October 7, 2015 by Benji
As a reader of my blog you may not know yet what my social media followers know. I’ve been experimenting with a vegan diet for the last six months. It all started with an event I went to by Dr. Joel Kahn: a vegan cardiologist who preaches a vegan diet to prevent heart disease. I had no intention of becoming a vegan; in fact, I was only at the event to support my friend Yisrael Pinson who hosted the lecture at his Chabad In the D. But in listening to Dr. Kahn, what he said made sense. Eat fewer animal products and you will have lower cholesterol and less fat intake. With my family history, I figured “Hey, why not give it a shot?” So I gave myself a two-week challenge. And after two weeks… I felt great!!! I decided to continue the experiment and try out being a vegan for longer term. The caveat for myself was that I wasn’t committing forever or with any strings attached. So when I went to someone’s house for Friday night dinner with my family, I wasn’t going to drive them nuts to make special food for me. If I go out to lunch with a client, I’m not going to be the vegan who everyone makes fun of and who makes a big deal out of ordering a specially prepared meal.
What I found out was that eating vegan in restaurants didn’t mean only eating a head of lettuce with a tomato. There are vegan options if you know where to go and how to order. At the same time as I was discovering this, I was discovering my new found appreciation for cooking vegan. Brussels sprouts? Love ’em! I can prepare them 5 different ways. Red cabbage? It should be the official vegetable of Michigan! Swish Chard? As far as I’m concerned, a marching band should accompany this vegetable, it’s spectacular! And the best dessert I’ve had in a long time: watermelon with fresh lime juice.
The pictures of food I was cooking was spurring conversations online with friends and acquaintances. I was trading recipes and ideas with people and talking about nutrition (in other words, “nutrition” does not mean “looking at the back of a bag of Doritos to see how many calories are in them”). One of the recurring conversations was “Benji, you go out to eat often with real estate clients, how do you order vegan at normal restaurants”? In the metro Detroit area we are blessed to have fantastic vegan options like Seva, Om cafe, Toast, The Fly Trap, In Season & the soon to be open Green Space Cafe by Dr. Joel Kahn. Sadly, they aren’t geographically diverse, and I’m not always around Ferndale. My answer is always “if you know how to order, you can eat almost anywhere”. I saw a friend of mine had done a French fry crawl, and had a moment of inspiration. I posted on facebook asking if anyone would be interested in a vegan food crawl. I had dozens of people who immediately said yes.
So I got to work arranging a vegan food crawl. We were going to do three restaurants, but the first restaurant to confirm was MEX on Telegraph road, just south of Maple. The owner, Zack Sklar, was enthusiastic and appreciative for the opportunity. Sklar suggested that he bring food from Beau’s: just a block away and also owned by him. He has different vegan options there, and he arranged to have those vegan options brought to Mex. I loved the idea! The second restaurant was Bistro 82, an award winning French bistro in downtown Royal Oak, owned by my friend Aaron Belen.
Both owners offered to make “something special for the group.” I actually asked them not to–I wanted to showcase the items on the menu which anyone could come back and order at any time if they wanted. After all, being able to order off the menu was the catalyst for this crawl.
Through a group rate and good relationships, we were able to keep the cost at $50 per person (alcohol was billed separately). We started at MEX, which is in an incredibly built out building with loud, large colors and a modern, fresh feel. We had 15 rsvp’s but unfortunately only 7 were able to come (it was the perfect storm of people not being able to come). The MEX team was great at moving us to a smaller table and made the smaller crowd feel important and appreciated. The server immediately brought out their homemade chips, guacamole, varieties of salsa, and a fresh salad. Not only were all homemade, but each exploded with flavor!
Next at MEX came what I think every vegan in the country should travel to Michigan to try: the hot quinoa bowl. This is a dish that is a hot stone with quinoa, roasted vegetables, and, the mother of replacement ingredients, “soyrizo.” Soyrizo is a soy based product that tastes exactly like chorizo. The texture isn’t perfectly the same as chorizo, but it’s the best “fake meat” product I’ve had. My friend Mike who came on this little adventure with us said “I don’t mind eating vegetables, but I hate when people try to serve me fake meat products. That said, I love me some soyrizo”
Next we got a dish from Beau’s: the burger/ steak and beer place across the street. Their veggie burger is not a pre-made frozen veggie burger from Costco (like some restaurants serve): this is a fresh blend of black beans, beets, mushrooms, walnuts, and more. It’s a spectacular burger! Everything we ate was served family style, so we got a fun, upscale, yet casual dinner.
The funny part came when the server offered us dessert. I asked him what he had and he replied “we have a great fried ice cream, tres leche, and avocado box pie.” I responded, “…and they’re all vegan?” He laughed and said uncomfortably, “Actually, none of them are vegan!” We all got a good laugh at his accidental attempt to undermine the evening.
The group then drove over to bistro 82. Walking in the door, I was the only person in the group who had eaten there before our food crawl. The other six people were all wowed by the ambiance just as we walked in. The feel in the restaurant is high-end, but not pretentious.
The first thing we were served was a spring roll with a rice paper wrap and peanut sauce. Very rarely do I take a carrot and get all the sauce off the plate… I did that with this dish.
Next came the ratatouille: now understand, this is not your Aunt Millie’s ratatouille! This is not a soup pot full of vegetables that are mushy and feel like eating a bowl of hot jello (can you tell I’m not the biggest fan of traditional ratatouille? But this dish is the one that Linguini makes with love at the end of the Pixar film “Ratatouille.” It was fresh, it was flavorful, it was served beautifully with the thin cut pieces of zucchini layered to present like a refined French bistro should. I felt fancy just being served it.
The next dish was a Cauliflower Romesco… What the heck is that? That’s French bistro lingo for roasted cauliflower, Fava beans, pine nuts and Romesco. (Benji, that wasn’t helpful, what is Romesco?) Romesco is a red pepper based sauce that is incredible– I was taking pieces of cauliflower and cleaning the plate with it!
Finally we had a chocolate banana mousse. I couldn’t eat it because of allergies, but I assume it was fantastic– as there was a fight over who got my portion!
Here are a few thoughts on this food crawl:
1) I am not suggesting that anyone becomes a vegan; I only want people to know that eating vegetables can be delicious.
2) my sister Miryam said. “I came to this having no intent of becoming a vegan. This confirmed that I won’t be a vegan. But now I see how many healthy options there are at “normal” restaurants.”
3) I was inspired to do more vegan food events. I will… There will be a pot luck, a Detroit version of this crawl, and vegan restaurant crawl.
4) the two restaurants have not paid me in any way for this post. I’m doing it out of appreciation for their service
Check out these pics,
Check out the restaurants, and let them know you were inspired to try them because of this article