Om Café: A classic refreshed 

With dozens of restaurants opening in Detroit and Hamtramck over the last two years, it may have passed notice that Ferndale's Om Café, a fixture since 1985, has been under new ownership since October 2014. This is terrific news, because Om was up for sale for quite a while, and some of the café's most ardent admirers even feared the place might close.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, new owner Jessica Norwood seems to have reinvigorated the space, introducing weekend brunches, a few daily specials, and assembling a tight team that delivers nutrient-dense food with speed, style, and courtesy. Norwood tells us she's been eating at Om since she was 10 years old, started as a waitress, worked her way up to manager, and now runs the joint with her boyfriend, also Om's chef, Matthew "Chef Madu" Helsel.

First things first, though: The front door is a staff entrance only; diners enter from the rear of the building. (A walkway connects the front sidewalk to the back.) The small space is brightened by a skylight, with colorful art on walls.

As it happened, we wound up stumbling in during the first weekend brunch, which featured a creative menu breakfast and lunch dishes, such as biscuits and gravy, triple-layered grilled cheese, a black bean scramble, and even blueberry pancakes.

We ordered a tofu scramble, "scrambled" organic tofu seasoned with turmeric, along with potatoes, broccoli, onion, bell pepper, carrot, kale, fresh dill, whole-grain mustard, and a piece of firm, dry toast and soft butter in a stainless bowl. We asked for added veggie sausage for $2, and it was worth it to have that slightly "meatier" feel.

Our co-diner declared the eggs Benedict to be among the best in town, praising the thick and moist veggie sausage, the rich Hollandaise sauce, and the way the eggs weren't overcooked.

We had a generous bowl of a soup du jour, a slightly dilly cashew corn chowder, and we were also won over by the kukicha tea, a Japanese tea made from twigs. It's like a black tea, but mellower, with continual refills thanks to the thoughtful servers.

Fans of Om's original nori roll needn't fret: It's on the regular and brunch menus. It's a neat small plate that uses the architecture of sushi to house those healthful ingredients, the organic brown rice was a standout, each large grain almost barley-like in its mouthfeel, thanks to the magic of pressure-cooking. We had ours with sauteed tempeh for $2 more, but decided it didn't need it.

The appetizer that impressed us the most was a dish of Brussels sprouts, shaved and pan-seared with garlic and enlivened with a creamy sauce made of salt, pepper, vegenaise, and whole-grain mustard. It's hard to get sprouts to that perfect point where the interiors offer slight resistance to the teeth but the outer leaves aren't overly charred. For this to be a quickly prepared appetizer attests to a high level of sophistication back in the kitchen.

The raw kale salad is a delight, coming doused in a tahini and plum vinegar dressing that dapples the ruffled leaves, making them look almost naturally variegated. The dressing works wonders on the raw kale; a co-diner noted, "It takes a lot of work to make kale taste this good." What's more, the salad comes loaded with walnut, dried and sliced apricot, tomato, cucumber, broccoli, ginger, a few slices of perfectly ripe avocado, and more.

Our co-diner loved his tempeh burger, complimenting the patty's crisp finish, and the wheaty bun. And he ordered his with cheddar and the waitress didn't even blink.

The vegetable stir-fry is a classic menu item at Om, loaded with perfectly cooked carrot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and more. It's a somewhat modest portion, but if you like, you can jazz it up with sautéed tempeh, tofu, or seitan. By the time we were finished, though, we were satisfied, thanks to a chunky tahini onion gravy we got with it. You can order it with brown rice or udon noodles, or even gluten-free organic rice noodles for a few bucks more.

The desserts from pastry chef Beth Delaney were pretty good. They have a glass cooler where you can inspect the treats before taking the plunge. The banana cream pie seemed a little bit dense, but the peanut butter chocolate cake was large enough to split and more peanut butter than chocolate.

Naturally, the café takes dietary restrictions seriously, happy to accommodate diners who want to avoid not just meat, but gluten, and even soy. A couple of dishes even eschew oil. The regular menu even features a macrobiotic dish.

Service was consistently on point, with a hip wait staff that's utterly free of the disdain that too often accompanies hipness. We got good advice, excellent descriptions, and one server even hailed us before we left without our to-go box. The menu warns, "Fresh food cooked to order takes time," and yet when the small room was mostly full, we still got all our food within a half-hour. Amid a sparse afternoon crowd, our appetizers came within 15 minutes.

To say Om Café draws repeat customers would be a massive understatement. On one visit, we ran into an acquaintance who lives nearby and has been gutting it out through a four-month kitchen remodel. Her household has basically been using Om Café as its dining room, and she still waxes enthusiastic about the fare, after what must be more than 100 meals.

Vegetarian cooking has come a long way since the 1980s, when it bent over backward to appeal to carnivores. These days, it more often strives to present the flavors of the vegetables in all their glory instead of trying to comfort meat-eaters with savory strips of seitan or tofu. But, whatever your pleasure, Om Café straddles both those worlds gracefully, which presents a nice balance for that mixed dining party. Health nuts, vegetarians, people with dietary restrictions, those looking to give their systems a little break from industrial food, and even the occasional meat-eater brought along for the ride should all enjoy the cuisine. Thirty years on, it's honestly better than ever.

More by Michael Jackman

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