Four restaurants-in-progress finished tinkering and threw open their doors within days of each other at the turn of the year. You might say they’re the culinary embodiment of north, south, east, and west. That’s a bit of metaphorical contrivance; they don’t exactly map out that way.
But almost! Vellum–inventively showcasing American classics–represents the north. Kuroshio certainly is east. What is more southern than the signature cuisine of the Deep South served at R.U.B. BBQ? Well, Mexico, but let’s cheat a little and call that west, as in Southwest: Isalita takes its inspiration from upmarket urban Mexican trends.
“We want to take ingredients that are bountiful and plentiful in this area and use traditional and modern techniques,” says Peter Roumanis, who owns Vellum with his father, John Roumanis.
Peter grew up in a restaurant world: Roumanis senior owns Mediterrano and the Carlyle Grill. But at twenty-four, Peter also has a degree in hospitality from Cornell, and interned in two very swank restaurants (New York’s Del Posto, and Paris’s Taillevent). Roumanis senior was so impressed that he bought the building that used to be the pool hall half of the Full Moon (the other half is now the Ravens Club) and let Peter have at it. They discovered that the building once housed a printing press, which suggested the restaurant’s name.
Menu items like risotto and lamb shoulder “Greek style” hint at the family’s Mediterranean roots. But mainly, Peter says, he’s firmly anchored in the New World. “Brisket, burgers, pork shoulder. Mustard greens are utterly American. And there’s nothing more regional than walleye. We smoke it lightly and finish it with apples and jalapeno.” Vellum’s Facebook page offers more local testimony: Peter visiting some free range chickens that by now may have been plated as someone’s “poached chicken breast with [local] root vegetables and [Michigan] mushroom sauce, $19.”
Peter calls his approach “detail-oriented” and “purposeful,” meaning that no step of the conventional dining experience is taken for granted. Even the butter that comes to the table is churned in the basement. The risotto rice is aged for seven years in an Italian silo–a detail the mostly plainspoken menu doesn’t even mention. (Roumanis mentioned it only because he was asked point-blank how to make a good risotto at home.)
Though Vellum is not exactly cheap, he’s keeping prices at local upper-end range: main courses from $14 to $29, starters from $6 to $13. He’s particularly proud of what the menu simply called “poached egg with celery root, dates, and cider vinegar.” He elaborates that “we poach the egg for an hour at a very low temperature. It takes on a custard-like consistency, and we finish it with a balsamic jam, a little bit of celery root puree.”
For that cup of coffee at the end of the meal, you get a choice of Illimani from Bolivia, Buziraguhindwa from Burundi, or the most expensive, at $4 a cup, Thiriku from Kenya. “A lot of restaurants are solicited by coffee companies who entice them with free machines,” Roumanis explains. Refusing to be seduced, he spent $15,000 to buy his own equipment–and, he says, “Our coffee is as good as any coffee shop in the area.”
Vellum, 209 S. Main, 929-4929. Daily 5:30-10:30 p.m. (till 1 a.m. Fri. & Sat. for dessert and coffee). vellumrestaurant.com
Around the block, on Liberty, Kuroshio is the work of another father-son team.
“I have zero training in restaurant management,” says twenty-two-year-old Alan Wang with a smile. Neither does his father, Kenneth. The Wangs came to Ann Arbor from Taiwan when Alan was a toddler to open the American office of their forklift manufacturing company, Wanmax. A few years ago, when the Wangs sold Wanmax and were looking for a way to invest the proceeds, they thought a restaurant would be interesting.
“One day my dad and I were walking past Champion House and said, ‘Hey, they’re not open,'” Alan recalls. “The next week there was a For Lease sign in the window.” (The owners had hurriedly decamped in mid-lease and were never heard from again.)
Alan designed the space himself, using “a free program called Google SketchUp.” Gracefully proportioned, with black walls, lavender napkins, and white space-age looking chairs, the look, he says, was inspired by “contemporary fine dining in Taiwan and Japan–the sort of thing you find on the eighty-fifth floor of hotels in Tokyo.”
Kuroshio means “black tide.” It’s the warm current that flows up the east coast of Asia, and the rooms are filled with wave or water motifs. A water wall greets customers in the small foyer. “It’s okay to stick your fingers in it!” Alan says encouragingly. “The water is treated with UV light, so it’s sterile.”
His father laughs and interjects that the wave theme became so important to them that they bought all their flatware from Lenox because it was the only flatware they could find with a “wavy” look. “Lenox thought we were crazy. They said, ‘Restaurants never buy from us! We’re too expensive!'”
The chef is Hong Kong-born, Japanese-trained Venice Lee. (“I chose the name Venice. I liked it. No, never been there–you want to take me? I’ll be your personal chef!”) He oversees a menu that Alan says is “perhaps 80 percent Japanese with some Chinese and Thai–very East Asian” and also presides over the sushi bar, where customers, says Kenneth, are urged to ignore the menu and “ask for what’s fresh. Yeah, that gets expensive, but it’s the way to do it.” (Nigiri starts at $4 for two pieces; Kuroshio’s entrees run $15-$34.)
In early January, they were still waiting for their liquor license; once it’s in hand, bar manager April Eby is planning to offer a very East Asian drinking experience with high-end unfiltered sakes and soju cocktails. Soju is “kind of like vodka, but about half the alcohol,” she says. “One way I’ve seen it served is with hot water and a pickled plum.”
Since he crash-educated himself in restaurant design and management, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to learn that Alan Wang graduated last April from the U-M with a degree in biochemistry and was accepted into Stony Brook University’s School of Medicine. He turned it down to get Kuroshio off the ground but says he hopes to renew his Stony Brook application, if not next year then the year after.
His father interjects: “Go to U-M med school! Then you can get a free dinner every day.”
Kuroshio, 120 E. Liberty, 929-2271. Mon.-Sat. 4-10 p.m., Sun. 4-9 p.m. kuroshiorestaurant.com
What is Adam Baru’s secret? He opened Mani Osteria at a desolate location on Liberty around the time Borders pulled out, and as all the nearby retailers were screaming that aggressive panhandlers were driving their customers away. In the other direction, Fifth was torn up for the construction of the Library Lane parking structure. But Mani was an instant hit.
You can debate what Mani’s secret was, but Baru’s pretty sure what the secret is at Isalita. “Isalita’s secret is Mani,” he laughs. “There’s been such an outpour of support. People coming in here are huge supporters of Mani and have said so. They are coming here to see how it compares.”
He didn’t do much to the long-vacant space–like Mani, on the ground floor of what was once the Handicraft furniture store–other than pull up the carpet, scrub it down, and stick a semi-visible kitchen in the back. “There’s a lot of imperfection to the design and that was absolutely on purpose,” he says, referring to the cracks in the concrete floor and the paint splatters on the walls.
Baru’s wife, Lucia, is from Mexico, and Isalita is an homage to the cutting-edge cuisine of Mexico City. “Mexico has French, Spanish, Aztec influences,” he explains. “We have creative culinary opportunities to play on.” Portions are small to tiny: “It’s all tasting portions. We want people to explore the menu.” The tacos, three to an order, are four-inchers, which is to say, canape-sized. (Tacos run $7-$10, and nothing on the menu is over $13.) Although he emphasizes that Isalita is a restaurant, not a bar, Baru says that his “craft-produced mescals and tequilas pair well with the food, just as wine pairs with food in France.”
Isalita’s ingredients include a local rarity: huitlacoche, or corn smut, a Mexican delicacy. Baru brings out a bowl of it. Brown and slimy and dotted with corn kernels, it’s not something you’d eat by the spoonful. “It’s not very attractive is it? They call it the Mexican truffle. Not so much because of the price–we get it in cans, and it’s expensive, but not that expensive–but because of the earthiness.” Isalita uses it in guacamole, tacos, and soup.
Isalita, 341a E. Liberty, 213-7400. Tues.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 4-11 p.m., Sun. 4-9 p.m. Closed Mon. www.isalita.com
R.U.B. BBQ Pub (R.U.B. stands, a tad redundantly, for Real Urban Barbecue) is a recently conceived venture by the Yono clan. Headed by Sam Yono, the Chaldean family owns a number of businesses around Detroit, including hotels, grocery stores, and funeral homes. Three years ago, they decided to go full tilt boogie into the barbecue business. This is their third R.U.B., following pubs near Comerica Park and in Warren, and manager Omar Mitchell says they might eventually franchise the operation.
Mitchell describes himself as “kind of an adopted son to the Yono family–they took me in when I started working at their Ramada Inn in Southfield when I was about sixteen. I’ve known them for over twenty years now.” He’s been sent to Ann Arbor to see if he can make this location, at the corner of Packard and State, cook. He says he’s well aware that the location seems to have some kind of curse on it, but R.U.B. has signed a five-year lease and plans to stay.
Though Mitchell is a trained chef (Johnson and Wales culinary school in Rhode Island), he credits Sam Yono’s son Randy for R.U.B.’s success so far. “He did all the research on recipes and developed the menu. We also have a great corporate chef, Shawn Thomas.” Raised in Alabama, Thomas, forty, grew up cooking barbecue and further honed his skills at Schoolcraft College.
Though he floats among all three locations, Thomas at the moment is mostly in Ann Arbor, presiding over the enormous smoker in the back kitchen, where the smell of smoked meat is nearly overpowering. He says the kind of things you hope a barbecue chef will say: he can tell the difference between meat smoked over cherry, hickory, and apple wood and prefers cherry, and that he brines, rubs, and smokes hundreds of pounds of ribs, pork shoulder, chicken, and brisket a week. Another R.U.B. specialty is “short ribs,” actually one long Fred Flintstone-sized rib. It’s braised, not smoked. Barbecue dinners with two sides are mostly in the low $20s, sandwiches are around $10.
R.U.B. barbecue comes to the table with a six-pack of house sauces to choose from–mustard-based Carolina, sweet Memphis, and so forth. For the record, chef Thomas prefers the Memphis, and his second favorite is apple.
R.U.B. BBQ Pub, 640 Packard, 662-7000. Mon.-Wed. 11 a.m.-midnight, Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun. noon-midnight. www.rubbbqdetroit.com