Mark Kurlyandchik Detroit Free Press
Published 7:00 AM EST Feb 18, 2019
It’s like the culinary version of the 1995 film “Heat.”
Veteran chefs Luciano Del Signore and Takashi Yagihashi — arguably the Pacino and De Niro of the local food scene but certainly two of the biggest names in Detroit-area dining from the past two decades — are teaming up on a fine-dining restaurant in Birmingham that’s likely to set a new standard for gustatory hospitality throughout southeast Michigan.
Of course, that’s if the execution matches the duo’s ambition for Pernoi, their forthcoming effort currently taking shape in the former Cafe Via space on Maple.
Their individual pedigrees leave little reason to doubt their vision. Taken together, Pernoi just might be the biggest local restaurant blockbuster since Takashi — as he’s known by most — opened Tribute in Farmington Hills more than 20 years ago to widespread acclaim and national attention.
The Japanese chef’s nine-year run at Tribute earned him a James Beard Award and rocketed his career to Las Vegas and then Chicago, where he would go on to earn a Michelin star for his now-shuttered eponymous restaurant.
To this day, Tribute is widely remembered as the pinnacle of Michigan dining, while the great chef’s influence continues to reverberate through the dozens of younger cooks who trained in his kitchen now plying their trade at restaurants of their own.
It was while running the kitchen at Tribute that Yagihashi met Del Signore, whose Bacco Ristorante in Southfield has been setting the bar for upscale, white tablecloth Italian dining in the region since 2002, earning a rabid following of the area’s biggest movers and shakers.
Del Signore, too, has cultivated and mentored much of Detroit’s local culinary talent. (He’s known in some chef circles as “the Godfather,” and not just for his striking resemblance to a younger Al Pacino.)
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The two had talked about doing a restaurant together many times over the course of their 20-plus-year friendship, but the timing never worked out.
“The two of us, after many years of working separately, but in strikingly similar ways, are finally coming together,” Yagihashi wrote in a letter to Del Signore after the former approached him to do the project. “For me, this a dream come true, one that is long overdue.”
Over the last few years, both chefs have grown small chains of more casual restaurants — Del Signore with multiple Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina outposts and Yagihashi with Slurping Turtle (Chicago & Ann Arbor) and Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi in Chicago.
But with the closing of the Michelin-starred restaurant Takashi three years ago, the 61-year-old chef found himself without a flagship to run.
Now, Pernoi is set to become his and Del Signore’s late-career moonshot.
“There’s nothing casual about this restaurant,” Del Signore, 55, said during a recent tour of the under-construction space. “It’s not just white tablecloth. It’s hospitality at the highest level that I could’ve ever imagined it to be. That’s what’s most important to me. I told Takashi I wanted to bring hospitality to levels we’ve never seen in Michigan and he came right back at me with this idea of omotenashi.”
Omotenashi, Yagihashi explained, is a Japanese concept of hospitality that means “from the heart” and giving your all to please the guests.
And though it sounds vaguely French, Pernoi is a portmanteau of the Italian phrase per noi, which means “for us.”
“This is a restaurant for us,” Del Signore said, putting an arm around his partner for emphasis. “It’s our vision. … This is like if I or Takashi wanted to go find a restaurant to celebrate a monumental day in our lives, this is what we’d want to find. That’s what we’re building.”
The focus at Pernoi will be global contemporary cuisine, the pair said, so Italian pastas will likely find themselves alongside Japanese noodles, but the pantry will span the world.
Eschewing the latest trend toward local, Pernoi will instead put a premium on quality.
“When we started to talk about with Luciano what we’re going to do together, one thing that we matched together is lets get the best ingredients that we can get from all over the world,” and let them shine, Yagihashi said.
The menu format will first likely be all a la carte, but the pair want to introduce a special prix fixe menu in the more formal dining room of the bisected, 2,700-square-foot space.
Designed by Kyle Evans, Pernoi will be intimate, with just 66 seats inside inclusive of the bar and another 35 seats on the outside patio. “Think luxury yacht,” Del Signore said of the interior inspiration.
At the bar, Del Signore said the focus will be placed on French champagne, absinthe and Japanese whisky — complete with a trendy Japanese highball machine.
Yagihashi emphasized his commitment to the project, his first serious foray back into metro Detroit’s dining scene since leaving Tribute in 2005. (He opened the Ann Arbor Slurping Turtle five years ago, but Pernoi is a whole different level of devotion and ambition.)
This isn’t just a place with his or Del Signore’s names on it, he said. Both men are giving the new restaurant their all, and both will feature prominently in the kitchen.
“There’s going to be days you walk in and see both of us here,” Del Signore added. “There’ll be days where he’ll be here or I’ll be here. But there’ll be one or two of us in this building at all times. That’s the key.”
The timeline is in flux and is largely tied to how quickly a new liquor license can be acquired, but Del Signore is hoping to begin serving people at Pernoi by spring.
Del Signore and Yagihashi will be doing pop-up dinners around town in the next few months to preview Pernoi’s menu. More info will be available at Pernoibirmingham.com.
Send your dining tips to Free Press Restaurant Critic Mark Kurlyandchik: 313-222-5026 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mkurlyandchik and Instagram: curlyhandshake.
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