When Athan Zarnas got the keys to the building that would ultimately become Alea (2912 Church Ave.), the space had all the charm of an auto repair shop. For more than 100 years, the windowless bunker functioned as a drill bit factory — and it had the oil stains to prove it. Over the span of two years, Zarnas reshaped the property into a modern, minimal and gently industrial bistro. Apart from a few finishing touches like hanging artwork, adding banquette cushions and stocking the wine rack, the restaurant is nearly ready for its mid-November unveiling.
Zarnas might not be a household name, but he's been cooking around town at noteworthy establishments for nearly 20 years. During half of those years he's been quietly plotting his own project, he says, with his attention ever increasingly focused on the Hingetown area of Ohio City.
"I've been pursuing this specific neighborhood for years," he explains. "I almost ended up in the Larder space, but that didn't pan out."
Instead, he landed about 250 feet away. While modest in square-footage, the restaurant features 16-foot ceilings, which provide plenty of room for ivy vines to clamber up a living wall. A newly installed facade of glass in the form of a garage door introduces tons of natural light. And at the heart of it all is the bar-slash-open kitchen, anchored prominently by a live-fire grill fueled entirely by hardwood. As logs burn in a metal cage at the back of the rig, hot coals tumble out and are raked beneath a variety of grills and griddles that can be adjusted up or down with the spin of a wheel. Diners seated throughout the space will be able see, smell and hear the food as it's being prepared.
"I always assumed that the grill would be the focal point of the restaurant," Zarnas says. "When there's a fire there, I think that's where everyone will be drawn to."
When the doors open in the coming weeks, the restaurant will seat just 33 guests, dining room and bar combined. The menu, too, will be compact, containing about 20 items spread across snacks, small plates, sharable platters, entrees and desserts. The seasonal menus will take inspiration from Mediterranean countries like Spain, France, Italy, Greece and parts of the Middle East.
"We're borrowing from around the region, with nods to the culinary traditions that you would find throughout the Mediterranean," says the chef. "We are mashing a few things together in a way that hopefully is cohesive and that people will appreciate."
Starters might include a bowl of olives and kumquats, oysters grilled over wood and capped with melted lardo and sautéed mushrooms, and a gem salad with sauce gribiche and mojama, dry-cured tuna that Zarnas calls "the ham of the ocean." Grilled octopus will be paired with 'nduja; a Moroccan-spiced lamb belly is sweetened with prunes; and a grilled steak is topped with charred eggplant and muhammara, a Middle Eastern spread made with roasted red pepper, walnuts and pomegranate molasses.
To drink there will a limited cocktail menu and 50-bottle wine list with an emphasis on natural wines. Zarnas says that not only do natural wines pair well with the cuisine, the method of production is old-fashioned, straightforward and unpretentious, much like the food he will be cooking. Citing a dearth of quality wine bars between downtown and Detroit Shoreway, the owner believes that Alea will become a destination sought out as much by wine drinkers as it will be by dinner guests.
"There seems to be a lot of interest in a place in this immediate area where you can get a glass of good wine," he says "This is kind of a wine desert."
As for the name, Zarnas says that "alea" means "a gamble" in Latin.
"I've opened restaurants for other people, but this will be the first one that I open for myself," he says. "It's always a roll of the dice."
When it opens in November, Alea will be dinner-only. Weekend brunch likely will be added next spring.