From Mani To Mexico

"I didn't realize it had been considered a Bermuda Triangle of businesses," says Adam Baru, owner and founder of Liberty Street’s chic Italian eatery, Mani Osteria. "This spot had sat empty for period of time, but it had good bones to it. We thought it was a great spot."
As it turns out, a great way to confound expectations is to not acknowledge them in the first place. Though the corner location in the heart of Downtown Ann Arbor had a recent history marred by short-lived businesses, Baru has spent the last year accumulating gobs of praise and popularity for his unique Italian bistro. Now, he’s preparing to defy the odds again, building out the space adjacent to Mani Osteria for his new fine dining Mexican restaurant - a genre that has never found much staying power anywhere in the city. 
"I believe that if you create a product that you’re proud of, try really hard to do it right every time, and really focus on the quality of the guest experience, people will seek you out," Baru says. 
Call it blind optimism - minus the "blind" part. Baru may be willing to buck bits of local business convention, but his methods are steeped in experience, both in the fancy restaurant biz and Ann Arbor itself. 
"I was born and raised here," Baru says, "and I always had an interest in restaurants." 
The restaurateur took the roundabout route back to both the city and the food industry, beginning his career working for a Chicago advertising agency for eight years. After tiring of that work, Baru attended graduate school at Cornell University, studying restaurant and hotel management. He was then recruited to work with Starr Restaurants [], a chic collection of businesses in Philadelphia. 
"I got to work with Chef Morimoto of Iron Chef fame, and got to help him open a restaurant in New York," Baru says. "I learned a ton about restaurants from working in his establishments, about quality of ingredients and quality of service."
After working with another Iron Chef, Jose Garces, from whom he learned the craft of the chef-driven restaurant and was inspired to someday create a Mexican restaurant of his own, Baru and his wife decided it was time for them and their young daughter to be closer to family. That meant it was also time for Mani Osteria.  
There’s not much left to say about Mani chef Brendan McCall’s food or restaurant’s success that hasn’t been said by Food + Leisure or Mario Batali. Just 18 months after the buzz about the new Italian restaurant began, the new wave of excitement is over the yet-unnamed Mexican restaurant Baru and McCall are opening next door, a move that has been in the plans since day one.
"Always," Baru says of how long his plans to expand beyond Mani have been in the works. "There is no fun in just owning one restaurant."
If it seemed like he knew what he was doing on the first round, Mani fans can feel free to have high expectations on the second. Between being having a Mexican spouse and his experience working with Jose Garces, Baru’s future Mexican restaurant plans has been marinating for some time. 
"The way we’re approaching Mexican food will be similar in spirit to Mani," says Baru, "fresh ingredients and new interpretations of dishes people are familiar with. Nothing too exotic, but some of the flavor combinations, or how we present it, will be fun in unexpected ways." 
While Baru isn’t revealing too many menu secrets quite yet, he does say diners can expect such items as three kinds of guacamole, each featuring a surprising ingredient, a salad that incorporates sorbet, a number of ceviche varieties that will be new to Ann Arbor, and fish tacos rolled and battered in crunchy plantain chips. 
In Baru’s restaurant model, a combination of the ingredients and his desire to draw diners for more than just special occasions. 
"We wanted it to be a restaurant that was someplace the people would want to eat one more than once a week," Baru says of Mani. "The menu is designed so you can spend $18 on a pizza and a beer, or you can have three course meal and spend $40."
Where the Mexican eatery will differ from its Italian predecessor is the décor. While Baru is using the same Birmingham-based architecture and design firm, Ron & Roman, on the build out as he did on Mani, the feel will be distinct. 
"Mani was a little bit more warm and has a very European spirit," he says. "The Mexican concept will be a bit edgier, a little rougher. It will have a little more of a Mexican spirit to it."
Not that experience makes opening a second restaurant a piece of cake, Baru clarifies. 
"The first one is scary and hard," he says. "The second is difficult, but for different reasons. I'm all about maintaining a certain level of excellence, from food to service to design. We expect everyone to jump over a really high bar."
Through the high bar set by Baru and McCall for Mani and the forthcoming restaurant, the bar for other Ann Arbor restaurants, as well as the general business mix downtown elevates as well. 
"I think that Ann Arbor just misses some really solid anchor businesses," he says of his hometown. "I wouldn't say that our business been hurt by Borders going out of business, but I do think it hurts the fabric and the culture of what Ann Arbor stands for." 
He adds that while Ann Arbor does a great job of creating public spaces, he thinks more is needed, as well as additional retailers, to create more of a demand for visitors from outside of Ann Arbor to come downtown.
For his part, Baru will be looking to impact the city’s future in the best way he knows how. 
"It will be on to the next restaurant," he says. "Not selfishly, but because you want to continue to grow as an organization, and make sure there are opportunities for people to grow. I don’t know what that's going to be, but we’re always looking for the next opportunity."

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe