Simply Great

James Cadariu is a man of many talents and pursuits: lawyer, coffee roaster, charcuterie and wine maker, gardener, francophone, and most recently, café proprietor. He’s also a self-described contrarian, but don’t let the grizzly beard scare you off- he’s happy to share his knowledge about all things beverage-related with patrons of the Great Lakes Café, or as he calls it, the Institute for Advanced Drinking (IFAD for short). Is this appellation serious or tongue-in-cheek? With Cadariu, the lines blur; on Twitter he calls himself "roastmaster," another semi-serious sobriquet referring to his role at Great Lakes Coffee, where his journey toward spreading the gospel of Advanced Drinking began. 

Having conquered coffee roasting after working as a lawyer, the ever-evolving Cadariu was itching to move on to other ventures. The timing was serendipitous, as the partners in the roastery wanted to open a café as a branding and marketing tool. Cadariu just wanted a cool place to hang out- a place where he could not only get a solid coffee, but a glass of natural wine or a micro-brewed beer. Integrating his love for all three while filling an unoccupied niche in Detroit’s bar scene seemed an obvious solution. 

This European-style approach of not segregating coffee from other beverages sets IFAD apart. "I'm trying to get coffee in the same conversation as beer and wine," Cadariu says. As in Europe, the café is open early to serve people their morning brew. As afternoon wears on, the atmosphere slowly transforms from sedate and businesslike, with many on laptops or quietly conversing, into a more boisterous social space as people get off work and join friends for adult libations.

The sidewalk patio is also European-inspired, with cane chairs and marble tables that scream classic French café, but the interior is entirely American, and very Detroit. With a large, open design and beautiful reclaimed wood throughout, the striking space would merit a visit even if the coffee was gas-station quality.  Midtown firm D MET Design had designed the adjoining Midtown, Inc. and Kresge spaces, and the partners at Great Lakes wisely opted to make it three for three. The large maple tables were crafted by Ali Sandifer Studio, and the metalwork (shelves, fascia, bar rail) was done by local artist Taru Lahti. The combined effect is one of modern warmth, with the large tables encouraging community and sociability.

Lucky for us, the coffee at Great Lakes is on a different level -- planet, even -- than its gas-station counterpart. Each of the micro-lot, single-origin beans is roasted according to its own particular characteristics and flavor profile. Cadariu often works directly with farmers, and spoke enthusiastically of a biodynamic, organic coffee he just arranged to import from a farm in India. In addition to brewed and pour-over coffee, the café offers an excellent cold-brewed coffee on tap. Forget about regular hot coffee that’s been refrigerated, as many coffee shops serve. Instead, this is long steeped in cold water and has an exceptionally rich, mellow flavor.

Although liquor is not a big focus at the café, bartender Brian Vollmer has developed a small selection of cocktails using the cold-brew. Cadariu says the concoctions are lower in alcohol than many craft cocktails, with more of a focus on flavor and composition than on being boozy.

For that time of day when you can’t decide whether it’s happy hour yet, you can get a 50/50 pint of cold brewed coffee and Short’s ControversiAle. It may sound odd, but don’t knock it 'til you try it. Cadariu, who is always finding inventive ways to pair coffee with other food and beverages, recently collaborated with Dexter brewery Jolly Pumpkin to create De Viento, a sour saison-style beer brewed with Ethiopian coffee and African spices. The limited-edition brew, whose name references the recent tornado that hit Dexter, is currently on tap and is not to be missed; proceeds will benefit tornado victims.

Although Cadariu would probably hesitate to pick a "favorite" beverage (it would be like picking a favorite child!), he possesses an abiding passion for discovering small producers of natural wine. Natural wines can loosely be defined as those with little or no manipulation or intervention on the part of the winemaker, using naturally occurring yeast and often made with native grape varietals. Cadariu seeks out "the right farmers who do things the right way," and gravitates toward what he calls the "personalities" of the natural wine world, with a charming fan-boy enthusiasm for up-and-coming female winemakers like Noëlla Morentin, Elisabetta Foradori and Arianna Occhipinti. 

True to his contrarian nature, he intentionally avoids putting wines on the list that people might recognize. "If you have stuff people know," he says, "they will only buy that. I want to challenge people to try new things." To that end, he often hangs out near the chalkboard that displays the ever-changing wine selections. If people look bewildered by the lack of Merlot or Chardonnay, he engages them in conversation to guide them toward a choice. The bar offers 3-ounce tasting pours to encourage sampling, both for the timid and for those who revel in discovery. Cadariu’s latest wine menu includes a selection of obscure Eastern European wines that he is currently the only one in Michigan to serve. To expose more people to various small producers, he plans to host regular tastings at the café.

While imbibing, it’s always advisable to have food at hand, both to soak up the alcohol, and because many wines just taste better with food. But because Great Lakes Café is in a sort of communal space arrangement with Midtown Detroit, Inc and the Kresge Foundation, there was no room for a full kitchen. Despite being a serious food lover, Cadariu is at peace with the trade-off, citing the importance of community over having a large menu. He makes the tiny "kitchen" space work by serving many prepared items sourced locally- bread and pastries from Golden Wheat, sweets from Pinwheel, preserves from Beau Bien Fine Foods, pickled vegetables from the Brinery, and soup from Mudgie’s. A variety of Spanish tapas-style snacks, charcuterie and cheese plates are also available to nosh. Raw vegan chef Corinne Rice, who also runs pop-up restaurant Chartreuse, has just enough room to prepare a small selection of items on site, such as a delicious Caesar salad with wasabi and an aged "cheese" plate made from nuts. 

Now that Great Lakes Café has opened to accolades and day-to-day operations are running smoothly, the ever-restless Cadariu is already daydreaming of the next venture. Although he would never want the business to be franchise-like, he talks of the possibility of another collaboration with Sue Mosey of Midtown Detroit Inc. if and when they move on from their current space. The idea is that once a particular block has become revitalized, they could move on to open additional locations, reclaiming and transforming another blighted block. Whatever project Cadariu decides to take on next, you can be assured that like IFAD, it will be of an Advanced quality.

Great Lakes Café is located at 3965 Woodward Ave. (corner of Alexandrine). They are currently open Monday 7 a.m. -- 4 p.m. and Tuesday-Saturday 7 a.m. -- 11 p.m.

Noelle Lothamer authors SimmerD, the Model D series on Detroit food & drink.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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