Seva at Westgate
Fresh setting, familiar menu
by M.B. Lewis
From the June, 2014 issue
Change is not always about better or worse--and sometimes it's not even that different. Take Seva, the vegetarian restaurant that had been downtown on Liberty since, like, the hippie days (1973). For many, it was defined not only by its meat-free, multi-ethnic cuisine, but also by the fern bar era. Reliably familiar were the massive wooden booths, the big deck along the sidewalk, and the fun-house ticket booth by the front door, next to the mysterious staircase down to an unrelated comedy club.
That last part is all history. The rent rose too high, and Seva moved to the far west side (the comedy club has moved too, to Fourth Ave.). In place of the old, maze-like interior is a single long room, modern and minimal in design, with a window wall of parking-lot frontage at Westgate shopping center. "Plenty of free parking" is the selling point now, and easy barrier-free access for those aging boomers and others. At least the iconic stained glass windows came along for the ride, now cleverly backlit for an illusion of daylight.
The menu has barely changed. It's still large, diverse, and healthy, but rich. Eggs and dairy are in the mix, except in menu items labeled V for vegan, or, by request, those with an asterisk denoting "may be ordered vegan" (on those items, any dairy is swapped out for soy, almond, or other products). Gluten-free options abound as well.
For longtime patrons, the experience of familiar food in a transformed setting has a bit of an out-of-body quality on first visit. Old favorites like the luscious yam fries, crisp until almost caramelized at their thin edges, are still a great way to start--also on the safe side, if you don't know if you're going to follow up with an entree that's Mexican, Asian, African, or Italian inspired. Spicing clashes can be a problem here, as at other vegetarian restaurants trying really hard to craft a substantial range of offerings without the
shortcuts that come from switching meats.
On Seva's tour of world vegetarian cuisine, most offerings are mildly spiced. I enjoyed the deep-fried sweet-and-sour General Tso's cauliflower, though its oily breading made it an appetizer best shared with others. Special-of-the-day vindaloo stir-fry was very good, with complex Indian spices, though the underlying bed of red quinoa was bland and mushy. Tofu pad thai was delicately delicious, if somewhat dominated by lime juice.
Cilantro-peanut vegetable stir-fry was also strong on lime, a luxury as continuing price wars cause many restaurants to go easy on this citrus gem. Again, the vegetables were all cooked to a similar soft texture--crispier red and yellow peppers would have been welcome. Peanuts did add some crunch, as, unfortunately, did the undercooked brown rice. A friend reported that his favorite grilled pesto pizza sandwich, though newly made on seeded rye, was as enjoyable as he remembered from the old Seva.
A few kinks aren't surprising in the early months in a new place. There wasn't even a permanent sign out front yet during my visits, just a banner waving in the breeze. It was visible, however, from Zingerman's Roadhouse about 100 yards away. Ironically, the new Seva is being used by some as an overflow choice when the wait's too long at the Roadhouse, one of the meatier joints in town.
While the diversity of Seva's menu can create odd table spreads, it's also a source for creative and rewarding pairings of fresh greens or kale/veggie salads with sparkling pomegranate or ginger-spiked cocktails or made-to-order juices and smoothies (a long and full bar is a pleasant focal point at the new location). (I do hope sound-absorbing panels are in the plans, because on some evenings it gets uncomfortably loud.)
Eat light, and you'll be glad you've left room for dense and intense desserts like lemony bread pudding, vegan chocolate-raspberry cake, and a coffee-cream striated tiramisu that keeps pulling your fork back even as you will it to stop. Organic fair trade espresso will help you get up and out the door if you overindulge. Service--not always a strong point at the old Seva--seems better so far with the move, friendly and professional.
I always liked eating at old Seva for Mexican brunch and Tuesday half-price wine night, and even grabbing a salad to go. I'm one of the many who sought it out less when more restaurants kept opening downtown. The owners deserve, in the words of some of the new generation of vegetarians coming around, mad props for making this move (not to mention opening a location on Woodward in Detroit a couple years ago). And Westgate wins with another homegrown business tucked in among the franchises.
2541 Jackson Ave. (Westgate)
Appetizers $3-$10, salads and sandwiches $5-$12, entrees $9-$14, desserts $4-$6.
Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
[Originally published in June, 2014.]