The sizzle, not the steak

Sep 15, 2004 at 12:00 am

Good news: Inn Season Café — a rare provider of vegetarian cuisine in metro Detroit — has gotten better as it has gotten older. Fine, organic ingredients have always been its hallmark, but the health food nature of the cooking has been eclipsed; now you are eating vegetarian haute cuisine.

Nick Raftis purchased Inn Season two years ago from chef and owner George Vutetakis, who had been running the place since 1985 (it opened in 1981). Chef Thomas Lasher is the co-owner, and has cooked at Inn Season on and off for 20 years. The menu is more the same than different: Many of the old favorites still appear — the Mexican-inspired dishes, the stir-fries — but gone is the focus on Indian cuisine, and the food is more sophisticated.

An appetizer of thinly sliced Japanese eggplant — pan-fried with ginger, sesame seeds and shoyu (soy sauce) — was interspersed with squares of seared tofu. It was garnished with matchstick strips of nori — the Japanese seaweed wrapped around sushi — and served with Chinese broccoli. An outstanding dish, it was original, inventive, beautifully presented and delicious. An appetizer of guacamole was assertively seasoned with garlic and cilantro, and came with a house-made fresh salsa.

Every day Chef Lasher prepares a supplemental menu for the daily specials, which includes several appetizers, one or two seasonal entrées, and a complete meal. Creativity prevails in these items. One evening I had a wonderfully creamy risotto that was cooked with fresh corn kernels and garnished with sweet red peppers (here’s one place where this dish could have been improved — the peppers were more wilted than roasted, and artlessly presented).

The complete meal one evening was harvest pie. Your choice of soup or salad comes with it; I had a house salad, which was simple and absolutely fresh. Inn Season has always excelled with its homemade dressings, and still does. The harvest pie was fashioned from layers of whole wheat phyllo (if you’ve ever worked with this flaky thin dough, you can imagine the challenge of working with a coarser, whole wheat variation) and filled with cauliflower, corn, spinach, onions, leeks and herbs. It was served with a delightful cold green bean salad, mixed with julienned strips of carrot and a garlicky mayonnaise, and a stuffed sweet yellow pepper filled with basil pesto, wild rice, tempeh and vegetables.

Twice I dined with timid eaters who opted for one of seven pizzas. A 4-year-old at our table was delighted with the basic pizza made with only tomato sauce and cheese; she didn’t even seem to notice that the crust was made with whole wheat flour. Other pizzas feature spinach and garlic-roasted walnuts, Mediterranean vegetables with feta cheese, or portobello mushrooms with garlic-roasted walnuts.

Desserts are all organic, made with whole wheat flour and no refined sweeteners, yet they taste wonderful. Pastry chef Ajisa Selimagic has created a line of rich desserts that fit in a vegan or macrobiotic diet. The chocolate mousse is made with fine Belgian chocolate and tastes almost too rich. An opera cake had light-as-air layers and indulgent amounts of whipped cream. The blueberry tart, made from Michigan’s own sweet berries, was sugared just enough.

Among the things that haven’t changed: the hummus with roasted red peppers, lace-covered front windows, the homey atmosphere with mismatched tables and chairs, and fresh flowers on the tables. Our servers were genuinely enthusiastic about the food, and offered knowledgeable descriptions, as well as personal favorites. All these factors explain why the regulars keep coming back to Inn Season, and why new folks are always checking it out.

Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 9:30 p.m., Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed on Mondays.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].