Focusing on dishes. including Peking Duck, a variety of housemade dumplings, with original takes on sushi and wok-fried rice dishes, “Of Rice and Men” restaurant opened downstairs from the Blue LLama Jazz Club on Main Street in Ann Arbor.
WEMU’s Lisa Barry talks with Louis Goral, who oversees both restaurants, about their unique Asian offerings and a focus on top-notch service, which he calls “enlightened hospitality.”
Lisa Barry: You’re listening to 89 one WEMU. And this is Art and Soul. I’m Lisa Barry, and this week, Art and Soul is about the culinary arts, and we’re joined by Louis Goral, director of operations for Multiverse Hospitality and executive chef, who also oversees the Blue LLama Jazz Club and a restaurant called Of Rice and Men, an offshoot of the Blue LLama Jazz Club. So thanks for talking to us, Louis.
Louis Goral: Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Lisa Barry: And that’s what we’re going to focus on: Of Rice and Men. First of all, genius name. Where did that come from?
Louis Goral: Well, you know, it was kind of an interesting story. I mean, during 2020, it was very difficult for us. We purchased a business at the end of fall 2019, and we had aspirations to do a really awesome, high-end Asian restaurant. Then the pandemic hit, as we all know, and it caused us to change our plans. So, we had to take a minute and kind of regroup and try to figure out what we were going to do as the best laid plans of mice and men. That’s how it became Of Rice and Men.
Lisa Barry: Ah. I love it.
Louis Goral: So, we started as a takeout and delivery concept in the spring of 2020. We opened as a pop-up restaurant on 312 South Main in August of 2020, and we ran that until the end of the year. Unfortunately, we had to shut down at the end of the year and just brought it back in August of this year to really great result. We have an amazing chef. Her name is Ava Yau, and she’s from Thailand. Worked in San Francisco, Las Vegas. Amazing chef. Really crushing it for us. And we have an amazing team, and we’re doing dim sum Peking duck dumplings, sushi. Really awesome stuff. It’s been a lot of fun.
Lisa Barry: If anyone has had the opportunity to go to the Blue LLama Jazz Club, you know you’re eating high-end, very well-prepared and tasty food. Is that something you’ve been able to carry over to Of Rice and Men?
Louis Goral: Oh, absolutely. I mean, one of the things that we have in our branding is Blue LLama Jazz Club. We spelt llama with two capital L’s, and that’s a love of food and a love of music. And we try to execute both at a very high level. That’s important to us. We love food. We love cuisine service. We just won our second best of award of excellence from Wine Spectator. So it’s a level I’ve not achieved. I’ve run restaurants in New York, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago. This is the first time I’ve actually achieved that in my career, which I’m pretty happy about. But we try to execute everything at a super high level, and that goes with the food, too. It’s using great ingredients, local ingredients, being able to provide a lot of vegetarian options. I think vegetables are delicious, and Michigan itself has such an amazing farm system where you can go, and I go to the farmer’s market twice a week. I love just seeing all the different items that are available locally, and we try to provide that at Blue LLama as well.
Lisa Barry: Washtenaw County has, I think, would be a high number of local farmers. Are you able to partake of any of those?
Louis Goral: Of course. I mean, you know, White Lotus Farms.
Lisa Barry: Yes.
Louis Goral: They’re great partners of ours. We’ve done business with them, I think, since we opened. They are just fantastic. I mean, they do our microgreens. It’s just beautiful stuff they’re growing, and it’s really nice. I mean, being a guy that I’ve worked in a lot of different markets, but it’s very different in Ann Arbor, and I love the fact that you can just walk the farmer’s market. You can meet people that are growing ingredients and especially with supply chain issues that are plaguing our industry, the restaurant industry right now, it’s just like locality has become king. And right now. It makes sense economically as well, which is kind of crazy but great. It’s fantastic that I can utilize as much local stuff from real people that are with us that we can actually provide and to our guests, which is pretty cool, I think.
Lisa Barry: You offer modern Asian cuisine at Of Rice and Men. What makes it modern?
Louis Goral: Well, you know, the thing that we think is really cool about Of Rice and Men is it’s not your typical Asian restaurant. And, honestly, I don’t think you’re going to find our type of Asian cuisine anywhere in the world. I’ve eaten at a lot of really high-end Asian restaurants, and in New York, I’ve been, you know, Taiwan, different areas. But what we’re providing is something that’s like our take on certain Asian dishes like dim sum. We’re doing a black truffle soup dumpling. It’s amazing. Like, if you’ve ever had a soup dumpling before, it’s like, you know, we’re making the dough from scratch with black truffle. And it’s got this, like, juicy, like, stock that’s incorporated in it. So, it just kind of explodes in your mouth. Black truffle and pork. It’s amazing. But, you know, I’ve never seen that ever anywhere, really, because it’s kind of one of our takes on it. We’re doing nigiri, where you have a Japanese A5 nigiri that’s like unbelievably good. That’s, you know, wagyu beef from Japan, and we’re just giving a little sear and putting it on top of a rice ball and a little house teriyaki. It’s decadence, like, in your mouth, but we’re also doing, like, vegetarian dishes as well. Some really cool stuff. We’re doing vegetable clay pots with like bok choy and candied shitake mushrooms. It’s just like a lot of different stuff that I think is unique for any market, really, but I mean for here as well. It’s just, like, we really want to kind of showcase the talent of our chefs in the food we’re cooking. And, you know, Asian food is what we’re going after there. But it’s also like got some Americanized things that, I think, are approachable. We’re also doing Peking Duck, like a whole Peking duck, where you can get that served with we’re doing some scallion pancakes with that. It’s amazing. Like, so good. And it’s one of those things that has limited availability. But people have been coming in, and we’ve been selling out almost every night. It’s been amazing.
Lisa Barry: And let’s not forget tiki-style cocktails and Asian beers.
Louis Goral: That’s true as well. We also have a wide selection of Japanese whiskey, which is cool, you know, Yamazaki 18, won best whiskey in the world in 2019. We’re very excited about that. We have that in-house. We have a really, you know as I was talking about, our wine list at Blue LLama, we have, you know, four sommaliers trained and in-house, myself being one of them. And so, we really try to curate the beverage menus as well. So, our sake list is, I think, one of the best in the city. And we also offer a really eclectic wines by the glass that really well with Asian food. And, of course, you know, delicious Asian beer. Who doesn’t love that?
Lisa Barry: You’re also big on what you have called enlightened hospitality. And if you go to these restaurants, you will likely meet Louis Goral walking around and connecting with diners. How important is that to you?
Louis Goral: You know, it’s really important to us as an organization to take care of our guests, not only our guests, but our staff, our artists that are coming in our community. It’s really important that we have kind of a nice worldview of how we’re taking care of things. That’s why we have such amazing people and why I think you get an elevated experience when you’re at Blue LLama Jazz Club or you’re at Of Rice and Men. And then we have a lot of amazing things coming up. And, you know, I think that treating everybody with really great respect and love, it pays itself forward.
Lisa Barry: Louis Goral, thank you so much for talking to us. We’ll put a link in pictures of all the food from Of Rice and Men on our website, WEMU dot org, with this interview. And thanks so much for talking to us. Made me hungry.
Louis Goral: Thank you so much, Lisa. It’s a pleasure to be here.
**Special thanks to Paul Keller for providing the Art & Soul theme music.**
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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org