Hour Detroit devotees will know that we typically run monthly restaurant reviews. Our dining editor goes undercover at restaurants around town and reports back on the quality of service, ambiance, and, of course, the food. And though many restaurants have reopened their dining rooms after a months-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to continue business as usual — when business remains highly unusual for the restaurant industry — would be a misstep. Instead, in “Restaurant Report,” dining editor Lyndsay Green takes off her cloak of anonymity and sits down with restaurateurs to discuss the ways in which they’re navigating this fragile era in culinary history.
The restaurant industry hasn’t been itself lately. Though the reopening of dine-in service has brought back some sense of normalcy, ongoing abnormalities remain as sobering reminders that the culinary scene is still in the apocalypse. Dark restaurants sit empty, with stacked-up chairs denoting their closing — despite the Yelp and Google hours that indicate otherwise — and neighborhood brunch spots have morphed into grocery markets. But a few newly opened restaurants offer hope in uncertain times.
Of Rice and Men, a pop-up turned full-service restaurant by the owners of Ann Arbor’s Blue LLama Jazz Club, is one of a string of new restaurants that have opened during the pandemic. The contemporary Asian American enterprise joins eateries such as Bunny Bunny, another Asian concept that opened in Eastern Market in August; Midnight Temple, an Indian fusion restaurant also in Eastern Market; and La Palapa del Parian, a brick-and-mortar rendition of the popular Southwest Detroit Mexican taco truck, which debuted in June.
Even though Of Rice and Men was the first restaurant that I dined at that premiered during the pandemic, the thrill of making reservations and dressing up for an entirely new restaurant was familiar. It was a nostalgic nod to my former life and a rejuvenating jolt to my existing one.
A real sense of optimism comes as new restaurants surface. Following a period when restaurants have either shuttered (some temporarily, others for good) or morphed into entirely new, unrecognizable versions of their former selves, new restaurants diversify the restaurant scene. That, in part, was the impetus for Of Rice and Men, according to Blue LLama Executive Chef and General Manager Louis Goral, who says the objective when the Blue LLama hospitality group bought French-Indian fusion restaurant Dessous last September, was to introduce a new Asian concept to Ann Arbor’s culinary landscape. “It was our vision to do a high-end, modern, Asian restaurant in the space before COVID and the shutdowns,” he says. “Once we were able to reopen, we decided to work on achieving that goal.”
Goral says he and the team worked hard to achieve that goal and put their energy into getting the concept up and running quickly. The first order of business was tapping Josh Wetshtein as the restaurant’s executive chef. An Ohio native, Wetshtein cut his teeth at some of the Midwest’s finest establishments, from Michelin star restaurant NAHA in Chicago to Mercat a la Planxa, where he first worked with Goral. He says his passion for Asian cuisine comes from working with Wolfgang Puck at The Source in Washington, D.C., and later as executive sous chef at Chef Puck’s re/Asian Cuisine in Bahrain.
“What I love about Asian cuisine is the boldness,” he says. “Depending on what part of Asia you go to, whether it’s China or Japan or Indonesia or Thailand, you know you’re going to get big, big flavors. There’s not too much that’s subtle, and I think that’s what I enjoy the most.”
After five years at re/Asian, Wetshtein jumped at the opportunity to return to the Midwest to head up the kitchen at what is now Of Rice and Men, where he delivers on those bold flavors. Of the dim sum variety, Szechuan pork dumplings are filled with a pool of silky Mala chili oil and black vinegar. Duck dumplings resemble mini doughnut holes, seasoned with Chinese spices, fried crisp, and topped with creamy hoisin aioli and fresh scallions. The textural balance Wetshtein strikes with these — equally crisp and pillowy — is phenomenal.
The Dashi Panna Cotta is a savory take on the Italian dessert. Smooth, dashi-infused panna cotta is topped with grainy crushed sesame seeds, Michigan salmon roe, mushrooms, and sliced scallions served in a glass jar. Korean Fried Chicken offers another symphony of bright flavors. Four wings are fried crisp and slathered with a sweet-spicy bibimbap sauce and topped with a dusting of mixed sesame seeds. “You can take the wings home, refrigerate them, and eat them cold and they’ll still be crispy,” Wetshtein says. He’s right. He’s mastered a crunch that defies all standards of leftover fried chicken.
The state lockdown at the start of the pandemic prohibited the Of Rice and Men team from opening their Main Street space, so instead, they got crafty. The restaurant initially launched as a takeout and delivery-only pop-up out of the Blue LLama kitchen while designers were fashioning a dining room that would glamorize a socially distant dining experience. Today, all tables at Of Rice and Men, apart from the bar, are separated by shoji screens made of Japanese rice paper and thin, floor-to-ceiling scarlet curtains, distancing guests from fellow diners. “Giving a semiprivate dining experience to every single guest that walks in hearkens back to the old days of super high-end dining,” Wetshtein says. “You have a little bit of privacy and an opportunity to really have a great experience and focus on it.”
With an expansive mural along a wall behind the bar and such dishes as a Crispy Rice Salad, which delivers a vibrant crunch through its fried rice and a medley of snappy vegetables, including shallots, scallions, Thai chilis, and cucumbers, and a Wok Fired Whole Fish — a meaty black bass served with white rice and toasted sesame soy sauce and topped with cilantro — there’s really not much else you’ll want to focus on. There are also whimsical libations made with unexpected ingredients, such as the Dr. Funkenstein. A play on the classic tiki drink the Dr. Funk, this one is garnished with tendrils of tempered white chocolate inspired by the infamous coif belonging to funk legend George Clinton.
One observation I could focus on was that I was sitting in a new restaurant, with an innovative menu, an acclaimed chef, and a fresh coat of paint. As new restaurants start opening up, it’s beginning to feel a lot more like the Detroit food scene we know and love.
Love of Rice and Men? Try These Other Spots From the Blue Llama Team
Along with Of Rice and Men, the Blue LLama team launched a family of pop-ups during the pandemic. “We wanted to make ourselves more visible on takeout delivery apps so that when you search, ‘Asian food,’ ‘Latin American food,’ or ‘American food,’ we pop up,” says Blue LLama Executive Chef and General Manager Louis Goral. Get to know each entity here.
Blue LLama Express
A carryout option allows fans of Blue LLama to order family-style and single servings of new takes on American favorites, such as Crispy Deviled Eggs made with goat cheese.
Puerto Rican staples typify this Caribbean-inspired eatery. Try the steak sandwich that inspires the concept name, served between crispy plantains instead of bread.
Chef Ava’s Desserts
From Ava Yau, pastry chef for all of Blue Llama’s properties, come four classics. Chef Ava’s creamy Lemon Meringue Tart with blueberry compote is not to be missed.
Blue LLama Wine Cellar
Not limited to Blue LLama’s selection of reds, whites, and bottles of bubbly, the Wine Cellar offers craft cocktails and a range of beers, too.
Visit bluellamaclub.com to order from any eatery.