Back to the future
Ann Arbor has hundreds of restaurants, but only one boasts an open-face cheese melt piled with fresh veggies (including alfalfa sprouts) that has been on the menu since the 1970s. At Seva, this guacamole-topped time machine is called the Persea, from the Latin for avocado. You can have yours with fresh carrot juice as you sit in a tall-backed booth in one of Seva's three dining rooms, all decorated with hanging plants.
The others in your party can suit themselves with omelets (from the all-day breakfast options), ravioli, burritos, North African curried couscous, or killer margaritas with lip-smackingly fresh lime juice. The menu options seem endless, and clashing cuisines may keep you from wanting to sample off each other's plates. With this many choices, everyone should be able to find something appealing.
I may be in a minority of longtime locals who haven't harbored strong feelings (positive or negative) about the city's landmark vegetarian restaurant. I remember it as a good place to take toddlers--a big plastic box of Legos arrives at the table along with the booster chair. When my children were little, everyone in our family had menu favorites, from monster nachos to waffles with strawberries. I had my first taste of butternut squash lusciously drenched in cream sauce here, and my first spicy-sweet Moroccan tomato soup. But as the kids grew older and more restaurants arrived in town, Seva rarely topped our list for a night out. Someone always wanted meat or to keep an eye on the big game on TV. Years went by when I never went there.
Now Seva is easing into middle age along with me. My husband has given up beef as he watches his cholesterol, and friends have gone gluten free or pledged to eat more "real food." Seva now comes to mind on cold winter days when a hearty bowl of soup sounds good or anytime a fresh salad seems appealing.
Meat is optional for us, but what about for
those two kids who used to build the Lego towers on Seva's wood tables? One is sixteen and a hungry carnivore. The other is twenty, environmentally conscious, and vegetarian fringing on vegan. His demographic feels comfortable at the buffet-style Earthen Jar around the corner.
Would my family all find enough to like at Seva these days? Has it bridged the transition from hippie hangout to Gen Y hipster pleaser? We went for a brunch to find out.
A cheerful hostess led us to a booth. A server with tidily tied dreadlocks kept our waters filled. A busgirl with a tattoo of a big black wolf on her arm explained its significance politely when we asked: "My friends call me Animal."
Good thing we were being well attended to before we even ordered, because seven pages of menu and specials, plus a mini-booklet from the juice bar, took a while to peruse. A basket of yam fries with spicy sauce jumped out among appetizer choices, and they turned out to be more crispy warm deliciousness than anyone should expect for $4.95. A second little cup of the dipping sauce with a horseradish kick appeared quickly after we depleted the first.
I ordered the posole verde special, described as a "zippy soup" of tomatillos and hominy flavored with lime, cilantro, and chilis and topped with roasted pumpkin seeds. I liked the slightly doughy hominy, which resembled mini-gnocchi or matzo balls floating in the broth, but the lime juice overpowered the other ingredients. (On a later visit I tried the Greek-style lentil soup and was pleased to see the citrus side of the broth toned down to a perfect proportion.) Seva servers can often provide the ingredient list when you ask about a menu item. I like that in a restaurant--and I'm also impressed that their website has up-to-date lists of weekly specials.
Weekends with teenagers mean that noon is breakfast time for some, lunch for others, but we all went for made-to-order juice drinks. Mine was a gingery citrus "Solar Blast" from the staff favorites list, which at $2.95 was a good deal--and every bit as zippy as the soup. I liked it better than the $4.95 "From the Tropics" smoothie that my older son ordered, which was heavier on mango nectar than on banana or strawberries (the latter mainly evidenced only by a couple frozen hulls in the bottom of the glass). Still, it went well with his Caribbean quesadilla, a grilled whole wheat tortilla filled with black beans, brown rice, veggies, and cheese, and topped with pineapple salsa and guacamole. The accompanying house-made tortilla chips had a welcome dusting of red pepper and salt. He said the complementary sweet and spicy flavors made him realize how lacking in creativity his college's dining hall vegetarian entrees were--there they "just leave the meat out and call it vegetarian."
I was tempted to order the decadent enchiladas calabaza filled with butternut squash and cream cheese, a comfort food I've loved in the past and that's now billed as "Seva's best seller!" Instead, I chose the spinach and mushroom enchiladas, thinking they would be similar but less rich. Wrong. They came covered in a tasty but thick sour cream sauce that quickly congealed unattractively. I enjoyed one enchilada with the shredded lettuce and onion side salad but got a take-home box for the other (and couldn't believe how heavy it was).
My younger son's three blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup were each nearly as big as his head. He couldn't finish them, but I blame the yam fries and smoothie that came first. He rallied to nibble at the dense vegan chocolate cake we shared for dessert. It was OK and had a lovely bright mint garnish but certainly is not the best chocolate dessert around.
A vegan chocolate mousse on our next visit was similarly so-so, more syrupy than dense. "Why didn't they just call it chocolate pudding?" a friend wondered. It also launched our somewhat clueless server into a mad dash through the kitchen and beyond as she tried to determine if it was gluten free, at my friend's request. The trusty ingredient list was not to be found.
One of the specials was little short of miraculous. The savory vegan pot pie with oven-roasted winter vegetables had such a rich brown gravy that I didn't miss the meat at all. Big chunks of mushroom structured the potato-chunked filling, and the flaky top crust reminded me you don't need butter to make great pie crust.
Another successful entree during this visit was the regular menu's curried eggplant. Grilled and topped with spicy peanut-coconut sauce, it comes with an unusual beet-soy yogurt raita on the side. The result glimmered as a successful meshing of piquant, sweet, and smoky in a Cezanne-esque palette of colors. A raspberry cheesecake bar was the best dessert we sampled, thin enough to be tasty yet not overpowering.
What? A half dozen meals at a vegetarian restaurant and no tofu or tempeh? That's how it worked for us, mainly because we had so many other options that we could skip the soy proteins. "Fresh imaginative vegetarian cuisine" is the slogan on Seva's menu, and mostly that's a good thing. Creative globalizing of its vast menu is helping propel Ann Arbor's robust vegetarian institution into the 2010s. Picky eaters of most types and ages can be satisfied here--even "eat raw" aficionados. Decades have passed, but Seva's day is still dawning.
314 E. Liberty
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Appetizers $4-$9, entree salads and sandwiches $4-$11, dinners $9-$15, desserts $4-$6
[Originally published in March, 2010.]