A Vegetarian Odyssey
Current Magazine explores the green and crunch offerings of Ann Arbor
What’s the best vegetarian restaurant in Washtenaw County? I’m not going to tell you – because I can’t. It’s not exactly comparing burger to burger, or brisket to brisket. It’s more like, how do you compare Alu Bhaji, with Loaded Nachos, with Chole Tikki Chaat, with Krab Cakes? And given my omnivore status, do I even have a right to?
True; I am no vegetarian, as anyone knows who has read my “Burger” and “BBQ” Odyssey articles. But I was, for a few years; and I live with vegetarians. I also go completely vegan during Greek Orthodox Lent. So yes, I get it.
I’m one of the 10% of U.S. adults, according to a 2008 “Vegetarian Times” sponsored Harris Poll, that claims most of their meals are vegetarian. However, only 3 to 5% are completely vegetarian, and of those— 1 – 2% of all American adults — identify as strictly vegan (no animal products).
Even within the crunchy-granola city limits of Ann Arbor, it’s lonely being a vegetarian. One might think vegetarian restaurants would flourish here, but that’s not necessarily true. There are only four in all of Washtenaw County – Earthen Jar, Jazzy Veggie, Hut-K Chaats, and Sevá – the latter being the only one formal enough for table service. Why aren’t our vegetarian restaurants fully supported? This, my readers, is the vegetarian conundrum. Seeking this answer inspired our latest Odyssey.
This one was different from the other Odysseys, because of the scarcity of completely vegetarian restaurants, and the afore-mentioned difficulty of comparing their diverse products. We visited each restaurant once, except for the one that isn’t exactly a restaurant (details below).
We ordered a mix of vegetarian and vegan menu items, usually including what was represented to be the most popular item. We did not use a formal scoresheet, but we did note our favorite dishes, and what we think readers will enjoy at each of the destinations.
My panel had a few stragglers from our previous Odysseys (Pizza, Beer, Burger, and BBQ), and some newcomers.
Veteran Seekers were:
- Nick Roumel – Your author, a food lover with many years of restaurant, bar, and catering experience, who happens to practice civil rights law on the side.
- Patti Smith – Special education “Teacher Patti” is the only veteran (besides your author) of all five Odysseys. She lives in Ann Arbor with boyfriend and fellow seeker Ken Anderson. Patti enjoys craft beer, community organizing and hosting dinner parties. A lover of cow and chicken, she was pleasantly surprised to learn she enjoyed vegan cheese.
- Ken Anderson – By day a communications coordinator for the AATA, Ken will “dabble” in vegetarianism as long as it does not involve kale, which triggers for him an unfortunate childhood experience.
- Jack Savas – Back from two years “down under,” this former diplomat has a passion for food, learning at the feet of his Greek “Papou” who owned a Detroit-area restaurant. Jack earned his cooking certificate from Schoolcraft College and added some vegetarian classes to his repertoire while in New Zealand.
- Thom Martin – A veteran of our Burger and BBQ Odysseys, Thom is a certified BBQ judge through the Kansas City Barbeque Society and most importantly, a four-time winner of the Arbor Networks office chili cookoff. (They are starting to cry “fix!”)
New Seekers: Given the carnivoristic nature of the veteran seekers, I sought to load up with vegetarian ringers.
- Amanda Schott – In stark contrast to Ken Anderson, Amanda is kale’s #1 fan. A vegetarian for 12 years and vegan for 8, she loves to cook creatively with grains and greens – particularly kale because “kale wins!” She even has a kale bumper sticker on her car. When sated on the curly green stuff, she peddles books and DVD’s for the Ann Arbor District Library and is an avid home crafter.
- Olivia Roumel – Your author’s 16-year-old daughter, Olivia has been vegetarian for four years and mostly vegan the last three. An enthusiastic cook, she has her own recipe blog and loves to bake for her friends, who can’t believe the treats are dairy-free. Otherwise, Olivia is just your typical jazz-singing and math-averse 11th grader.
- Jeri Schneider – School librarian and longtime vegan Jeri did not travel with us, but served as an Odyssey “special consultant” who gave me her thoughtful impressions on our local vegetarian scene.
Join us now on our Odyssey, presented in the order visited.
Jazzy Veggie was opened two years ago by Ananth Pullela, a 2008 graduate of the University of Michigan Business School. Pullela nurtured his dream of opening a vegetarian restaurant while simultaneously maintaining his job in the auto industry. He and his wife Sailaja are both vegetarians, and the restaurant is now completely vegan. Yet they downplay the vegan-ness, which sometimes confuses local diners who, for example, see ads for “burgers.”
JV has reviewed very well, and has been genuinely responsive to its diners by regularly reinventing the menu — for example adding more gluten-free options. It has been called a “gateway” vegetarian restaurant because of its reliance on “meat analogs” for beef, chicken and even seafood, using the soy and grain based Gardein. Indeed, its “Chikin Nuggets,” “Krab Cakes” and Wolverine beef sandwich taste remarkably like the real thing. Yet paradoxically, for long-time vegetarians, this is precisely their bone of contention.
Jeri said that as a long time vegan, she is just generally not interested in “meat analogs” with so many delicious plant-based foods to try – although she enjoys JV’s sandwiches, and acknowledges they use their meat analogs well. Similarly, Amanda is not thrilled by fake meat options, preferring “grains and greens.” So, for example, while most omnivores found the Krab Cakes quite tasty (Jack commented “A+ Wow! So scrumptious!”), Olivia shuddered that they were “freakishly fish-tasting.” Ken joined the vegetarians in being dissatisfied with the meat substitutes, longing for real Maryland crab cakes.
The food at JV is carefully and well-prepared, with many fresh and healthy options. We tried and enjoyed a wide range of dishes. Although the meat analogs were tasty, everyone’s favorite dish went against the grain – the dazzling hummus couscous wrap, with a brilliant combination of peppers, greens, scallions, raisins, orange, garbanzo, mint, and ginger-lime dressing. While the omnivores also loved the Krab Cakes and crunchy Chikin Nuggets, the vegetarians favored the quesadillas - stuffed with seasoned veggies, and filled with Daiya cheese substitute, guacamole, vegan sour cream, and taco sauce. (Patti surprised herself by liking the Daiya, commenting “smack my ass and call me a vegan.” Then again, it wouldn’t be an Odyssey without Patti making a random “ass” comment.)
We also liked the plantain chips with spicy red pepper aioli, tart coleslaw with julienne broccoli, and the spinach artichoke pizza with cashew-basil pesto and lovely crust. Overall, Jazzy Veggie tries hard to please and generally hits the mark. But as a vegan restaurant that caters to the tastes of meat eaters, vegetarians may sometimes feel lost in the shuffle.
Our Favorite: hummus couscous wrap
108 S. Main St.
Tucked between the downtown library and Jerusalem Garden, Earthen Jar is a funky, “mostly vegan” Indian-inspired buffet that constantly plays the music of Bob Marley. It strives to be healthy and quick, but it’s hard to just make two or three choices. While many offerings are distinct, others seem just incrementally different from the one next to it. The end result is a lunch plate where all the dishes complement each other.
Owners Pushpinder and Gurcheran Sethi survived the long-term construction of the library parking structure, and came out even more focused on the health benefits of their restaurant. They’ve removed some of the more popular items because they were fried, and now sell herbal remedies alongside their food. Their blog promotes holistic health, positive thinking, and inner peace. All this for just $5.99 a pound!
“This is one of my favorite veggie places,” said Thom. “The variety of tastes and textures is always fun.” Jeri loves the “tasty, healthy” choices as well and their “killer vegan mac ‘n’ cheese.” Amanda, who works next door, comes here “all the time” for lunch – “with so many vegan options and its location – can’t go wrong!”
Despite the abundance, EJ takes care in their preparation. The Alu Bhaji won raves from everyone, featuring perfectly cooked potatoes with whole cumin seeds in a delicious curry. Ken mused it was “something a British nanny would serve before flying away holding onto her umbrella.” Earthen Jar’s Paneer is homemade – a soft cheese reminiscent of ricotta – and was tasty paired with a spicy mushroom sauce, or creamed spinach (prompting Olivia to say, “good for someone who doesn’t like spinach.”) Amanda loved the Chana Masala (chick peas in a spicy tomato sauce) and the spinach and lentils. Interestingly, EJ’s only “fake meat” option – an unappetizingly named “textured protein” – was perhaps the only real miss on the buffet.
EJ also has a cold salad bar. Jack’s favorite was the spicy Savi Beans, carefully flavored with dill, tomato, olive oil, oregano, and onion. Ken and Patti liked the incongruous “eggless” banana pudding, which Patti embarrassingly admitted was her favorite dish at Earthen Jar. Olivia simply said “The ‘banana thing’ was fabulous.”
Our favorite: Alu Bhaji (curried potatoes with cumin)
311 Fifth Ave.
Co-owners and neighbors Joel Panozzo and Phillis Englebert began serving their well-received vegan recipes to friends, and were encouraged to try some “pop-up” meals at the Pot and Box, downtown gardening retailer. These meals, served on the Lunch Room’s school-cafeteria-style trays, with indentations for each item, proved to be hugely popular with everyone, from vegans to carnivores. They applied for a space in Mark’s Carts, learned they won it (via email during a 2011 Valentine’s Day pop-up dinner at Hathaway’s Hideaway), and launched a successful “Kickstarter” campaign to build a cart that is both an architectural and engineering marvel.
Unfortunately, the Lunch Room does not technically exist. The Lunch Room enjoyed two successful seasons at Mark’s Carts, but closed early to focus on finding a brick and mortar home. They closed their cart before our Odyssey could get organized enough to visit. But amazingly, they agreed to serve the Lunch Room’s specialties to our group at Joel’s house on a recent fall evening.
We arrived early enough to watch Phillis preparing summer rolls, a cellophane rice paper wrap over mung bean noodles and fresh vegetables, with what Amanda justly called “the best peanut dipping sauce ever” - and Patti placed on her spoon and “lapped up like a dog.” Summer rolls are served raw, and distinguished from their fried cousins, spring rolls. Ken called these beauties “The most freshly prepared dish on the entire Odyssey.”
Following this we were served a Fall Harvest Stew, with potatoes and sweet potatoes, brown rice, peas, chickpeas, and onions. Hints of Indian flavors, and coconut milk, tie together this hearty and filling offering.
Then came the Loaded Nachos – a big seller with vegans and non vegans alike. The creamy “cheese” is cashew based and includes nutritional yeast, an all-purpose vegan condiment that lends cheesy flavor and is loaded with B12. This tops beans and veggies over Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory chips, one of the very few items that the Lunch Room does not make from scratch – just because these may be the best chips ever. Jeri simply said “I just LOVE LOVE LOVE their nachos.”
The final course showed that vegans need not suffer when it comes to dessert. A strawberry popover was served still warm, with coconut ice cream. We were sated.
Phillis said, “I want to make real food,” and she and Joel have succeeded. They “exude passion,” notes Amanda. Ken noted the passion as well, adding that “The Lunch Room experience definitely came the closest to my expectations of what an innovative and interesting vegetarian/vegan experience could be.” Patti chimed in, “If anything could convince me to become a vegan, it would be the Lunch Room.”
Phillis remarked, “The goal is to make the kind of vegan food that doesn’t deprive people of the joys they get from any other food, and to do it in a way that’s healthy, fresh, and delicious.”
Our favorite: the peanut sauce, but really, everything.
The Lunch Room
Somewhere in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Co-owner (with wife Sumi) Swaroop Bhojani, Ph.D., was a scientist in molecular cancer research, before his serious interest in nutrition led him to open his Ann Arbor restaurant. “Hut-K” is a colloquial, positive Indian term meaning “not mainstream” and his “nutrilicious” chaats are certainly a welcome variation of the Indian street food tradition.
Dr. Bhojani saw first hand the connection between nutrition and cancers. He vowed to create food that emphasized health benefits, but did not sacrifice taste. With a researcher’s zeal, he experimented with recipes to eliminate refined sugars and replace them with natural fruits, using multiple grains in place of refined flours, and to substitute baked versions for fried foods. Hut-K’s signature bright flavors are a testament to his successful combination of savor.
Open just over a year, Hut-K maintained not only its restaurant, but a regular space at Mark’s Carts, to emphasize the street food origins. Traditionally, chaats are essentially fried dough, sometimes mixed with potatoes, served with various sweet and savory chutneys. Dr. Bhojani uses a much broader range of grains and his homemade chutneys. Jeri adores Hut-K’s food because it maintains both health benefits and flavor. Amanda appreciates the clearly marked vegan selections, the delicious and healthy food, and the “lightness” of the food compared to traditional Indian restaurants.
Chaats we tried included the Masala Puri, almost nacho-like, with potatoes, chickpeas and peas served on baked chips with a cilantro-mint sauce and other savories. The Aanokhi Pani Puri features hollow semolina shells, to be filled with the same seasoned chickpeas and peas and eaten in a single bite. The award-winning samosa wrap roll removes the potato-pea filling of a typically fried samosa, and places it inside a multi-grain flat bread.
Hut-K also serves a fascinating flat bread made with nine “ancient” whole grains and seeds, including two different millets, quinoa, wild rice, barley, flax, sesame, amaranth, and sorghum. This is blended with organic wheat, rye, oats and rice for a crunchy, complex, and satisfying flat bread served with spicy nut-based chutneys, or even as a pizza base. An exposure to such different grains is a positive side effect of vegetarianism, as a healthy meatless diet avoids refined flours and sugars, and created awareness of gluten free eating. (Remember when whole wheat flour was considered novel?)
This is a great restaurant for adventurous eaters, who want to expand their dining horizons without sacrificing flavor for health benefits. Besides the chaats, grains and wraps, Hut-K serves soups, raw juices, and natural ice creams. This is the other end of the vegetarian spectrum from, say, Jazzy Veggie, which maintains a healthy vegan approach in the form of much more familiar foods.
Our Favorite: Samosa Wrap Roll
3022 Packard Rd.
The granddaddy of them all, Sevá has been serving all-vegetarian food for nearly 40 years, and recently celebrated the opening of its second store in Detroit. Sevá has kept pace with the changing demographics of vegetarianism, from dishes heavy on the eggs and cheese, to a menu that emphasizes different grains and seasonal vegetables. Today, Sevá’s menu runs the gamut from its popular nachos and yam fries, to Thai-inspired salads and stir-fries, to tempeh as a meat substitute, and a menu page devoted to egg and tofu dishes. Sevá recognizes that many of its customers are not vegetarian, but may be dining with a vegetarian, or simply there for a healthy meal. Sevá also features a fully stocked bar, with an impressive beer, wine and cocktail menu; happy hour specials; and a comfortable deck for warm weather dining.
Sevá’s answer to the “vegetarian conundrum” is to offer as many dietary options as possible. Vegan? No problem. Soy free? They have it covered. Gluten free? Sevá belongs to the “Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program” and offers gluten-free bread, complete with a dedicated gluten-free toaster.
We began our visit with a couple of fried options – corn chips and guacamole, and yam fries. The chips are homemade, thick and crisp, and the guac quite tasty. The yam fries are practically their signature dish; as Amanda put it, “What they are known for.” They are consistent: always crisp on the outside, moist inside; and won raves from everyone.
Our entrees included Enchiladas Calabaza, one of the longest-standing menu items, stuffed with butternut squash, cream cheese, cheddar, Monterey jack, and a spicy tomato sauce with green onions and chiles. This was tasty, and as Patti noted, a good “gateway” dish for non-vegetarian diners. Personally I found it heavy, and reminded me how “old school” vegetarianism’s reliance on egg and dairy neutralized its health benefits. A weekly special, pumpkin manicotti, was filled with goat cheese and a nutmeg-enhanced cream sauce, and sounded some of the same familiar notes as
One of our vegan options was the popular cilantro-peanut stir fry. Made with broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, mung sprouts, green onions, carrots and roasted peanuts, it’s served with brown rice and a cilantro-peanut-ginger-lime sauce. Ken called it “flavorful,” and Amanda pronounced it “very good.” It’s Olivia’s go-to dish at Sevá.
The biggest hit of the meal was “Rennie’s Peanut-Kale Salad,” also including carrots, butternut squash, and red peppers in a peanut-cider marinade. Amanda, our kale aficionado, declared it “the best kale dish at a local restaurant.” Patti, who is normally on the other end of the kale spectrum, said “to my surprise, this was my favorite dish.” Jack noted the hint of lemon zest, pronouncing this dish “wonderful, with full flavor.” Interesting that our universally favorite dish was one that did not try to mimic or cater to meat eaters.
Sevá owners Maren and Jeff Jackson have a lot to be proud of. They can boast the county’s only full service vegetarian restaurant, but also one of the better destination restaurants for a variety of diners and desires. It is heartening to see that they have invested in Detroit’s restaurant scene as well, and may that only contribute to their continuing success.
Our favorite: Rennie’s Peanut-Kale Salad
314 E. Liberty
Final Thoughts and Lessons Learned
It is difficult being a vegetarian. But meat eaters should not treat vegetarianism as a curiosity or affliction, any more than vegetarians should judge meat eaters as immoral. We can all learn from each other. Few things are as personal, or as important to self-identity, as what we eat. Respect for others’ dietary choices is the key.
As for our local restaurants, all diners should bear in mind that prices do not just take into account the cost of food, but the effort to prepare it. Creative vegetarian cooking, that must cater to many types of dietary restrictions, is far more labor intensive than a meat and two sides. (That is a factor that may help explain why there are not more all-vegetarian restaurants.)
Restaurants themselves should take more time to consider the ingredients they are using, and make dishes vegetarian or vegan, for example, by using vegetable broths or olive oil. Please offer more vegetarian choices than pasta, or that skanky Garden Burger with freezer burn. At the same time, restaurant owners should train staff to learn what is in all their dishes – because vegetarians, and those with food intolerances will ask.
Remember that no matter how different people are, we all eat. If you are faced with a conversation with someone you think you have nothing in common with, start talking food. You’ll be surprised how fun and interesting it
One final note: vegetarians don’t eat bacon. They are not deprived. They can still have French fries. Now there’s a food we can all get behind!