Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ritual Café

Ritual Café
1301 Locust St. Ste. D Des Moines, IA
QISA (3.5, 4, 3, 3.5), $6-10, Vegetarian

Ritual Café is a deep blue dot in a light blue city in a purple rural state. Although it is one of the very few all vegetarian restaurants in Des Moines, Iowa, the vegetarian menu comes off as secondary to the restaurants primary role as an ultra-liberal, culturally diverse coffee house.

The walls of the Ritual Café are covered with works of local artists, and the art runs the gamut from paintings to paper cuts to daguerreotypes. The upper walls are covered with concert posters from local musicians, and every bit of space in between sports a bumper sticker, poster, or silk screened mat that praises the goddess, invokes meditative Sanskrit letters, supports Bernie Sanders, advertises Cesar Chavez Day, or rails against Israeli apartheid of Palestine (but conspicuously ignores every other country with any marks on their civil rights record, including the United States). Despite the low-key, relaxing atmosphere, Ritual Café does not take the safe road, finding something that will offend at least someone. Even their tip jar says, “support counterintelligence.”

Which doesn’t change the fact that they make a tasty sandwich.

I ordered the Sweet & Spicy which has curry chickpea spread, mango jam, massman curry spread, spinach leaves, and red onion grilled on marble rye bread. The sandwich was a wonderful mix of texture and flavor, combining sweet mango with a moderately spicy curry. The chickpeas are mashed only slightly to give the sandwich a topography of textures. Served with thick cut tortilla chips, it makes for a decent lunch.

The other lunch items were equally tempting, but I will have to wait till my next visit to try out the Po Boi’ (red and green peppers, onions, artichoke hearts, cheddar and feta, grilled on garlic focaccia) or the black bean burritos with sweet potatoes and Serrano peppers. Or perhaps I will stop by for breakfast instead and try out the Grateful Oats made with rice milk chai and hempnut granola, or maybe even the breakfast bowl with steamed eggs, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, and feta cheese.

I went for a simple cup of coffee, which was reasonably decent but nothing to rave about. I suppose I could have gone for something more exotic, like a Mayan Mocha (espresso, Mexican chocolate and steamed milk) or a Horchata Latte (espresso, steamed milk, almond, cinnamon, and vanilla flavors.) Maybe, just maybe, I could have gone all out with an Omega Hemp Nut Smoothie, a series of drinks that seem to combine exotic flavors, health benefits, political consciousness, and a straw.

It is strangely refreshing to walk into an establishment and feel like the conservative odd man out. Me, a man whose parents were at the forefront of the liberal elite at CalTech, a man who has only once in his life broken his Democratic voting streak to vote Independent, a man who has raised his two sons on a steady diet of multicultural rhetoric, rational thought, dogmatic challenge, and sympathy for the downtrodden. I had the strangest urge to rouse a little rabble and talk a little trash. I wanted to challenge every one of their uber liberal assertions. Israel is the bad guy and not Hamas? Do you even read newspapers? How do you juxtapose goddess symbology with Sanskrit meditative letters straight out of a patriarchal tradition?

But I didn’t, and I shouldn’t, and I won’t. In the end, Ritual Café is a relaxing, chill coffee house in the best of liberal traditions. The staff are polite, the menu is creative, and the atmosphere is calming.

I’ll save my belligerence for Sunday morning at Cracker Barrel. They don’t serve hemp nut smoothies.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Upton's Breakroom

Upton's Breakroom
2054 West Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL 60612
QISA (3.5, 4, 3.5, 3), $5 – 9, Vegan

My first experience with seitan was about 30 years ago in my pre-vegetarian years. My mother, of blessed memory, and her close friend found a recipe for “wheat meat,” which would supposedly magically turn whole-wheat flour into a believable meat substitute that was cheaper and leaner than beef. Looking back through the lens of adult experience, I understand her thinking. She had found a way to stretch our family dollar, reduce our saturated fat load, and satisfy her inner experimental food scientist. As a biology teacher, she was always up to some scientific experimentation.

I was not in the house while she lovingly prepared the seitan (I was out that evening doing something suitably teenagery), but I did get to try the final product later that evening. I have a very clear memory of a spaghetti sauce with a substance that looked very much like ground beef but tasted like bland, chewy whole-wheat flour. I also remember chewing this rubbery substance for a good five minutes before I was finally able to swallow. It was a decade before I touched the stuff again.

As a young married, and now vegetarian, husband, I took on the lion’s share of cooking duties. I was constantly looking for new recipes with which to impress my lovely wife, and I came upon a recipe for homemade seitan, a meat substitute with different and more versatile properties than tofu, TVP, tempeh, or okara. The process involved making a dense dough of whole-wheat flour and water, rinsing and pressing the dough in multiple changes of water, and simmering the resulting grayish blob in broth. The result of my experimentation was a slightly more satisfying and slightly less rubbery meat substitute. A secondary result was a layer of dried starch water all over the kitchen that my wife discovered the next day when she came in to make a sandwich. Since that day, my wife has made me promise two things: 1) never make any desserts that contain tofu, and 2) never make seitan completely from scratch ever again. I violate either of these rules at my peril.

Nowadays, I make my own seitan with vital wheat gluten flour. This flour, which can be found at many specialty shops, is basically instant seitan. Just add water, broth, and/or spices, and simmer, boil, or steam. I am still perfecting my seitan recipe, but my family will attest that my end result is a vast improvement over my early experimentation. Sliced thin, my breaded, fried glutenschnitzel is a family favorite. Just recently, I developed my own gluten-based sausage link which is fantastic on a hot-dog bun with spicy brown mustard or veggie-chili, particularly on a hot July 4th, while you’re spitting watermelon seeds, drinking your second beer, and blowin’ s$%!@ up. Vegetarians may talk a good game about ethics, but it don’t mean we can’t get our redneck on.

This long-winded exposition is simply my way of saying that I respect anyone who masters the art of seitan. It’s a tricky beast.

Upton’s Breakroom, a tiny Chicago restaurant associated with Upton’s Naturals, has pretty well mastered the process. Although Upton’s Naturals wholesalers sells jackfruit products as well, their seitan is obviously their crowning achievement.

What is most interesting, or at least most amusing, about Upton’s Breakroom, is that the restaurant feels like the quintessential Chicago meat scene. Situated in an industrial Chicago neighborhood, the clientele is mostly men between 20 and 50. The stocky, Mediterranean-looking head chef at the grill looks straight out of central Blues Brother casting. I expected him to start yelling “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger!” (Kids, ask your parents.)

Except he didn’t. Instead, he engaged me on the ethics of veganism, discussed the recipes they use for their fake cheese sauces, and walked me through the most popular items on their menu. This is no hippie, college-town, trustafarian, liberal, save-the-world vegan lunch spot. This is a blue-collar, Chi-town, blink and you’ll miss it, comfort food, love-The-Bears-but-what’s-up-with-them-this-season vegan lunch spot.

After much perusal of the many options, I decided to order the “Chicago-style” Italian sandwich, along with a side of fried bacon mac. Nothing else seemed to speak of Chicago cuisine like an Italian hoagie and fried bacon mac. This was the only way, in my thinking, that I could truly judge the establishment. Heck, anyone can make a kale salad.

The sandwich was a glorious mess of herbed seitan, mild giardiniera peppers, celery, marinated carrot, and onion on a hoagie bun. The seitan was mildly spiced and covered in a juicy broth that immediately soaked through the bread. The flavors and textures melded perfectly creating a messy but satisfying taste of Chicago.

The fried bacon mac and cheese (cheeze?) was slightly charred at the edges, with a crusty and crunchy texture that helped sell the bits of seitan bacon. The cheeze sauce, although primarily made of nutritional yeast and tahini, did not have the bitter yeasty flavor I typically associate with vegan cheeze sauces. It honestly wasn’t until I finished my meal and was driving away did I really start to notice the yeast aftertaste. I guess you can never completely hide nutritional yeast. It’s insidious that way.

My honest impression was that the restaurant was good, very good in fact, but not fantastic. I only rated the quality a 3.5 because to compete with the fancy Chicago restaurant scene, one has to go above and beyond. And Upton simply goes above. However, I wish them well, and I definitely recommend my readers to try them out. When you go, you might even try out the kale salad. I am sure it is wonderful, and I would love to know what you think. I’ll be in the corner, hunched over my vegan bacon ranch cheeseburger.

FINAL NOTE: Upton’s Breakroom definitely falls into the Analog, Comfort Food mode, which is likely to spark a small amount of controversy in the foodie community. Hard core vegans and carnivores alike may challenge the idea of making vegan analogs of meat instead of simply exploring new avenues of vegetables, beans, and nuts. One of my meat-eating cousins mused, “If I wanted to eat a sausage, why wouldn’t I go for the real thing?” My response to this is two-fold. First, I flip this around. If there were a way to eat sausage without harming animals, why wouldn’t I go down this path? The issue is not the “purity” of the food, but rather the ethical, nutritional, and moral context of the food. Second, I claim that the “purity” of the food is a false construct unto itself. Meat sausages (as an example) are amalgams that in no way resemble their original source. In fact, most food items are processed, salted, stretched, and/or dried to no longer resemble their humble origins. Therefore, if what one tastes is primarily salt, spices, and processed protein anyway, why not do so in a vegetarian/vegan context?

As my rabbi used to say after a particularly long discourse, “The discussion is yours.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Monty's Blue Plate Diner

Monty’s Blue Plate Diner
2089 Atwood Ave. Madison, WI 53704
QISA (4, 3.5, 4, 3.5), $6-10, Vegetarian-Friendly

The casual vegan traveler to the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, might be forgiven for overlooking Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. After all, on its surface, Monty’s is pure Americana, complete with a wall of second-tier and once long ago first-tier celebrity photos (sorry Arlo). At first glance, the menu is nothing more than carnivore-centric standard dishes such as burgers, corned beef hash, Reuben sandwiches, BLTs, chorizo breakfast burritos, and pork chilaquiles. However, hidden just below the surface is an impressive vegetarian/vegan menu with a variety of redefined diner-style dishes, such as vegetarian chili, vegetarian hash, walnut burgers, huevos rancheros, veggie and goat cheese crepes, tempeh bacon “BLT”, vegan pancakes, falafel wraps, and tofu scramblers. Point of fact, Monty’s meatless menu is larger than that of many strictly vegan restaurants I have visited.

I wavered between the Breakfast Sweet Potato Hash and the Heathen Vegan Shoplifter's Delight; it was a hard-fought battle. In the end, I went with the Delight, mostly because it sounded more interesting overall, but partly because it came with thick cut steak fries. In the end, I did not regret my decision.

The Shoplifter’s Delight was a sandwich of marinated Portobello strips, fried Bandung tempeh (a product of the local Bandung Indonesian Restaurant), caramelized red onions, fresh avocado, and a lemon-tahini dressing, all served on a baguette. The tempeh was marinated just enough to hide its sourness, giving it a mild, pleasant flavor that complemented the other sandwich ingredients. In fact, most of the flavor came from the lemon-tahini dressing, with an accompanying sweetness from the onions, and a satisfying bit of umami balance from the mushrooms and avocado.

I substituted the waffle fries for the standard fries. They were thick cut, meaty, and slightly spiced. I regretted nothing, even if I had to make several promises to myself to skip dinner and jog the length of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport a couple of times on my evening layover.

I ordered a cup of coffee. It was diner standard coffee, but I have discovered that most diners offer a thoroughly decent cup of coffee that beats out McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and many of the other chains that peddle their over-hyped swill as high-brow brew. The coffee was medium roast, low acidity coffee that spoke of the best parts of the Midwest.

Speaking of which, for just a little bit more, you can order the coffee and a donut, instead of just the coffee. Monty’s donuts are made fresh in-house, so naturally, I had to try one. In the interest of science and all. Oh my. This was not your standard Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Tim Horton’s greasy pastry. This was doughy and perfectly sweet, balancing at the border of donut, cake, and bread. I got mine with sprinkles because, yeah. I regretted nothing, even if I had to make several promises to visit Planet Fitness every night and morning the next week.

The service at the restaurant is just what you would expect from a Midwest-nice establishment. The very cute waitress was friendly and attentive but not in a flirtatious or ego-stroking way, which frankly was just as effective.

What’s to say about Monty’s? Carnivores and vegans can sit across from each other with their Bistro Burgers and Walnut Burgers and simply talk about the weather. Liberal college students can eat their Vegetarian Hash, their conservative salt-of-the-earth grandparents can nibble at their Country Breakfast, and both can argue about whether or not Trump is a racist (he is) and Sanders is a socialist (he also is).

It is a place for everybody. How many restaurants can say that?

FINAL NOTE: Across the street from Monty's is a Gail Ambrosius, a most excellent high-end chocolatier that sells dark truffles, dipped fruit, and other exotic confections infused with an amazing variety of fruit, tea, and spices. After my hefty meal, I waddled across the street to buy a gift for my lovely wife, figuring that the chances of being tempted into chocolate excess were much lower if I was already full from lunch. Unfortunately, they were giving out free samples of their jasmine truffles, which naturally, I had to try. But I regret nothing, even if…oh Lord.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Chicago Diner

Chicago Diner
2333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, IL 60647
3411 N. Halsted St. Chicago, IL 60657
QISA (4, 4, 4, 3.5), $9-13, Vegetarian

The Chicago Diner (“Meat free since ‘83”) describes itself as providing Vegetarian Comfort Food. I disagree. The Chicago Diner provides THE Vegetarian Comfort Food. I simply know of no place in the country that does this any better. The Diner bridges the gulf between the id and the ego, marrying meatless, local, seasonal ingredients with dishes that are pure decadence. Or at least seem that way.

Take their Special Recipe seitan wings with either barbecue or spicy Buffalo sauce. I absolutely love these things. After a big gut-busting meal in the restaurant, I have been known get a take-out order to finish off much, much later in my hotel room…and then finish them off in the car on the way to the room. Apparently I have no self-control. Or pride.

Or how about their Spicy Crispy Chik’n, a satisfyingly crunchy and chewy sandwich made from breaded chicken-flavored seitan, ranch dressing, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and onion on a hearty whole-wheat bun.

Or perhaps you’re more in the mood for a Cajun Black Bean Burger, a spicy black bean patty with sautéed onions, mushrooms, spinach, tomato, fried jalapenos, vegan cheese, and Creole mustard spilling out onto your hands, which is all fine because no one is judging you but yourself. If you were there on a date, your chances of intimacy were over the moment your dinner consisted of the words "beans," "spicy," and "onions". Unless your date ordered those words as well, in which case, you should marry her immediately.

And I have not yet mentioned the dessert menu of cakes, sundaes, and award-winning shakes, all of which, of course, are vegetarian. And all of which, I choose to believe with absolutely no proof whatsoever, are healthy and life-prolonging.

Although much of the menu definitely follows the Comfort and Analog modes of vegetarian dining, not everything is fried or seitan-based. The quinoa chili is a hearty mix of beans, corn, and quinoa, creating a wonderful melange of flavor and texture. The chili is a healthy stew of protein, fiber, and vitamins that still somehow feels decadent. Of course, the fact that it is served with jalapeno corn fritters doesn’t hurt either.

Despite the heaps of awards, over 30 years of history, and an in-house store selling everything from t-shirts to cookbooks, the restaurant still has a modest, unassuming appeal. This is no four star restaurant with a snooty maître ‘d informing you that, strange, he doesn’t see your name on the list, perhaps you would like to wait at the bar. Rather, this is a hippie hangout and a family diner all in one. This is wooden benches and scratched tables and local art on the walls. This is comfort food.

Granted, this is also good service and cute, friendly waitresses, which, I am none-to-proud to say probably raises the place up even more in my esteem. At my last visit, Isa, an attractive young blue-haired, cappuccino-skinned lady earned her generous tip by drawing four stars on the top of my bill and writing “Love and” in front of the printed “Thank You” on my bill. I can’t quite remember, but that may have been the day I put in the extra order of take-out barbecue seitan wings.

No self-control. No self-control or pride at all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Detroit Vegan Soul

Detroit Vegan Soul
8029 Agnes Street, Detroit, MI 48214
QISA (4, 3.5, 4, 3.5), $7-14, Vegan

There is a part of me, a horrible, nasty, cranky, cynical part of me that desperately wanted to disparage Detroit Vegan Soul. This part of me wanted to deride the establishment for reducing the American Black experience to a museum exhibit, complete with an artfully framed picture of a pre-civil rights bathroom (showing door signs that say “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored”) ironically placed in the restroom so you can contemplate old societal injustices while doing your business. This part of me wanted to laugh at the calming music played over the restaurant speakers: selections of smooth jazz, 70s R&B, and mild hip hop, all of which created an ethnomusicology of African American music minus any unpleasant edginess. This part of me wanted to comment on the racial diversity of the young wait staff, a level of diversity not typically found in Soul food establishments. This part of me wanted to paint the restaurant as an attempt to bring African American culture to a Caucasian upper-middle class vegan population rather than bring veganism to an extant African American population. Most of all, this part wanted to loudly ask, “Are you trying to sanitize the African American urban experience for my protection?”

Luckily, that part of me was quiet enough to let me enjoy the experience of Detroit Vegan Soul. The experience may not have been absolutely authentic, but it was definitely amiable, enjoyable, and classy. The wait staff were friendly, the food was tasty and well prepared, the restaurant was clean, and the whole atmosphere was pleasant enough to melt the heart of a liberal curmudgeon such as myself. I would even have been confident enough to bring my African American friends along with me without constantly checking on my cultural sensitivity.

I ordered the tofu “catfish” with yam chips, a choice I was very, very happy about. The tofu cutlet was cornmeal breaded, fried, and served on a soft whole grain bun with lettuce, tomato, and vegan tartar sauce. The sandwich had a good balance of flavor with not too much salt, very little fishy taste, and no lingering sense of horrible animal death.

I apologize for that. The curmudgeon still wants to come out. I digress.

The yam chips were thick cut, somewhere between steak fries and chips. They were fried to a crisp tender and lightly coated with salt and herbs. I did not leave a single one on my plate.

Some foods were merely good, not amazingly delicious. The coleslaw was not as crisp as I would have liked, and it was slightly sweeter than I am used to. The “Sock it to me” cake was a very nutty coffeecake with a ribbon of cinnamon in the center. It was an enjoyable end to the meal, but not a rich dessert worthy of additional lines of text.

The berry blast smoothie, on the other hand, was one of the best smoothies I have had in ages. Sweetened with dates and filled with fruit, the smoothie was a sweet treat that still allowed me to feel virtuous.

I would definitely recommend Detroit Vegan Soul. They have their act together on all accounts, from the food itself, to the photo collage of street signs on the wall, to the service. My waitress, a very cute diminutive blond woman, was very friendly, constantly sporting a winning smile that almost had me believe she was flirting with me, even though there was no way in this universe that she was actually flirting with me. Of course, had I been a middle-aged woman, the handsome young African American man behind the counter probably would have come out to take my order.

Or am I just being cynical again?

Yeah, whatever.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Small Batch

Small Batch
3001 Locust Street, St. Louis, MO 63103
QISA (4.5, 4, 4.5, 4), $8-17, Vegetarian

This past weekend, I treated my wife to a weekend in St. Louis sans enfants. We left our boys with my mother-in-law, who promptly dumped the boys onto my sister-in-law's weekend family vacation. I suppose she assumed that two relatively well-behaved young lads couldn't make too much of a dent in the already existing chaos of my sister-in-law's family. Or perhaps she figured this was an easy way of getting out of preparing any meals. Frankly, I didn't care. For the length of the weekend, this was not my problem.

In fact, the only thing that was my problem was setting up a fun-filled grown-up's weekend for two, complete with Friday-night Shabbat services in an unknown Temple, a visit to the Gateway Arch complete with a tram ride to the top, plenty of time to browse through two large antique shops with no whiny kids (or husband) pulling on her leg, and a couple of really bad movies on the Syfy channel at the hotel. In addition, I felt the need to introduce her to the many wonderful vegetarian restaurants in St. Louis. To showcase my skills as a culinary traveler, any restaurant I picked had to be fancy, but not snooty. It had to be exotic enough to create a sense of adventure, but familiar enough to keep her within proximity of her comfort zone.

In other words, it had to be Small Batch, my favorite vegetarian restaurant in St. Louis. Correction, this is my favorite restaurant in St. Louis period.

Small Batch is a whiskey lounge and restaurant, “focusing on fine American Whiskeys, Bourbons, and Ryes.” Read their Website, and you will learn about their fresh handmade pastas, breads baked fresh daily, and their delicious, unique, eclectic dishes. You will learn about their nearly 100 whiskeys, all listed in what can only be described as a codex, complete with name, U.S. state of origin, proof, grain profile, and a brief evocative description.

What you will not find is any mention of them being vegetarian.

David Bailey, the award winning restaurateur and owner of Bailey Restaurants, must have wanted to see what he could do with an ovo-lacto format, possibly to find out if anyone would notice the lack of charred flesh. He had already explored burgers at Bailey’s Range, chocolate at Bailey’s Chocolate Bar, fine beers and wines at Bridge, and every other kind of meat at Rooster, Range, and the Fifth Wheel. What’s left for a budding culinary entrepreneur? Obviously pairing haute vegetarian cuisine with an expertise in fine whiskeys.

The waiters at Small Batch are either all very well trained or carefully selected for their knowledge of the fine nuances of rye, bourbon, Irish, and malt whiskeys. They are polite and friendly, helping unsophisticated patrons such as myself navigate the complex world of fine spirits and mixed drinks.

I can not stress enough how seriously the restaurant takes its whiskeys. Whiskeys are served in 0.75 or 2 fl.oz. glasses as well as in flights. Each glass of whiskey comes with a small bowl of ice to serve your drink on the rocks and/or a small eye dropper bottle “to open it up” with a couple drops of water. I felt quite the sophisticate dropping water and swirling my Michter’s Single Barrel Rye. See? I can even name-drop the staff’s favorite bourbon.

But then, there is the food. Ah, the food. Everything from the artful plating to the ample portions to the appetizing palate tells you this is a restaurant for epicureans serious about the entire culinary experience. I would definitely define this as an EPICUREAN-focused restaurant plain and simple.

I have visited the establishment three times so far, and I am working my way through the menu. On their Small Fare page, I have tried both the potstickers and the Tomato Explosion. Although the potstickers are tasty but not necessary extraordinary, the Tomato Explosion reminded me of what real food is supposed to taste like. Local red and yellow heirloom tomatoes are drizzled with basil truffle oil, pine nuts, pesto, and a blueberry balsamic vinegar, all served with a runny fresh mozzarella. Sweet tomatoes with flavor but little acidity, nutty pesto dancing with the tang of a fruity balsamic, bang zoom pow.

Of the main courses, I have so far tried the stuffed shells (stuffed with lemon ricotta, fontina, pecorino, fennel pine nuts, angel hair zucchini, and spinach tomato cream sauce), rigatoni (a spicy dish served with blackened cremini mushrooms, asparagus, red pepper, spinach, and Cajun cream), carbonara (a smoky linguini dish with smoked mushrooms, snap peas, onions, roasted cauliflower, and pecorino cheese), BBQ portabella mushrooms (served on toasted beer bread, covered with bourbon BBQ sauce, onion straws, dill kettle chips, bread and butter pickles, and broccoli slaw), and the soft shell artisanal tacos (with crisped avocado, grilled corn, napa slaw, chipotle, Chihuahua cheese, and black bean salsa). All of these were wonderful, but I was most partial to the BBQ mushrooms and tacos, both of which put me in a quiet meditative state.

Their desserts are equally as decadent. Be sure to try the chocolate brownie with a scoop of raspberry sorbet, chocolate sauce, and fresh fruit. Or perhaps their bourbon soaked bread pudding. Other than being restoratives for the soul, these are definitely not “wellness” foods.

And amazingly, all of these dishes are ovo-lacto vegetarian, even if they won’t admit to it in print.

Would I recommend visiting this place as often as possible? Definitely. Would I walk two miles each way, traversing downtown St. Louis at night, just so I could drink what I wanted and not have to drive home? Sure. Would I purposefully select a hotel within walking distance during a business trip? I plead the fifth.

But I would definitely bring my wife to Small Batch to show myself off as a highbrow urban sophisticate with a keen sense of taste, a cosmopolitan world traveler, and a committed and informed vegetarian.

Because, Lord knows I need all the help I can get.

Friday, July 10, 2015

FOCUS: The Vision of a Restaurant

“Well, the restaurant was decorated with paintings from local artists, and it had every form of tofu imaginable: fried, baked, pan-seared, boiled, and diced. Most of the dishes were pan-Asian except for the souvlaki. And they used free range arugula…whatever that means.”

Describing vegan and vegetarian restaurants in concise language is challenging, particularly since each restaurant has it’s own distinct personality. I’ve often wished for a short hand method of description; something I could use to convey a mode or primary focus without describing the menu in painstaking detail.

Below is my best attempt at a classification system that goes beyond the absolute identifiers, such as carnivorosity (vegan, vegetarian, etc.) or cost-structure. This system attempts to identify the mode of the restaurant. The menu may change monthly, weekly, or daily, but the basic FOCUS should never change without changing the fundamental nature. McDonald’s, to use a very non-vegetarian example, may come out with a new menu item, but that item will always be prepared quickly and priced cheaply. The McPorterhouse Steak would not be within McDonald’s FOCUS. I realize that any attempt at classification is a fiction, and an incomplete fiction at best. However, these FOCUS descriptors are meant to provide a high-level framework and context for each restaurant. No restaurant should require more than two descriptors. Any more, and the restaurant sounds unfocused. Or you sound unfocused, and the best I can do for you is recommend a good therapist.

In alphabetical order, these categories are: ANALOG, COMFORT, ECLECTIC, ETHNIC, EPICUREAN, and WELLNESS.

ANALOG – Some restaurants are hell bent on bringing veganism/vegetarianism to the masses by substituting meat analogs (e.g. tofu, seitan, tempeh) in standard meat dishes. Although these restaurants may also be described by another FOCUS descriptor, their mode tends to be ensuring that every dish has an identifiable non-dairy protein source.

COMFORT – I sometimes refer to these restaurants as “fried tofu” restaurants. Their focus is to create modern versions of comfort food standards, sometimes, but not always maintaining the high fat, high salt, and high simple carbs of the original. I have had an incredibly passable baked mac and cheese at one of these restaurants, and I chose to believe that it was a much healthier version than the original.

ECLECTIC – Some restaurants pride themselves in exploring the borders of imagination found in vegetarian cuisine. The primary goal here is creativity, looking to either recreate standard dishes in a completely new guise or create novel dishes that combine fruits, vegetables, grains, sauces, and spices in new and exciting ways. I had an incredibly addictive kale slaw at one of these restaurants believe it or not.

ETHNIC – These restaurants focus on a particular ethnic or cultural cuisine straight and simple. Often these cuisines lends lend themselves to vegetarianism or veganism because the standard ingredients are already heavily based on vegetables and grains. Sometimes these cuisines are vegetarian as part of a religious or cultural code. Indian restaurants are prime examples of ethnically-focused cuisine.

EPICUREAN – These are your high brow restaurants, committed to fancy ingredients, skilled preparation, and artistic flair. Vegetarianism, while strictly maintained, often takes a back seat to the gourmet experience. The owners of the establishment are not focused on saving the world; they are focused on getting the best return on their investment from their cooking school tuition.

WELLNESS – Finally, these restaurants are committed to the health and wellness of the patrons, the planet, or, if at all possible, both. The menu or restaurant Website typically outlines the health benefits of the food, either in its preparation (e.g. steaming vs. frying or using heart healthy oils), its ingredients (e.g. incorporating superfoods, such as kale, broccoli, blueberries, or almonds), or in its farming practices (e.g. using organic produce instead of pesticide-laden conventionally grown produce). Although the food at these restaurants may be delicious, the style, flavor, preparation, and context are all secondary to nutrition.

These FOCUS categories are subjective, not objective descriptors, but they should provide me an additional tool in my writing armamentarium. Just in time, too. Frankly, I’m getting sick of finding new synonyms for “delicious.”

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Café Manna

Café Manna
3815 N. Brookfield Road, Brookfield, WI 53045
QISA (4, 4, 4, 4), $11-18, Vegetarian

“Pleasant” is highly underrated.

Despite our general attempts to seek out pleasantness in our friends, our surroundings, and our weather, there remains an underlying assumption in pleasantness that anything pleasant, “lacks substance.” Our pleasant friend always has a smile on her face and a soft voice but most likely has little rattling behind her eyeballs. Pleasant weather is warm and sunny with little to no precipitation but also conforms to an accepted standard deviation of human comfort. Pleasant may be the absence of anything offensive, but in turn, it becomes the lack of anything consequential or substantial.

Or so I thought.

Café Manna is a pleasant little restaurant in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and I mean “pleasant” in the most complex, deliberate, and consequential way possible. From the moment you walk in, every sound, sight, and smell points you toward civility and tranquility. The music overhead is classical. The waitresses are friendly and quick to serve. The photos on the wall are colorful photographs of fruits and vegetables. Café Manna is genteel without being snooty, relaxed without being somnolent. Once night in college, after I had written one too many literary analyses, I wrote in an essay, “the apparent simplicity is proof of its inherent complexity." It was my way of telling the teacher to stick it up her nose. However, at Café Manna, this statement rings true without any irony.

When you visit, and I hope that you do, I recommend that you order one of Zhena’s Gypsy Teas instead of wine or beer. The artisan teas include exotic flavors such as Lemon Jasmine, Brazilian Berry, and Rose Mint, among others. I opted for the Coconut Chai, a calming mix of black tea, cinnamon, clove, and coconut. It was unbelieving exquisite. And relaxing. And pleasant.

The cup of Middle Eastern Stew was more a yellow curry than what I think of as Middle Eastern. The soup was a yellow creamy turmeric broth with garbanzo and cannellini beans, potatoes, root vegetables, and spinach leaves. It was tasty without being spicy.

The Café Manna Burger was a Jamaican jerk lentil patty topped with spiced aioli, tender greens, red onion, and tomato. I expected a spicier jerk sauce, but keeping with the “pleasant” theme, the burger was relatively mild, good but not fantastic. The chef’s special vegetables, however, were unbelievable. Rarely do I wax poetic about steamed carrots and celery, but these were steamed just till fork tender and cooked with garlic and peppers to give them zest and spice. These were not pleasant vegetables. These were “sit down and stop talking, Dad’s in the zone, I said hush” vegetables.

The meal came with a complementary side of cashew and carrot hummus with whole grain pita chips. I am guessing the hummus was a raw food creation because I can’t think of any other reason to adulterate or recreate hummus. However, having said that, the cashew spread (I can not call it hummus for “religious” reasons) had a nice, if not pleasant, consistency and flavor. The chips had a good crunch and boasted much more integrity than store-bought pita chips.

The lemon curd tart I ordered for dessert had a morally superior almond flour crust. The crust, as expected, was courser and denser than a standard flour crust, but the curd tasted like standard sweet lemon curd, and I am a big, big fan of lemon curd.

Café Manna is a restaurant best shared with a friend, family member, or lover. Share a pot of tea together, comment on the classical music, admire the fresh ingredients, discuss the relative merits of raw and cooked foods, argue about politics, plan a little mischief, and maybe even conspire to overthrow a small Central American government.

Just be civil about it, y’all.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


1217 2nd Street SW, Rochester, MN 55902
QISA (3.5, 3.5, 3.5, 3.5), $7-17, Vegetarian-Friendly

I just got the news from my doctor; I have borderline high cholesterol. My blood pressure is textbook perfect, and other than low vitamin D levels, my blood chemistry panel is normal. However, my BMI is technically in the “overweight” category, and I don’t get nearly enough exercise. “Don’t worry,” my doctor told me, “You don’t need to go on cholesterol-lowering medication. You should be able to manage it with diet and exercise.”

I suppose we all treat unpleasant medical news differently. Some treat it with indifference, preferring to hide their metaphorical heads in the sand. Others treat it with fear and reverence, following the moment of revelation with an epiphany on self worth, self maintenance, self control, and, occasionally, selfless devotion to their fellow human sufferers.

Me I take it personally. This is a sign of moral weakness. Sure, I live a vegetarian lifestyle. Sure, I eschew white bread for whole grain, sneak flaxseed into baked goods at every opportunity, mix chia with my morning oatmeal, and explore new and exciting uses for leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables. Apparently that’s not enough. It’s obviously time to step up my game.

Luckily, I received the news right before my trip to Rochester, Minnesota. If ever there was an entire city devoted to healthcare, this is it. This is where I would start my new mission to create Zev 2.0. Or possibly Zev 3.0. Zev 5.7? Doesn’t matter. It's New, Improved, Even Healthier Zev.

I started my new life by walking a mile to and from Tonic, a restaurant and juice bar. Tonic prides itself on its healthy, delicious, locally sourced food, with options for a wide variety of needs, including vegetarian, nut-free, gluten-free, and dairy-free. The restaurant definitely pushes the juice bar image with bowls of fruit on the counter (limes, lemons, apples, and avocados) along with a modern restaurant design including tall lucite chairs, low intricately patterned green plastic chairs, and soft benches. The restaurant pretty much screams “trendy."

I began my meal with a signature smoothie called “Grin and Berry It," a concoction of blueberries, cranberries, acai juice, red grapes, and coconut water. I don’t think it's possible to cram any more antioxidants into a single beverage without violating FDA regulations. The smoothie was a bit tart, but otherwise tasted like your standard multi-berry smoothie. Nonetheless, it must have contained some very rare, exotic, and possibly magical ingredients, because it cost me $9.

My lunch comprised a cup of black bean soup and a black bean burger. Perhaps I was skirting social disaster with so many black beans in a single meal. However, I had finished my professional meetings for the day, and I decided to risk gastronomical verbosity because, well, the soup looked pretty good. And it was. It was a hearty mix of beans, tomato, celery, and a medium amount of spice. The bean burger, which came with fresh greens, tomato, pickle, and barbecue sauce, was a bit bland but had a decent crunchy burger texture. The pickles on the burger were spicy, which was definitely a surprise, but a good one. The greens were shredded, which made it much easier to keep them on the sandwich.

I decided to try the chunky monkey bread pudding as well, hoping that it would also be full of cholesterol-lowering goodness. The bread pudding was a kitchen sink of coconut, banana, raisins, walnuts, and cocoa nibs, all covered in a light vanilla cream cheese sauce. The pudding was thick and tasty, without being overly fatty or buttery. It was an affable mix of flavors, and the cocoa nibs came an overall chocolate effect without any noticeable pieces of chocolate.

Bottom line? Tonic is a good restaurant, albeit way overpriced. If you are traveling on someone else’s budget, and you want a healthy alternative to fried cheese curds (or whatever else you can find in southern Minnesota), definitely check them out. But be prepared to pay an exorbitant amount for a smoothie.

I should let you all know that I am doing my darndest to maintain the healthy, cholesterol-lowering lifestyle. Despite a pinched nerve in my back, I’ve started working out again, and I’ve been working up quite a sweat on the exercise bike at Planet Fitness. Just recently, I took a long walk between gates at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport, and had a dinner of raw vegetables, hummus, nuts, and red wine in the Delta SkyLounge.

Oh, and I had a peanut butter cookie. One can only take healthy eating so far before it gets silly, right?

Sunday, March 22, 2015


2203 S 39th Street , St. Louis, MO 63110
QISA (4, 4, 3, 4), Vegetarian

The artist-in-residence at the SweetArt family-owned bakeshop/café/art studio, changed his name from Clifford Miskell to Cbabi Bayoc. This new and completely made up name is an acronym that represents his personal philosophy on family, creativity, and community. Cbabi Bayoc stands for “Creative Black Artist Battling Ignorance – Blessed African Youth of Creativity”.

Some may see this as an affectation of pretentiousness, others as an affirmation of personal identity. Either way, I personally feel that the message is less important than the content itself. I like his art, plain and simple. He uses bright strokes and a slightly caricaturish style to convey positivity, personality, and real emotion. I want the man to draw a comic strip, only because I want to see what happens next with his characters.

SweetArt, the bakeshop and café run by his wife Reine, is a little like Cbabi’s art. Sure, there is an underlying philosophy and agenda driving the restaurant, but the food itself is what stands out. The treats are decadent (or at least taste that way), and the savory foods are creative and delicious. Not every dish hit the mark with me, but I had to admire the attempt.

The café’s SweetBurger is their top-selling item, a thick vegan patty of grains and lentils. The consistency of the burger is smooth and even, much more so than veggie patties at other restaurants which tend to be on the chunky side. I personally found the burger too sweet for my taste; I think it would have been improved by a saltier/spicier profile, but again, I admired the attempt.

I ordered the Make It Funky burger, which was the SweetBurger patty covered in house-made BBQ sauce, caramelized onions, organic mixed greens, vegan magic spread, vegan bacon, and vegan cheddar cheese. I could have ordered it with dairy cheddar cheese, but I figured "in for a penny, in for a pound." I wanted the full vegan experience. The Make It Funky was tasty but messy. The burger fell over before I took my first bite, and I found myself using a knife and fork to tackle its contents. Luckily, the sandwich came with a stack of napkins.

The side of dressed kale salad, however, was a pleasant surprise. The mix of kale, carrot, and cabbage in the peanut sauce was surprisingly good. The salad maintained a cole slaw-like crunch, but the tang of the sauce covered the bitter taste of the kale without overpowering the other vegetables. I could eat this stuff on a daily basis.

The café menu was definitely creative, and I would love to come back to try some of their other dishes, such as the vegan palak paneer pie in a phyllo crust. No, I don’t know what is in it, but I love palak paneer and I love spanakopita. The marriage of the two sounds brilliant. Or it could be a failure. But I give them points for trying.

The real focus of SweetArt is the bakery. They make a point of using the best ingredients (e.g. Plugra butter, Valrhona cocoa, and Callebaut chocolate) to create delicious treats. Note, I did not say healthy treats, I said delicious treats. I ordered a salted chocolate caramel cupcake which was just as decadent as it sounds. The buttercream frosting was light and not overdone or overstacked, the cake was moist and much better than most high-end cupcakes, and the pairing of the cake and icing was done artfully with a caramel drizzle. This was a cupcake made to be eaten, not made to be displayed.

I had difficulty deciding on the final QISA score. I debated internally whether to rate the Quality of the restaurant as a 3.5 or a 4. The sweetness of the SweetBurger unbalanced the culinary experience, leaving a slightly off taste in my mouth. I needed an outside, unbiased judge to help me decide. So I brought some vegan rice krispie treats home with me.

“You have got to go back to St. Louis!” my youngest son informed me after devouring his. “We need to get more of these. You have to find out how they made them!”

Four it is.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Harmonie Garden

Harmonie Garden
4704 Third St., Detroit, MI
QISA (4.5, 4, 3, 3.5), $4-8, Vegetarian-Friendly

So, there we were, lost in the middle of the Detroit urban jungle, huddling for safety and warmth. My traveling companion and I slept in shifts, hiding under the torn sheet of stained cardboard, trying desperately to ignore the gunshots and screams punctuating the night. For the most part, the locals left us alone, save for the two large, mangy vagrants who accosted us at knifepoint. We distracted one with our last tapioca pudding, the other with a swift kick to the groin.

In the morning, we emerged from our hiding place, blinking into the sunlight. Looking for respite and safety, we stumbled into the first restaurant we could find. I’ll be damned if they didn’t have the best falafel I’ve eaten in years.

Okay, so maybe my discovery of Harmonie Garden was not nearly so frought with excitement and adventure, but our decision to eat there was in fact borne out by happenstance and impulse, not careful planning. I was traveling with my coworker “B,” and we chose the restaurant somewhat randomly. Since I was organizing our meetings in Detroit that day, my reputation was on the line. I was selecting a restaurant with no advanced access to online reviews, Michelin ratings, or menus.

Luckily, the risk matched the reward. Harmonie Garden, a converted bar on the Wayne State campus, is a wonderfully inventive Middle Eastern restaurant. The menu is filled with vegetarian choices, but it is the breadth of falafel dishes that stand out. These include falafel in pita, arabi falafel, fala burger (falafel on a burger bun), fala San Fran, Falamankoush (za’atar pie stuffed with veggies and falafel), Flobby Joe (falaburger with veggie chili and tahini), falafel stir fry, falamelt, and BBQ falafel. Other vegetarian dishes include Mujadara (lentils and bulgher served with crispy onions), Za’atar Pie (savory pastry coated with za’atar spice, and filled with veggies and Syrian cheese), vegetarian grape leaves, and Mujadara spinach melt (onions, lentils, spinach, melted cheese, hummus, and tahini).

B was as big a fan of Middle Eastern food as I was, so we settled in for a major lunch feast. I started with a cup of crushed lentil soup. The soup was not overly salty or spicy, but it sported an appropriate level of umami flavor and hearty mouth feel.

B ordered a plate of hummus and pita, which she thankfully shared with me so I didn’t have to make whimpering puppy dog eyes at her. The pita bread came wrapped in plastic, and was thin but very soft. The plate of hummus was decorated with olive oil, spices, tomatoes, and pickles. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say it was possibly the best hummus I’ve ever eaten, and this from a man who makes his own hummus at home.

We shared an order of veggie and cheese samosas. I enjoyed the veggie samosas; they tasted like a slightly blander version of traditional Indian samosas. The cheese samosas tasted like mini calzones. Although they were good, very good in fact, the Italian and Indian flavors seemed incongruous with the rest of the meal.

I ordered the arabi falafel, which was a grilled falafel sandwich on pita bread, stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and hummus. The plate included four sandwiches, each about three to five inches across. The falafel were spiced, fried, and shaped perfectly, with the absolute right consistency inside and out. Needless to say, I was in my happy place.

The prices at Harmonie Garden are incredibly reasonable, with most sandwich plates ranging from $4 to $8. One can eat very cheaply there and still take home plenty for lunch the next day. Or for breakfast. I don’t judge.

Most importantly, B was impressed with my choice of restaurant. After two days of me setting up meetings with doctors, organizing travel, and waxing poetic on the finer points of clinical trial design, my high risk, high reward lunch spot was simply the pièce de resistance.

I suppose fending off a vagrant with a swift kick and a tapioca cup didn’t hurt either.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Original Soul Vegetarian

Original Soul Vegetarian
203 E. 75th Street, Chicago, IL 60619
QISA (4, 3.5, 3.5, 3.5), $6-14, Vegan

I love new, exotic, ethnic cuisine. The academic in me cherishes the aspect of learning and challenging my innate assumptions about the nature of food and flavor. The tourist in me digs the aspect of discovery and adventure, stepping outside my comfort zone (assuming the zone is still regulated by the Board of Health). And the cosmopolitan elitist in me can’t help but feel intellectually greater than I was before, having absorbed a new culture into my provincial worldview.

Original Soul Vegetarian may or may not represent ethnic food, but from the moment I parked in the neighborhood near East 75th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, I couldn’t help but feel like a tourist. I seemed to be the only Anglo-looking person within a square mile, and as I walked into Original Soul Vegetarian, I could almost hear all of my African-American friends smirking and saying, “OK, flip this around, and welcome to our world.”

But once situated in the restaurant, all was right and normal with the world. I was back amongst my own people. You know, vegetarians. The goal of Original Soul is not to be a novelty act, nor to advocate vegetarianism to a non-vegetarian populace. Rather, as their Website states, their goal is to “serve food as medicine” in the best way possible. And they apparently have been doing this for over 30 years.

Although the grounding of the restaurant is Soul food, the offerings extend way beyond traditional African-American cuisine, to include stir fry and falafel. Naturally, I didn’t get either one of these options because they were not suitably exotic to me. I mean, falafel is my standard comfort food. It’s not exotic at all.

Instead, I chose the dinner combo of the day that included Buffalo tofu “wings”, mac and cheese, kale, and green beans. To this, I added a cup of split pea soup with a piece of cornbread. The soup was a warming, chunky mix of split peas, carrots, and celery with just the right amount of saltiness. The accompanying corn bread was bland by itself but when dropped piecemeal into the soup, it made a wonderful, hearty stew. The mac and cheese, which I am assuming was vegan, was of the baked variety, making it good, solid comfort food. The tofu was breaded, fried, and smothered in plenty of Buffalo sauce. When I was first taking notes on the restaurant, I marked down that the sauce was only moderately spicy. Then I noticed the capsaicin was starting to build. And build.

I took a piece of sweet potato pie to go and attempted not to eat the entire thing all at once in the car. Although the vegan crust was slightly soggy and frankly rather uninteresting, the thick layer of sweet potato pie itself was a decadent mix of smoothness, sweetness, and spice. Totally, totally worth it. I regret nothing.

The food was definitely more about the content than the presentation, but I admired the subtle touches. For example, the kale was cooked just until barely soft, with just enough salt to enhance its natural flavor. The tofu was frozen and thawed before breading to give it the spongier texture that works best in a fried format.

The restaurant itself exuded warm comfort rather than overt style. The paintings on the wall by African-American artists, the decorative plastic chandelier, the moderately worn tables and chairs complemented the relaxed atmosphere without creating any rustic folksiness.

I would definitely recommend the restaurant, whether you are looking to reclaim the Soul food of your youth, looking to find a new and exotic dining experience, or simply looking for a good lunch spot. Don't worry if you are not a vegetarian or vegan. You will still be accepted. And I promise we won’t stare. Too much.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Oasis: The Falafel Joint

Oasis: The Falafel Joint
206 N. Linn Street, Iowa City, IA
QISA (3.5, 3, 3, 3), $4-8, Vegetarian-Friendly

I love falafel. I love everything about them: the warming spices, the pita bread encasing them, the myriad of sauces, and the nearly infinite possibility of toppings. I especially love the look on peoples' faces when I drizzle hot sauce over an already spicy blend of fried chickpeas, cumin, pepper, and magic.

Needless to say, I take my falafel very seriously. I have very, very little tolerance for falafel poorly done.

Iowa City, early January, on one of the coldest days of the year provided me a great day to eat falafel. It was also a good day to test out Iowa City’s newest falafel restaurant Oasis. If the falafel balls didn’t satisfy on a blistery, blustery cold day like this, they would never, ever satisfy.

Oasis was started in 2004 by two Israeli ex pats, friends Naftaly Stramer and Ofer Sivan, who lamented at the time, “falafel was nowhere to be found and vowed to right this wrong.” The fact that one had just left the tech industry and the other had just completed a degree in engineering certainly makes for an unlikely culinary origin story, but I fully understand their passion and drive. If I had any entrepreneurial spirit and risk tolerance, I would take over Indiana with an army of falafel stands and push for nationwide domination of the fast casual restaurant segment. But I digress.

The falafel sandwich and fries called to me; correction, they demanded my attention. I ordered the platter with no consideration for my feeble attempt at dieting. The falafel was served in standard pita with hummus and cucumber salad. The condiments bar included green cabbage salad with caraway and carrots, red cabbage salad, pepperoncinis, tahini, and green hot sauce. I selected most of the available options to decorate my sandwich. The falafel were good, solid, and serviceable. They were crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and flavorful without too much heat or salt. I would definitely order them again. I would also tell my diet to take a flying leap and order the fries again, which were fresh, crispy, and cut to a medium thickness.

The owners of Oasis understand that even in a college town, they must educate an unenlightened public. Their Website contains a Cuisine Guide with pictures and descriptions of falafel, hummus, baba ganoush, madjadra, cous cous, tabouli, kebabs, baklava, and the other delicacies possibly foreign to the Iowa plains.

The restaurant is not perfect. For example, their regular coffee was bad to mediocre at best, and did nothing for my interest in the Wake Up Iowa City brand. It is possible that their Turkish coffee is a different animal altogether, but unfortunately I can’t speak to that.

However, the small restaurant has a personal feel, from its small size, to the cartoony mural on the kitchen blackboard, to the Credence Clearwater Revival music on the loudspeaker. If you are in downtown Iowa City, definitely pay them a visit. But you might suggest they clean out their coffee pot while you are there.


This is probably as good a time as any to stand on my soapbox and tell America that they are mispronouncing “hummus”. According to both and the Merriam-Webster dictionary, not to mention every Middle-Easterner I have ever met, the word is pronounced ‘hə-məs’ or ‘hu̇-məs’, but definitely not ‘huh-məs’. This is important. Get it right. It galls me that a major hummus brand in the U.S. (yes, Sabra, you know who you are) mispronounces their own product in their own television commercials. Imagine if you will, Dorito’s pronouncing the ‘l’ in tortilla chips. Go on, imagine it. Imagine a commercial with a hot male twenty-something with blond wavy hair telling you in his hip lingo about how cool you could be if only you would try their chip, how chicks would dig you, how the flavor would blow you away, how your credit rating would improve. And then he pronounces the ‘l’.

Like nails on a chalkboard. Welcome to my world.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Seva Detroit

Seva Detroit
66 E. Forest, Detroit MI 48201
QISA (4, 4, 3.5, 3.5), $9-14, Vegetarian

Seva Detroit is not so much trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. Rather it has already grown up and it is trying to figure out what it has become. The restaurant should not be called eclectic because eclectic is a style unto itself. Seva is a patchwork of eclectic, family style, elegance, and counterculture, all fighting for a seat at the table.

Seva Detroit is an elegant setting in a not so elegant neighborhood. The restaurant parking is down an alley in the back, and the parking lot is a morass of gravel, dirt, and potholes. But then you enter the restaurant sporting lovely wooden furniture in black and brown, candles on each table, modern art on the wall, a young wait staff in jeans, t-shirts, and knit caps, Motown music over the loudspeaker, and family after family of every ethnic group imaginable. Is the restaurant college-town counter culture? Inner city fine dining? Family-friendly comfort food? As I said, eclectic doesn’t begin to cover it.

The restaurant’s motto is, “fresh, imaginative vegetarian cuisine”, and they do their best to meet that expectation. The menu is a mix of comfort food (baked mac & cheese, omelets, burritos), pan-Asian (cilantro-peanut stir fry, General Tso’s cauliflower, tempeh banh mi), Mexican/South American (enchiladas calabaza, black bean & sweet potato quesadilla), and modern vegetarian (tofu California, graticola sandwich).

Whatever they are, I can’t argue with the results. The food is delicious. I ordered the black bean & sweet potato quesadilla which came with thick tortilla chips, a chunky guacamole, and a mild red salsa. The quesadilla was a good blend of flavor and texture, mixing sweet and savory, North and South American staples into a dish that left me asking myself, “Why haven’t I done this before at home?” The guacamole contained red onion and tomato to create a color mix that was as fun to look at as it was to eat.

To drink, I ordered the Eden’s Paradise Juice, a fresh mixture of orange, lime, ginger, and cranberry juices on ice, served with a wedge of lime. The juice had a powerful ginger bite, but the tang of the citrus juices balanced the piquancy with astringency.

I couldn’t pass up dessert. Mind you, I should have passed up dessert, but I didn’t. However, in order to maintain some semblance of sanity, I bypassed the more decadent tiramisu, black top pie, and chocolate hazelnut cake in favor of the pear almond torte. Of course, even the light-sounding torte was a warm, heavenly dish of cooked pear on thick torte cookie, topped with a dollop of cinnamon mascarpone cream. You know, diet food.

I have to give props to the waitress, who was very friendly and engaging, and, most importantly, very apologetic when they were out of my first and second choice on the menu. She helped me make a substitution decision without any snootiness or pretentiousness often endemic to trendy restaurants. I tipped her well.

Seva also has an Ann Arbor restaurant, and it is quite possible that Seva Ann Arbor is not nearly the anomaly of Seva Detroit. However, it is BECAUSE Seva Detroit stands out the way it does that I highly recommend you patronize them.

And while you are there, try the tiramisu. And let me know if it’s any good.