Seva has long been a "landmark for the crunchy crowd," said the former University of Michigan student I ate lunch with — for 37 years, in fact. Its lengthy list of healthy juices, tempeh and tofurkey choices, seven- to 10-ingredient salads, and "beans+grain=complete protein" entrées is supplemented with Faygo sodas ("with cane sugar!"), fried potatoes, over-the-top desserts, and an ambitious wine list.
So you don't have to be a health nut to enjoy Seva (pronounced "say-VAH," with some air between the syllables, as in como se va, Spanish for "how's it going?"). Which is very old news about vegetarian food, and embarrassing to write, really. But I'm amazed by how some omnivores still make a big deal out of eating in a vegetarian restaurant, like it's a major sacrifice not to eat meat for one meal out of 21 in a week. Are they afraid they'll weaken and die? Or perhaps the mere presence of alfalfa sprouts in the room will feminize the manly eater? Not to worry: Seva serves nachos for the macho — nachos grande, in fact — and even PBR.
It was actually Seva's foray into the fake-meats world that disappointed my companions and me most. A $10.95 "Vegan Randello" sandwich (randello is Italian for "club") was made up of thin sweetish slices of hickory-smoked tofurkey, veggie salami, veggie bacon and vegan soy cheese. The vegetable protein was so tough you could barely wrench a bite off with your teeth. A manager told me it was controversial on the staff whether a sandwich served on a bun could properly be called a "club." I'd say this sandwich has bigger issues to worry about.
Also disappointing was the dish advertised as Seva's best seller, enchiladas calabaza. Made with butternut squash, green onions, cumin and cinnamon, it tasted like none of them, but rather just corn tortillas filled with an indeterminate soft mash.
Seva's other best seller, though, yam fries, was fantastic. I didn't care for the dipping sauce, mayo with Clancy's Fancy hot sauce, but the thin slices themselves combined the crunch and fat of fries with the rich sweetness (but not too much) of sweet potatoes — a great appetizer, and brought right away.
Other dishes were good to excellent. Seva uses Avalon breads, from ciabatta to multigrain, trucked in daily. Entrées range around the world for their influences, without attempting to hit on dead-ringer authenticity; whole-wheat tortillas abound. There's a North African couscous with tempeh, a sweet potato quesadilla, a spinach ravioli dish, and penne with portabellas and soy sausage. Sandwiches, soups and salads claim such inspirations as California, Thailand, Spain, the Mediterranean, tacos and the BLT (in this case, a tempeh-LT).
A huge California salad was refreshing with baby spinach, big chunks of avocado, ruby-red grapefruit and orange slices. A vegan black-bean chili was pronounced by its diner as "great, for vegan"; I thought it was fine but not out of the ordinary.
One sandwich was a masterful combination of smoked goodness: char-grilled eggplant, smoked mozzarella and a smoky but not-too-spicy barbecue sauce, with some added sweetness from fried onions.
A delicious Spanish soup tasted like it shared a pedigree with the curry topping for North African couscous: It mixed a host of vegetables with garbanzos for a rich and spicy result.
Breakfast is served all day, using organic eggs. An omelet with feta, spinach and tomato was expertly made, preserving skillfully the freshness of the folded-in ingredients, a must for a successful omelet. Other possible ingredients are smoked mozzarella, basil-cashew pesto, guacamole or fresh avocado.
For dessert, I tried a flourless chocolate-almond cake that was really like fudge, dense and topped with a mint leaf — scrumptious.
There are plenty of liquid reasons to visit Seva too. A mango lassi, though a very pale yellow and not tasting strongly of mango, was still luscious; try the unsweetened version. Fresh juices are served in any combination; there are house-made ginger, raspberry and strawberry syrups to combine with club soda; soy shakes or milk shakes; very affordable three-taste flights of wine; microbrews and European imports; port and sake — and Red Bull. Wines are remarkably low-priced, including most of the bottles on the list of "our fancy wines." And on Tuesdays all wines are half-price.
About a third of Seva's non-egg dishes are vegan, and more can be adjusted to become vegan. There's a special gluten-free menu too. But the owner estimates that more than 90 percent of the customers are not even vegetarians. Draw your own conclusions.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.