More than most U.S. cities, Detroit has long been a "meat and potatoes" town. We're talking insane portion sizes and gargantuan piles of meat. Until several years ago, being a vegetarian (let alone a vegan) meant subsisting on garden salads, half-hearted pasta dishes, and anything but the house specialty.
We've changed a bit. The age of the gastropub has finally blossomed in Detroit, featuring small plates, craft cocktails, and plenty to make the meat-averse smile.
Sure, there's a sturdy complement of vegan restaurants, such as Royal Oak's Inn Season Cafe and Cacao Tree Cafe, Ferndale's Om Cafe, or Seva Detroit. They'll do the heavy lifting for a vegan crowd with maybe a meat-eater in tow, if they're not too fussy. And there have always been plenty of ethnic restaurants, such as Middle Eastern and Indian establishments, where it's often easier to find vegetable-based choices.
But the rise of the hip restaurant in Detroit seems to have coincided with a desire to provide plenty of appealing choices that are fresh, flavorful, and easy to tweak for special dietary requirements.
It's a challenge younger chefs take seriously. Take Jared Bobkin, executive chef at Ferndale's Local Kitchen and Bar. He once told one of our writers, "A steak is always going to be a steak. You can grill it a certain way, maybe put a nice sauce with it, but it's still a steak. And that will please a lot of people. But to come up with great dishes that don't have any meat that will please the masses? That's a challenge in a good way."
And Christopher Franz, the executive chef at the Rattlesnake Club, once told us "It's incredibly short-sighted to just ignore vegetarians and vegans. That sounds like it should be common sense, but there are still a lot of places that offer one or two [vegetarian or vegan] dishes. ... That's not a great way to get people to come back to your restaurant."
In fact, some of the more up-to-the-moment restaurants are shying away from the old practice of dressing up vegetable protein as meat. With the focus suddenly on locally grown vegetables picked just hours before a meal, many chefs choose to offer plant-based dishes that revel in the flavors by treating them as the main course.
For instance, at James Rigato's Mabel Gray in Hazel Park, we've found that the plates of Brussels sprouts, green beans, and broccoli made more than a meal, and had thoughtful accents, the beans strewn with crunchy, chunky almonds, and the broccoli with an aioli redolent of olives.
The offerings are similar at Hamtramck's Rock City Eatery, which is moving to Midtown in March. RCE has offered spicy roasted Brussels sprouts with Thai basil, peanuts, scallions, smoked tomatoes, lime, and chile. A plate of al dente green beans with scallions, cilantro, cashews, and hoisin sauce is packed with flavor. But it's also fun when Rock City tries the unusual and it works, as in one frequently appearing special: a plate of cooked olives. (Incredibly, it works.)
At seasonal restaurant Selden Standard, there's no telling what star treatment will be given to a carrot, potato, or squash on their menu. One recent vegetarian offering was a kale-and-date salad with Marcona almonds, Gouda, and spiced orange viniagrette. Not everybody wants to pay $7 for grilled scallions with Romesco sauce, but, if you do, they'll likely be the best, most local, freshest scallions you've ever eaten.
A plate of vegetables just isn't the boiled carrot and mashed potato it used to be. At Detroit's Chartreuse last spring, they served a selection of vegetables that's greenhouse grown in the city by a business called Recovery Park. It was a round plate of heirloom beets and asparagus tips, charred kohlrabi and baby radishes, baby green beans, lemon-pickled golden beets, and greens from beets, chamomile, and cilantro, all topped with an emulsified cherry viniagrette. Most surprising of all were the lemon-pickled beets, which bore a revelatory sweetness.
Finally, thanks to a new attitude in the kitchen, and an improved knowledge out on the floor, restaurants have never been more able or willing to tweak dishes for diners with special restrictions, or even desires. These days, restaurants will answer your questions by phone before you arrive, and some chefs seem to enjoy the challenge of finessing a menu item.
In short, it has never been better to be herbivorous in "meat and potatoes" Detroit.