With so many restaurants in Ann Arbor, you don’t have to leave town for good meals of most varieties. But if you seek a change of urban scenery as days get longer, there’s an unusual new option near Detroit’s Indian Village worth considering.
Turning north off Jefferson Ave. just past the bridge to Belle Isle and meandering toward Detroit Vegan Soul on Agnes St., you pass the burned-out homes now heartbreakingly iconic in Detroit. But once there, you’ll find a relaxing, airy setting, with varnished wood floors and big windows looking out on a colorful flower mural across the street.
The restaurant’s motto is “soul food made from whole food,” and its logo boasts of its lack of preservatives and organic ingredients. Potentially preachy? Sure, but what matters is the food–and DVS (as it calls itself) absolutely aces vegan adaptations of several southern barbecue favorites. The chopped collard greens have a smoky intensity without ever having encountered pork. Stick-to-your-ribs density and fork-shoveling flavor prevail in hearty sides like black-eyed peas, redskin mashed potatoes, and candied yams that are aromatically sweet without being syrupy.
Real maple is the only syrup served with brunch stacks of sweet potato pancakes and crispy waffles. The barbecue sauce at DVS is so sticky sweet and flavorful you might not care that tofu is the only vehicle it adorns in lovely whole-grain sandwiches with coleslaw, or one of the quartet of Sunday dinners. We also enjoyed platters of tempeh smothered in mushroom gravy and seitan-based pepper steak that is juicy and meat-like for a vegan protein–lots of onions in the sauce helped intensify the flavor.
A mong the sandwiches and dinners is something called “catfish” tofu. Curious to learn how soybean curd could pass as fish, I ordered it, and was served tidy little fried triangles, appropriately battered in cornmeal. They don’t taste like fish, but they do conjure up the fish-fry experience, complete with a dill “tartar” sauce for dipping. Somehow it works, especially if you spritz the crispy brown wedges with a slice of lemon. Try them with a side of bright green and garlicky steamed spinach or a starter of collard spring rolls with sweet chili sauce.
DVS doesn’t nail mac and cheese–it has a pastiness that just doesn’t feel like the real thing (if there’s a vegan version anywhere as creamy and tantalizing as the dairy original, I have yet to find it). Cheese grits also suffered from a lack of cheesiness, and I found the cornbread muffins pedestrian. A lightly glazed lemon pound cake was a delightful baked dessert, though, and the vanilla frosting on the cupcakes was tasty and not cloying. Specials listed on the blackboard for other days sounded interesting as well, like lasagna, jambalaya, and apple sage stuffing.
A friend was pleasantly surprised by most everything she sampled at DVS. Too often, she finds vegan dishes “either too salty or too sweet, probably in an effort to make up for the lack of fat.” DVS masters the art of flavor without too much salt, sugar, or oils.
The biggest issues we had here were about drinks, not food. Three smoothies, slightly pricey at $7 each, were all served at room temperature without any icy coolness. That made the berry and choco-banana versions less refreshing than expected. The “Green Life,” made with spinach, kale, avocado, fruit, and almond milk, had a velvety consistency, but was more a meal in a glass than a beverage. If that’s your thing, DVS will bulk up your smoothie further with flax, maca, spirulina, hemp, or ginger at a buck per. I’ll probably just quash my thirst next time with house-made lemonade, sweet tea, or hibiscus punch.
A final complaint has to do with service. More than once, silverware arrived after our meals were served, and requests for food substitutions, pushing tables together, or ordering from the lunch menu at brunch were met with a polite but unwavering “No.”
In DVS’s defense, it’s a busy restaurant with a labor-intensive menu. Just be sure to call ahead if you’re arriving with a large group, and leave time to enjoy the quality behind the slow food concept.
Detroit Vegan Soul
8029 Agnes St., Detroit
Starters $4-$8; sandwiches, soup, and salads $4-$9; Sunday brunch and dinner $4-$14.
Wed.-Sat. 11 a.m.- 9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.