By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — With its cavernous space, vintage warehouse decor and trendy menu featuring vegetarian, vegan and macrobiotic dishes, Om Café could be in metro Detroit.
And it is. Sort of. The new Traverse City restaurant co-owned by Jason Thibodeau has its roots in Ferndale, where his mother established the first Om Café more than 25 years ago. Shortly after taking over the downstate restaurant when his mom retired, Thibodeau and longtime friend Ryan MacManus decided to bring the Om Café to another great community — this time Traverse City, at MacManus' former Loading Dock space at the corner of Lake and Cass.
"This town is much more progressive than when I was a kid," said Thibodeau, who vacationed in Traverse City while growing up. "It's now become a national food destination. Seeing Oryana, seeing how people are more healthy and active, it seemed like a good fit."
The restaurant opened July 17 with the slogan, "Eat to Live," and an expanded menu featuring many of the core dishes from the Ferndale café. Favorites include Make Your Maki, a nori roll with a choice of premium options for $8, and The Buddhist Priest Stir-Fry, a choice of organic brown rice or udon noodles sautéed with local seasonal vegetables, basil, tamari and scallions for $12.
Other customer hits: spring rolls made every morning with carrots, daikon, cucumbers, green apples, coconut, mint, basil and Om Tamari sauce ($8) and Tostada De Pescado, seasoned whitefish, crispy tortillas, mango avocado salsa, queso fresco, cabbage, pickled red onions, cilantro and lime ($18).
"Our goal is to have tasty, healthy food for everyone," said Thibodeau, who has never eaten red meat and doesn't offer it — or chicken or pork — at the café. "There are a lot of options for those who have special diets — celiac, vegan — but also things for those who don't. It's about caring, being more aware and conscious about what they're eating."
More mainstream dishes like roasted salmon appear side-by-side on the menu with tofu and tempeh cooked in separate vegan pans. Mushroom, margo and pesto artisan semolina pizzas appear with barbecue pizza topped with seitan.
Chef Rebecca Tranchell, a graduate of the local Great Lakes Culinary Institute, helped create the menu, which uses high-quality, fresh and local ingredients — from oils to vegetables to coffees and teas — including organics, whenever possible. A board at one end of the dining room lists local farmers whose garlic, kale, heirloom tomatoes and other produce make their way into the kitchen.
Tranchell said she loves the creative challenge of cooking with restrictions, which results in soups like Chilled Mango Ginger and Miso Vegetable, salads like Quinoa Protein and sides like roasted beets with curry walnuts and fresh herbs.
"I don't like to overly process, overly cook," said the longtime vegan and former personal chef in New York, who gets excited by ingredients like lemon cucumbers. "I like to highlight the natural flavors and textures." Her favorite dish: the Cremini Mushroom Burger, a mushroom, walnut and brown rice blend with white cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion and garlic aioli on a toasted whole grain bun.
Complementing the menu is an eclectic decor starting with wood floors, exposed wood beams and relics from the l00-year-old building's fruit canning and warehouse distribution days, including colorful fruit crate panels.
Diners can choose from indoor or outdoor deck seating at tables made of bamboo and reclaimed bowling alley wood or sip Michigan wine or craft beer at an informal seating area created from whitewashed shipping pallets topped with plump cushions and pillows.
The café is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday but closes on Mondays so staff can meditate. On the near horizon is Saturday and Sunday brunch, with dishes like Om Garden Hash (broccoli, carrots, squash and onions with tofu or eggs), the Bird Feeder (layered seeds, nuts, fruits and Greek yogurt) and a version of Eggs Benedict (with mustard, nutritional yeast and Greek yogurt substituting for the butter and egg yolks used in traditional hollandaise sauces).
Thibodeau said the partners plan to expand the deck next season and eventually will look for a complementary business, like an art gallery or wine tasting room, to occupy an empty portion of the building.
Meanwhile they'll continue to cater to their growing clientele, including 20-somethings, families and baby boomers.
"I think we have the best clientele ever," Thibodeau said. "It's active, curious, adventurous."
Tranchell said the following recipe, which she made for dinner this week, is the way she likes to cook: simply and seasonally. "As I was eating it, I imagined how nicely our house red, Meritage, would go with it," she said.
Pipette Rigate Pasta with Roasted Cippolini Onions, Yams, Kale and White Beans
14 oz. pipette rigate
6-8 cippolini onions, peeled with ends removed
3 yams, chopped
2 bunches red kale, stems removed and torn into pieces
½ t. nutmeg
½ c. vegetable stock
15-oz. can cannellini beans
½ t. red pepper flakes
1 t. salt
½ t. pepper
Parmesan reggiano, grated for garnish
Preheat oven to 425°. Toss onions and yams in a little olive oil to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes until fork tender. Fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Salt the water to taste and add the pipette rigate pasta and cook 8 minutes until al dente. Drain. Set aside. In the same saucepan used for the pasta, add the kale, nutmeg, crushed red pepper and vegetable stock. Cover with a lid and steam over medium-high heat for 4-5 minutes. Add the roasted vegetables, pasta and beans to kale. Season with salt and pepper. Serve in bowls topped with grated Parmesan Reggiano.