Fried Bream/Photo by Esther Allweiss-Ingber.

Flowers of Vietnam chef George Azar prides himself on creating progressive Vietnamese food.

Foodies, hipsters and others are drawn to the creativity on display at Flowers of Vietnam restaurant in southwest Detroit.

The area is best known for its notable Mexican eateries, but Flowers chef George Azar, 30, is neither Vietnamese nor Mexican. He’s a Palestinian-American born in the same Mexicantown neighborhood as his restaurant, about two miles from the Ambassador Bridge.

Azar’s longtime mentor and the restaurant co-owner is Paul Saginaw, the Jewish co-founder of Zingerman’s Deli and other Ann Arbor-based businesses.

“I always ate Vietnamese food and didn’t want to keep driving to Madison Heights to get it,” explained Azar, referring to the notable Asian restaurants based in this Oakland County suburb.

A culinary arts graduate of Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Azar cooked at prominent restaurants that included Alinea in Chicago. Back in Detroit, he decided to start Flowers of Vietnam after people flocked to the weekend pop-up dinners he hosted in his father’s “intimate” Vernor Coney Island. After opening there to great acclaim in 2017, including being named to several “Best” restaurant lists, Flowers closed for renovation during most of the following year.

An estimated $750,000 improved the kitchen and brought the entire 100-year-old building up to code. Since reopening on Jan. 10, 2018, Flowers is back to its honor-winning ways, most recently described as “Best Pop-Up Turned Full-Service Restaurant” in Hour Detroit’s March 2019 issue.

Flowers now takes up three storefronts. Guests enter through the original luncheonette space, where they can eat at the counter or proceed to the unpretentious adjoining dining room. A bar area is on the farthest side.

Azar researched extensively, including travels to Vietnam, to develop his recipes, but takes pride that his place is not a “mom-and-pop-type restaurant. We are progressive for Vietnamese food. I do what I feel is appropriate for me.”

Azar said his favorite menu items are also customer favorites, including caramel chicken wings, “broken” rice with Chinese sausage, “shaky beef” — prime 30-day dry-aged ribeye cap, fried tofu, papaya salad and Vietnamese-style fried whole fish.

Dining recently with my friend Diane, we were smitten with our shared wings appetizer. Red Boat-brand fish sauce is mixed with palm sugar and caramelized for the thick, crunchy batter. The taste is sweet, with a pleasant kick. Herb aioli, light green and fragrant from Thai basil, accompanies the wings.

The whole fish we were brought to eat with eyes and tail intact was somewhat daunting, but Diane and I were up to the challenge. After removing the vertebrae, our mighty forks scooped up white fish flesh, banana blossoms, black “Chinese forbidden rice,” spicy-sweet tomato sauce and cilantro. The flavors were complex and satisfying.

“The fish has been on our menu since Day One,” Azar said “We serve bream, a species that’s not overly fished.” Supplies might come from Australia or Oregon.

Flowers is open only 5-11 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, but weekend brunch is coming.

Flowers of Vietnam
4430 Vernor Highway
Detroit, MI 48209
Phone: (313) 554-2084
www.flowersofvietnam.com
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