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With anticipation mounting during the past weeks, the Mongolian barbeque restaurant in downtown Ypsilanti is open for business.
The 40 staff members at J. Neil’s Mongolian Grille have been training for four weeks, creating a stir as the public have been walking past the Kresge Building’s windows to see food cooked on the circular cast iron grill.
Hasan Mihyar, the restaurant’s manager, said the plan had been to open the doors to the public Monday. But, with the ribbon cutting down the street at the SPARK East incubator Friday, he thought it would be good to bring in customers earlier and gain the exposure.
“It was spontaneous,” Mihyar said.
“We actually didn’t announce a lot in regards that we were opening today,” he said. “I’m expecting this to get way larger.”
Mihyar estimated the restaurant served approximately 40 people as of 8 p.m. Friday night. Between the grill upstairs and the Key Stone Wine Bar downstairs, the building is estimated to seat 100-150 people.
David Curtis, who owns J. Neil’s, as well as Pub 13 and Club Divine next door, joked about the idea of the restaurant opening a couple days early.
“We were supposed to open a long time ago,” Curtis said.
The restaurant’s opening has been in the press since Oct. 2007. The Citizen reported Curtis was putting the final touches on the business at the end of last year.
“The staff was doing a really good job,” Curtis said of the month’s worth of training they had done. “They needed real people to get nervous for.”
Amanda, a server and “flavor expert” at the restaurant, served the restaurant’s very first customer. She said he was straight to the point, and knew exactly what he wanted when he got in the restaurant—a rice bowl, which is a dish the wait staff prepare for the customer.
“Before I even got to introduce myself, he was ordering his food,” she said.
The classic self-serve style expected at Mongolian restaurants is available at the restaurant, with a selection of beef, chicken, lamb, tofu and various sea foods available to add to the dish, which is then stir-fried by energetic staff on the circular grill.
“We want everyone to come in here and have a great time,” Amanda said.
“We’ve got a lot of really fun people working here,” she said. “I’m really excited about that.”
Mihyar did point out some key differences between what J. Neil’s, named after Curtis's son Jason, has to offer as opposed to other Mongolian barbeque restaurants. The first two he pointed out are the fact that the restaurant has no freezer, and the bowls for collecting the food from the bar are bigger.
Because there is only a cooler at J. Neil’s, Mihyar said customers can expect the meat and vegetables to be fresh. He said the restaurant will also try to stay stocked with as many Michigan-grown vegetables as possible. He said the bowls are to benefit the consumer during a struggling economy.
Curtis said the prices at J. Neil’s were actually lowered from what he intended to charge. A standard dinner at the restaurant costs $11.99, and is all-you-can-eat for $1 more. A smaller portioned lunch dish costs in the neighborhood of $5. In November, before the store opened, he estimated a dinner might cost $16.
“We think the customers are going to enjoy a little more food at a reasonable price,” he said.
With the possibility of the restaurant becoming a destination spot in Ypsilanti, Curtis said he is excited to see how the restaurant will help grow Ypsilanti’s business districts. He said he will be placing a billboard on I-94 near Belleville and on US-23 near Saline.
“I think it’s going to bring in a lot of people,” Curtis said.
With the early opening, Mihyar said the staff has noticed some small details that will need to be taken care of before a large-scale grand opening. For instance, they will need more containers to hold the different sauces customers add to the bowls before having the food grilled.
He also pointed out that the house stereo system has yet to be installed, as well as some of the light fixtures that will hang from the ceiling.
“It hasn’t prevented us from serving great food to the customers,” Curtis said. “Everybody seems to love it.”
Long wait for new restaurant could soon be over