Thai Chop Lettuce Wrap
Photograph by hayden stinebaugh
Here are a few words that usually don’t spring to the omnivore’s mind at the thought of vegan food: Gourmet. Satisfying. Alluring.
GreenSpace Café, in downtown Ferndale, is committed to changing that. The restaurant, the project of local cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn and his son, Daniel, opened in the fall, with a vision of serving natural foods and killer cocktails.
“If people could get delicious, good-quality, healthy food, a lot of people would make that choice,” says Kahn, a longtime vegan who teaches at Wayne State University. “Food is one of the foundations of good health; we all sort of know it. When you can make the right thing to do the easy thing to do, it’s better for people.”
There is strong research to support the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Vegetarianism is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. A study funded in part by the National Institute of Health and published in 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine found that vegetarians were 12 percent less likely to die from all causes combined compared with non-vegetarians.
For Kahn, who has a long-term interest in the role food plays in preventing disease, the foray into the restaurant business began with a search for a natural-foods restaurant franchise. When that didn’t pan out, he looked for a local restaurant to buy. Ultimately, he and Daniel, who holds an MBA and has experience in the industry, decided to create their own concept, a decision sparked in part by the availability of the space formerly occupied by Maria’s, a shuttered Italian restaurant that had a liquor license.
Not long after, the owner of Just for Us, a bookstore adjacent to Maria’s, died. Kahn decided to expand his vision into a portion of the bookstore’s now-available space.
At GreenSpace, taking in the eatery’s physical beauty is the first element of the dining experience. The Kahns hired restaurant architect and designer John Janviriya — who designed Chen Chow, Mosaic, and Ann Arbor’s the Black Pearl — to design the space, which features high, exposed ceilings and a spa-like atmosphere, rich in greenery and natural wood.
The bar and tabletops were crafted from visually striking acacia wood, while decorative columns made of stacked wood evoke piles of books. Edison-style light fixtures provide an industrial feel, while the low lighting fosters an intimate ambience.
Unlike many vegetarian restaurants, GreenSpace gives hooch a prominent place on its menu and in the restaurant itself. The bar wall is lined with large mason jars of steeping booze concoctions, each with a small chalkboard label. Drought, the local cold-pressed-juice company, supplies juices for GreenSpace’s cocktails, which include those like the Mrs. Robinson, a blend of tequila, lavender syrup, Luxardo maraschino, lime, and cava.
Then, of course, there’s the food. The Kahns turned to George Vutetakis, the former owner of the Inn Season Café who now is director of research and development for Garden Fresh Gourmet, to consult on the menu and food preparation. Former Inn Season chef Griffin Wilson is at the helm of GreenSpace’s kitchen.
GreenSpace began with a small-plates concept, but after that approach received criticism, it shifted toward a more traditional menu with a blend of appetizers, salads, and entrees. In fact, the staff seem highly attuned to public response, responding to critical Yelp reviews and tweaking its offerings as it goes. Kahn himself is ever-present, roaming the floor at dinner after spending the day at his medical practice.
The menu, made as much as possible from locally grown ingredients, includes items like grilled avocado, tamale pie, and forest mushroom tacos.
Debra Walter, a personal chef and owner of Max’s Granola who says she eats vegan “as much as I can,” has twice dined at GreenSpace and says she appreciates the menu’s variety.
“Not everything was the same — it wasn’t all lentils, it wasn’t all beans. You had options.”
When asked if she thinks omnivores will enjoy the experience, Walter says, “For sure, like my husband. They’ll go because they have alcohol.”
“It’s pretty obvious that we’re feeding bacon people,” Kahn says. “I see people here come in skeptical and walk out completely sold.”
In fact, if Yelp reviews are to be believed, some of GreenSpace’s biggest enthusiasts are meat-eaters. “First, I have to say that I am not a vegetarian … I was slightly uneasy about going especially not having seen a menu,” wrote one Royal Oak reviewer in December. “The food itself? Really tasty. For other omnivores like myself, you won’t miss the meat.”