66 E. Forest Ave.,
More than most major cities, perhaps, Detroit has long lacked a core of restaurants with robust vegetarian and vegan menus. It's thus unsurprising that news of Seva, the decades-old Ann Arbor stalwart, setting up shop in Midtown generated a great deal of fervor and some sizable early crowds.
There's quite a bit to like about the new place — especially the location and an updated decor. Somewhat disappointingly, though, the cuisine is essentially identical to that of the mother ship, which is to say that its interpretation of vegetarian cuisine is rather anachronistic. As greater numbers of Americans return to farmer's markets, embrace more ingredients, and teach themselves about where and what they're eating, Seva's general approach seems tired.
Consider the General Tso's cauliflower ($7), a generously apportioned appetizer creatively plated in a round baking pan. As the name implies, the dish aims to imitate American-style Chinese cuisine and is thus slathered in a cloyingly sweet, mildly spicy sauce. And while it's nicely cooked with a perfect texture, the notion of battering and deep frying cauliflower seems to imply a need to mask the flavor of the vegetable rather than to celebrate it.
The other appetizers are chiefly simple fare — nachos, mac and cheese, and hummus among them — each with a vegetarian or vegan twist. The tortilla chips for the nachos, the guacamole, and some entrées are clearly fried in-house using corn tortillas. While the flavor and seasoning is generally good, the preparation was inconsistent on more than one occasion — some made perfectly crisp, others annoyingly chewy.
Arguably the best of the appetizers are the yam fries, soft through the center and nicely sweet. They're accompanied by a chili mayonnaise for dipping.
The popular fries are served alongside each of the several sandwiches as well, our favorite of which is certainly the pesto pizza sandwich ($10), a classic combination of basil pesto, mozzarella cheese and sliced tomato between two slices of Avalon bread, all grilled to pleasantly crunchy results.
Other sandwiches include a wrap ($10) with Seva's garlicky red-pepper hummus, carrot, cukes, tomatoes and lettuce; a veggie Reuben; and grilled tofurkey with Daiya vegan cheese.
Appetizers, sandwiches and entrées alike show the same old-school approach, often mimicking carnivorous creations — like the tofurkey sandwich or vegan macaroni with Daiya — rather than striving for more interesting, distinctly vegetarian food. With such a wide array of ingredients available today, it's disappointing that a new restaurant specializing in veggie-friendly cuisine would treat the concept as it was treated 10 or 20 years ago.
Naturally, Seva offers plenty of salads, including some well-made classics: a robust spinach salad with a maple dressing and a nice Greek salad with feta. One member of our party was drawn to the kale salad ($8) with shredded carrot and squash and a cider vinegar dressing. While the kale was fresh and crisp, the completed dish, barely dressed, was a bit bland for all our tastes.
A number of tables around us had the same idea we did, ordering the butternut squash enchiladas ($13), which arrive smothered in melted cheese and a tangy tomato sauce, the two most dominant flavors and textures; those same ingredients make a prominent appearance in some egg dishes, like the mammoth portion of huevos rancheros, each of which are served all day.
Having scanned the list of mostly common fare on another visit, we were excited to find a beet gnocchi ($13) dish on the specials menu. Served alongside sliced grapes, a delicious garlic sauce, and some tender, cooked kale, the gnocchi were a deep, rich purple color. Unfortunately, they bore more resemblance in texture and flavor to rubber than food — a lovely presentation but a laborious undertaking.
Drink options dominate Seva's menus: They offer milkshakes, multiple variations on a mango lassi, coffee, tea, wine, cocktails, beer and raw juice. With a formidable array of fruits and vegetables on hand, the juice is a fantastic option for any thirsty nutrient-seeker.
The other drinks are of varying quality: My basil soda, based on a house-made basil syrup, was so sweet that I simply left most of it behind. Conversely, one dining companion's cherry rickey cocktail, an amalgamation of gin, cherry concentrate and citrus, was wonderfully tart and refreshing.
Seva's wine and beer lists, while not unique or ambitious, have enough variation to meet most diners' tastes and to match the diverse gastronomical influences of the food.
Should you choose to do your drinking at the restaurant's bar rather than a table, you'll be in the most elegant part of the ample space. Modern-looking stools overlook a contemporary, birch wood-colored counter and a nicely up-lit wall of frosted glass. It's a bit ironic, perhaps, that thought and investment were clearly put into advancing the decor more so than the cuisine.
Both reasonably priced and filling an obviously unmet dining need, a place like Seva is necessary to bring Detroit's restaurant scene into the future. It's just a shame that their food is lodged in the past.
Seva is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.