It can be rough being a vegetarian in Detroit. Believe us, we tried. Vegetarians, or vegans, can be looked at sideways by carnivorous folks. They're constantly being asked prying questions like, "Is it for... health reasons?" "Are you doing it for, like, animal rights?" With veggie options scarce on most local menus, even ordering a salad at a diner can be an ordeal — "What do you mean you don't want chicken on that?"
The openings in the past couple of years of veg-friendly fine-dining places like Selden Standard and Chartreuse, and even more casual eateries like Brooklyn Street Local and Rose's Fine Foods, have been long overdue additions to the scene, no doubt. But even these establishments stop short of nixing all the meats. It's in our Midwest culture to embrace a hearty meal of meat and, well, meat. It keeps that needed layer of fat on our bones for brutal winters.
So when we heard that noted cardiologist Joel Kahn and his son Daniel, would embark on opening the ambitious non-GMO, all plant-based GreenSpace Café in Ferndale, we paid close attention. We were curious to see if Detroiters would or could actually get excited about meat-free cuisine.
Kahn has written two books that focus on holistic heart health, which talk about in part, how a plant-based diet can promote heart health. Planning for the restaurant meant seeking the advice of heavyweights in the area's vegetarian and raw scene. He recruited two veterans of longtime veggie restaurant Inn Seasons in Royal Oak: founding chef George Vutetakis as a consultant and Steve Weller to lead the kitchen. Also on the team is Amber Poupore, owner of the Cacao Tree Café in Royal Oak, which specializes in raw food.
What the team has come up with is truly spectacular. The space (a former bank) is beautifully designed to show off exposed brick walls, dim lighting, elegant high-topped tables and booths, and a spacious bar. The menu, made up of small plates, soups, salads, sides, and just a few entrees, bursts with flavor and hits all right points at every level. The selections are almost all house-made and change regularly. The food pulls from Asian, Mexican, and Italian influences, cultures that historically have treated meat as an occasional delicacy, making meatless renditions seamless to execute.
For starters, a must-try is the grilled avocado. The avocado is cut in half and then stuffed with fresh pico de gallo salsa, placed on a layer of enchilada sauce and accompanied by two fresh organic tortillas. The tortillas came out warm and thick, like how abuela would make them at home, and were perfect for scooping up the creamy and spicy avocado mix. We also indulged in the cashew cheeses. With a variety of smoked, spicy chipotle, sun-dried tomato, and even a blue cheese (tinted with algae to give it a marbled blue), each delectable style spreads easily on top of whole grain quinoa crackers, thus proving just how far vegan cheeses have come over the years. Also a fun choice, the teriyaki mushroom skewers, with cremini mushrooms that are grilled and nicely glazed with bourbon teriyaki sauce, and then accented with a thin, crisp Asian slaw, bibb lettuce, fresh chive, and black sesame garnish. Soups like the umami-rich creamy mushroom and the Indian dahl with coconut milk and butternut squash also tantalize.
Those are all delicious to start, but of course we had to continue on to more substantial options. Found on the salad menu, the Thai chop lettuce wrap is a bountiful mix of roasted cauliflower, cucumber, green onion, bok choy, cilantro, peanuts, green peppers, tofu, and a splash of pineapple dashi dressing. Served with Boston lettuce wraps and a side of chili oil, the salad is served Laap-style (traditionally a Laotian minced meat salad), but given a vegetarian twist. The pad thai, which traditionally is dependent on fish sauce, is at once flavorful and packed with a crunch, thanks to a light mix of fresh greens, carrot ribbons, lime, tofu, onion, garlic, crushed peanuts, and red jasmine rice noodles. The green curry bowl, with a melody of green and red bell pepper, onion, tofu, and fresh herbs, and green coconut curry, soaks in nicely with organic Golden Rose rice, and earthy Thai-spiced fingerling potatoes.
Our favorite entree by far was the tamale pie. It instantly had us thinking of our mom's red enchiladas, sans gooey cheese, of course. A rich, smoky sauce, red bell peppers, tomato, corn, and black beans, works perfectly between layers of hearty organic white masa. The monstrosity is topped with cashew sour cream and slices of avocado.
Equally intriguing was the wine list and cocktails — described as being created to please not just the palate, but also to capture the therapeutic benefits of the fruits and botanicals used. One example of this apothecary approach to drink mixing is the Lazy Afternoon, with house-infused chamomile vodka, ginger, apple butter, and lemon.
All too often vegetarian establishments fail to strike a balance between serving precious plates of microgreens and outrageously processed meat wannabes. At GreenSpace, the Kahns, Weller, and co. take great care not to fall into those familiar traps and instead give Detroiters one more reason to consider switching over to a more plant-focused diet. Or, at least to forget about the meat for a night.