ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Having opened its doors at the end of March, Blue LLama Jazz Club is quickly becoming a go-to spot for adventurous foodies and jazz lovers.
Gaining a reputation for its rich interior and welcoming staff, the jazz club is also notable for its live music, performed five nights a week, and its inventively fun food.
Before observing a performance by the Gary Schunk Trio, we sat down with Chef Louis Goral, the man behind the jazz-inspired menu at Blue LLama, to talk about the menu, his favorite creations, and what drew him to Ann Arbor.
Originally from Iowa, Chef Louis is also a musician. He’s played the drums for 25 years and found his passion for the restaurant industry while working in kitchens to pay his bills throughout high school and college.
For Blue LLama’s jazz-inspired, American shared plates, Chef Louis said that they [Blue LLama] wanted something inspired but not cheesy, so he looked into what jazz musicians ate and creatively incorporated his findings with high-quality and local products.
Case in point, the Crispy Foie Gras PB&J -- a fun take on the classic American sandwich loved by Billie Holiday. Nestled inside a bubble of thin and crisp puffed bread sit Michigan strawberry jam, Marcona almonds and foie gras mousse.
“The whole menu is kind of designed to be shared in that way [small bites] -- so that was kind of the idea -- to have fun, high-end bites that people could enjoy when they’re with friends and people they like seeing a great show,” said Chef Louis.
The menu is peppered with items that spark creativity. For example, the Yucca Gnocchi, which Chef Louis thought of after the kitchen had leftover Yucca, a Peruvian root vegetable. Gnocchi is typically made with potatoes but Chef Louis replaced the potatoes with yucca, added English peas, feta cheese from White Lotus Farms in Ann Arbor, five types of mushrooms, Parmesan Reggiano and locally-milled flour.
Chef Louis also loves the cornmeal-encrusted Michigan whitefish that was his localized take on a Southern catfish dish. It is served with smoked peewee potatoes, black garlic aioli and a hojicha tea fumé consumé (made with tea from the TeaHaus).
On the topic of Ann Arbor, Chef Louis said that the move to Treetown made sense. Previously, he was working in Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York and as he was ready to move on he was introduced to Blue LLama Jazz Club proprietor Don Hicks.
“[I] really had a great experience talking with him. We looked at business in a similar way. And he had never opened a restaurant before but hospitality is important to him,” said Chef Louis.
“Don and Anaïs Hicks -- they eat at all the best restaurants all over the world and they wanted to bring a really amazing food and beverage and music experience to their hometown of Ann Arbor. So that really resonated with us [Chef Louis and his family].”
Chef Louis said that even in larger cities, finding a business partner with a similar sense of hospitality and business ideology is a challenge so things just made sense to make the move.
“At the end of the day, I think [I] really want people to just have a really amazing experience that resonates with them," said Chef Louis.
While making a splash with its food, Blue LLama also creates an experience for its guests. Part of this experience, according to Chef Louis, is the mini plates the kitchen sends out to guests. Along with a few other dishes, he had us try one -- a sphere of lychee puree encased in a delicate gelatin coating.
Chef Louis said the mini-plates rotate regularly so that the kitchen can flex its creativity and incorporate things he finds at the farmers market, which he goes to twice a week to stock up on locally grown and made products: things like feta, baguettes and microgreens.
While patrons are entranced by performers, there is an intricate dance being done by staff who have to deftly weave around tables in between tunes to deliver orders, check on patrons and make conversation.
Another part of the experience is live music. According to Chef Louis, musical artists who perform are also treated with the same high-end experience that patrons received.
And, although guests do not pay a cover charge for nights with live entertainment, they are encouraged to add the suggested entertainment fee to their bill. This fee goes toward making sure Blue LLama is able to continuously bring more talent into the venue five nights a week.
Blue LLama Jazz Club is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 5 to 11 p.m. and on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
To make reservations or look at the schedule of upcoming performances, visit the Blue LLama website.
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