, and you’re bound to find stories of persistence. The stuff that inspires us to defy the odds. To turn lemons into lemonade. Or more appropriately, in this case, sour grapes into chardonnay.

Discovering Little Paris

It was eight months prior to the lockdown when Travis Fourmont first laid the groundwork for a vision that finds fruition on June 23. A Pacific Northwest native, Fourmont ventured east to Detroit in 2007, helping to kickstart the city’s craft cocktail revolution behind the bar of Michael Symon’s Roast. One could argue that, in retrospect, Fourmont served as a sort of founding father in Detroit’s contemporary cocktail scene. Pre-Roast, elegantly mixed drinks were a West Coast thing. Fifteen years later, you’d be hard pressed to find a legitimate dining establishment without a highly-curated beverage program. Today, craft cocktails are the norm. When Fourmont first placed a Mezcal negroni on the Roast menu, it was revolutionary.

It was this creativity that landed him among GQ’s Top Ten Bartenders in the United States, and Esquire‘s Master of the Manhattan Championship.

From Roast, Fourmont ventured into the role of a cocktail ambassador (what a job!), ultimately founding the Detroit Cocktail Classic. By 2018, the time was right to shift focus toward a place of his own.

Immediately, Fourmont was drawn to Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood, which in recent years has seen a meteoric rise in development both residentially, and as a home to the city’s most forward-thinking restaurants and bars. Grey Ghost, considered by many to be the best restaurant in town, has already proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the square mile sandwiched between Woodward Avenue and Beaubien, and bound by Mack Avenue and the Fisher Freeway, is fertile ground upon which culinary creativity can flourish.

Perhaps that’s owed to its roots. Detroit’s Little Paris – a colonial ribbon farm-turned neighborhood for the 19th-century elite – is a historical epicenter of the city’s French influence. Food and wine are as much a part of Brush Park’s DNA as any notable home, church, or thoroughfare.

Fourmont dove into this history and emerged with a single conclusion: the French culinary experience belongs in Brush Park.

But this is a guy who made his name putting a spin on classics. He wasn’t interested in traditional, white tablecloth pretension, nor did he aspire to the fast-casual bistro approach that, while viable in its own right, ultimately limits creative opportunity.

He was going to do French like a Detroiter.

“Hurry up and wait…”

The concept was firm. The space was perfect; tucked into the historic Carlton Lofts built by world-renowned architect, Louis Kamper.

The loan was secured. Eight months of preparation were about to pay off.

And then, the whole world came down with a cough.

“We closed on financials with the bank literally the day after the lockdown,” Fourmont recalled. “It was March 13. Full COVID scare. My wife and I went to Lake Trust Credit Union. It was completely empty. We ran in scared, not knowing what was going on. We said, ‘Hey we don’t have to use it, but we’re not gonna get another loan.’ So we signed.” 

From that point on, it was a game of ‘‘Hurry up and wait.’’

“We just laid low and timed it out for a year waiting for everything to reopen and strategically working through that,” said Fourmont. “ We started on the design phase, all the mechanicals. The building plans. That took some time. Labor was a challenge.”

After struggles with the original contractor, Fourmont and his wife found Artesian Contracting, whom he credits for “really saving the project.”

With hearts set on the future – despite a world of uncertainty – they got to building.

Mirepoix – the trinity.

As the restaurant took form physically, Fourmont set sights on building internally as well. If he’d learned anything from his years in the business, it was that the right team would make or break the operation.

In our recent farewell ode to Roast, it’s described in detail how much of the restaurant’s legacy was built upon a colossal gathering of industry talent. You might recognize names like Andy Hollyday (Selden Standard) or Drew Pompa (Takoi/Magnet) – both got their start at Roast.

With them every step of the way was Joseph Allerton. He opened the restaurant with Fourmont and remained there for all thirteen years of its remarkable run, serving as GM for ten of them. When Fourmont found himself in need of a partner, the choice was obvious.

“He’s incredible where I’m weak,” Fourmont explained. “He’s service, wine… very detail-oriented. I’m numbers, administration, and the bar. I approached him to ask if he wanted to partner up and he was excited about it. That was a huge milestone for the project. That’s when it really started to come to life. Started to feel real.”

Along with tremendous leadership experience, Allerton brought an additional, necessary component to the team: sommelier-level wine expertise. Under the mentorship of Detroit hospitality legend, Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon, he passed his first sommelier exam less than a year after turning 21 and earned his official sommelier certificate soon after. To date, he has received numerous accolades including Best Sommelier and  Best Wine List from Hour Magazine and helped to open six concepts throughout the Midwest.

So, General Manager? Check. 

Travis Fourmont (left) and Joseph Allerton (right), photo courtesy of BUREAU

The next step was locking in an executive chef. Once again, Fourmont, now partnered with Allerton, found himself calling upon his tenure at Roast, this time, by way of Nyle Flynn – an integral player in the success of Selden Standard and Chef de Cuisine at the Apparatus Room. In 2018, he received the Jean Louis Paladin Grant from the James Beard Foundation, providing the opportunity to study in France under Kate Hill and Master Butcher Dominic Chapalard. By trial and by trade, Flynn was the perfect fit for a restaurant aiming to combine classic French elements with modern Detroit flair.

Executive Chef Nyle Flynn, photo courtesy of BUREAU

Playful French”

What does that look like? Well, according to their recently published menus, it looks like bacon-wrapped frog legs. Bison tartare. Melon salad. French street tacos.

Poached Dover sole. Roasted rainbow trout.

Chilled seafood platters. Chef-selected oysters.

It looks like Coney-Style Steak & Frites.

You read that correctly. Your choice of a 10oz bavette or 24oz bone-in ribeye and fries, topped with Detroit coney chili. You can’t find anything like this, anywhere.

Bacon-Wrapped Frog Legs, photo courtesy of BUREAU

As far as the bar goes, Fourmont says it’s about serving top-quality French products. “If we’re gonna make a rum cocktail, we’ll use a rum from Martinique – a French island. If we’re making a Manhattan we’ll use Dolin Rouge Vermouth. We’re gonna seize those opportunities. That’s our identity.”

Ultimately, this is an establishment for the community. Despite the massively-impressive menu listings, the joint will feel like a cocktail bar. And that’s just how the team wants it. “If you’re just going to the game down the street, you can come in and get a smash burger and a shuck beer,” Fourmont assured. “Our goal is to provide a really high-level product but forgo the pretentiousness.

Bring back the bottle

In no facet of service will this effort be more apparent than the restaurant’s highly-unique approach to wine.

According to Allerton, there’s an industry-wide problem that needs addressing:

People are drinking fewer bottles [of wine] these days. People know what it costs to get wine at the retail store, so when they see these triple, quadruple markups at restaurants, it prices out the majority. I want to help people see the value in sharing bottles of wine with friends again. You won’t see a triple/quadruple markup on bottles from us. We want to encourage people to open bottles without feeling sticker shock when they look at the list.

Makes sense. When was the last time you ordered a bottle for the table? If you have recently, it likely marked a special occasion that justified the splurge. As is the case in France – and should be the case here – Bar Pigalle aims to make bottles affordable to the general public. That’s something we can all raise a glass to.

Sure, they’ll highlight classic French bottles. But Joseph Allerton is looking at the bigger picture by honing in on smaller, lesser-known regions of wine production. 

“People are familiar with Bordeaux and Champagne producers which we will, of course, carry. But the regional focuses I’m trying to embrace on our wine list are unique unto themselves.  I’ve been digging deep.”

He mentions varietals from Alsace – a northern region you don’t find on a lot of lists around town. Chinon, Saumur and Malbec blends from Loire Valley. Wines from Majura – a little east of Burgundy bordering on Swiss territory. “They’re harder to come by in general because the production is small,” Allerton explains, “but that brings a lot of unique producers.”

“A lot of people that come in here are going to have some questions,” he continues. “We welcome that. As a sommelier, I’ll be out on the floor to help our guests find the right wine for them. We want to represent the rainbow of French wines so you can get your whole French wine education by working your way through our list.”

Detroit loves Opening Day

After years of planning, adjusting, and rolling with the punches, Bar Pigalle opens its doors to the general public Thursday, June 23. It’s cause for celebration among the team that made it happen, and equally, for the Metro Detroit community that gains yet another thoughtfully-conceived, gloriously creative addition to the restaurant scene. For Fourmont, Allerton, and Flynn, it’s time to pop the champagne. For everyone else, it’s a chance to learn a little more about it.

Reservations can be made at barpigalle.com.

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