Fancy Plants: The rise of vegetarian fine dining
We take the pulse of Toronto's evolving vegetarian dining scene to find out what inspires plant-based chefs.
About a decade ago, Birkenstocks and hippie stereotypes were the proper dress code in vegetarian restaurants. Whether it was your moral compass or your health directing you to plant-based restaurants, you had to go searching for them.
When you arrived at a chain restaurant because everyone who had no dietary restrictions wanted to go there, you scanned the menu and oh good, there is one veg option. Or, this salad comes without chicken. The vegetarian was a master of ensuring their belly was full while avoiding being singled out as the lone picky eater.
Fast forward to the different world of 2018. Enter several new vegan restaurants in our booming city with experimental menus, hip atmospheres and the stamp of approval from meat lovers and veg eaters alike. It’s the perfect day for a Sunday brunch. Diners at Planta in Yorkville are indulging in your typical brunch fare – banana pancakes, crab cakes, overnight oats and scones.
You would never know it from the eye-pleasing plating or delicious flavour, but none of these items contain any animal products. In fact, the entire menu is plant-based. Planta’s owners describe their venture as an upscale, full-service restaurant with all sorts of plant-based dining options.
“Our menu wins over meat lovers,” executive chef David Lee says. “Our favourite is when the guest learns after the fact that the great meal they just enjoyed was, in fact, entirely plant-based.”
The owners work closely with vendors, striving to source responsible ingredients. “The process requires attacking dish creation in the same way as you would any cooking,” Lee enthusiastically explains.
“Is the dish nutritionally sound? Does it include protein? Does it have seasoning? At the end of the day, whether it’s plant-based cooking or not, it’s still the art of cooking.” A few guest favourites are the 18-Carrot Dog, Quinoa Tartare and Cauliflower Tots.
“Guests also often remark that our plant- based take on crab cakes made with hearts of palm is better than the real thing,” Lee boasts.
The location is constantly serving a steady stream of customers – indicative of the fact that our city was craving a spot like Planta. There’s no doubt we will see more upscale, plant-based restaurants blossom in Toronto.
According to the Vancouver Humane Society, a poll administered by Environics shows that 33 per cent of Canadians, or almost 12 million, are either already vegetarian or are eating less meat.
The figure includes eight per cent of respondents who already follow a vegetarian or mostly vegetarian diet, as well as 25 per cent of Canadians who say they are part of the group trying to eat less meat. According to that survey, British Columbia is the most vegetarian-friendly province, but Ontario is not far behind. In Ontario, eight per cent are vegetarian or mostly vegetarian, and 23 percent are trying to eat less meat.
Gone are the days when throwing a giant mushroom on a bun and calling that the vegetarian option is accepted. One Toronto staple in Little Italy had the concept down pat before they even opened their doors seven years ago. With a motto like “simple, honest, handmade,” Woodlot’s vegetable lovers’ menu fits right into the theme. Rustic vibes paired with a wood oven and curated wine list make it a spot for the perfect date night.
The idea was to avoid the finger skimming every vegetarian knows so well. “We were looking at doing the classic thing everybody does where they put the little ‘v’ beside the dishes,” Kevin Korslick, a partner at Woodlot, says. “But we were like ‘you know what, that’s a little confusing. Vegetarians deserve their own menu, so that’s what they’re going to get.’ ”
And vegetarians are grateful for it. Korslick said the menu has its fair share of orders and a healthy number of go-to favourites. “I honestly think vegetarian diners just appreciate having their own menu.”
The owners were mindful that perhaps plant-based eaters don’t want to read about a slab of steak during their meal. Korslick agrees there’s been a rise in customers looking for veg options, but as someone who’s experienced being scoffed at while dining with his wife who has dietary restrictions, he wanted to create an experience everyone can enjoy.
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“As much as I think the vegetarian menu is great, I think it’s just about having increased options for everybody whether it’s meat, vegetarian or gluten-free. Everybody has their restrictions these days and we try to have something nice for all of them,” Korslick says.
The vegetable lovers aren’t the afterthought, either. Often in kitchens, a meat dish is created first, and ingredients are omitted afterward to accommodate different restrictions. At Woodlot, the vegetable creations are just as much a priority.
“We come up with the vegetarian dish first because we also work with seasonal ingredients whatever vegetables are around, whatever is inspiring us. From there we make the meat menus based on the veggie,” Korslick says explaining their process.
While he didn’t reference the giant mushroom on a bun by name, he did laugh that vegetarians know the familiar list of copout classics all too well.
“You won’t find the squash risotto on the menu,” he said, noting that their signature dish is a mushroom salad. (Which he claims is only vegan by accident and not design).
WOODLOT HAD THE CONCEPT PAT DOWN BEFORE THEY OPENED
The salad consists of wild rice, black walnuts, pickled beets and mushrooms. The mushrooms are cooked over coals in the oven with salt and olive oil and absorb the flavours seamlessly. Move over, lazy portobello.
Another favourite is their onion soup. It’s a take on a classic French onion, but Woodlot uses a vegetarian broth. It’s been on their menu every year, and when the nippy October air returns, their phone starts to ring.
“People will come in and sit at the bar just to have the soup and then go,” Korslick says. Woodlot focuses on quality ingredients and supporting local farmers. And while we wanted to include it as a focus in a piece about higher end vegetable-based options, he insists: “we’re not trying to be a fancy restaurant. We’re just trying to be inclusive.”
In a more bustling atmosphere, surrounded by Thai lanterns, wide mirrors and ornate art pieces, Sabai Sabai’s new basement location on Bloor Street is another spot that offers a carefully designed plant based menu – both at lunch and dinner.
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It’s a business that was ahead of the recent vegan boom, when they launched their original space on Church Street five years ago with plant lovers in mind.
“This was our plan from the beginning,” Jason Jiang, owner of Sabai Sabai says.
“We really wanted to have a Thai restaurant that had more vegetarian and vegan options because I thought Toronto was ready for it, and I think in Asian cuisine there isn’t always a lot of veggie options.”
Toronto was ready for it and if anything, craved it. Jiang said a significant customer base visits Sabai Sabai just to order from their vegan menu, carving out a niche in vegan Thai food in the middle of the city.
Their menu vegan-izes classics like Tom Yum Soup and Khao Soi – bursting with so much flavour and bright, vibrant spices that you don’t notice the absence of meat. Their Thai spin on cocktails, like the Thai Mojito, pairs nicely with the spices.
In addition to a rise in plant-based requests, Jiang has recognized a general increase in health consciousness and curiosity when it comes to ingredients used. “People are thinking about what they’re eating, and I think we see more of that in Toronto,” Jiang predicts.
They’re not afraid to get creative, and their clientele puts them to the test. Jiang says they’ve had requests for no spiciness, no peanuts, no sugar, no garlic, no gluten – you name it. That may sound like every element that makes a delicious Thai dish, but they always find a way to execute it.
“We work with the chef and try to eliminate whatever they ask for,” Jiang explains. “When people with restrictions dine out, we want them to experience it the same way everyone else eats.”
For instance, they’ve used the sweetness from fruit to replace refined sugar. The idea is to accommodate the customer’s requests while maintaining the flavours.
Jiang describes the atmosphere as one that blends with the creativity of the food. “I think with the concept and the atmosphere, it’s always been our goal and vision to create a comfortable and nice atmosphere that we bring from back home.”
Jiang foresees more existing restaurants adding vegan options to their menu.
The UN has previously warned that rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars. Especially when plant-based ingredients come from local suppliers, the ecological footprint is far smaller than it is for meat-focused options. That idea of sustainability is at the forefront for many plant-based businesses – including Hello123 on Queen West.
Co-founder Mark Kupfert isn’t as optimistic about the outlook for a plant based Toronto but hopes to spark change.
“The whole world needs to eat more like this if we want any chance of having a sustainable planet,” Kupfert says.
It’s a fact Kupfert keeps in mind in his day-to-day life and also when he opened his new business just north of Liberty Village.
The modern space, with cool light fixtures and exposed brick, serves small plates of vegan food with cocktails around a dance floor. After cofounding another popular spot for herbivores, Kupfert & Kim, he wanted to create a new restaurant for the health and environmentally conscious crowd.
“We felt there was still room in the community to have a spot where you experience a vibe and environment that you would get in other trendy restaurants,” Kupfert explains.
The aim is to get customers to leave the concept of “missing out” on meat ingredients at the door – effecting change by having more people comfortable eating this way. Sharables include creative uses of fruits and vegetables like pulled pineapple sliders, a smashed avocado burger and a Korean inspired “spicy bap.” The dishes are attractively plated and the menu offers desserts like berry cashew cheesecake.
“I want customers to think this is a cool environment; I’m not really giving anything up here. I get good vibes, good food, drinks.” Kupfert saw a need in the city – affordable, healthy, creative plant-based dishes in a spot where you can swing by on your lunch break or stop in for a late night cocktail.
“I like being in nice places. But I also like eating sustainable, healthy food. I didn’t feel like there were enough places in Toronto that do that,” Kupfert points out.
And while he wouldn’t call it “fancy”, Hello123 is situated in a location where it’s mingling with dozens of hip nightlife spots.
“The idea was a place where you can dress up or dress down. The price is affordable enough that you can come more than once a week and if you want to come on the weekend and have a cocktail, you can.”
Kupfert hopes these restaurants are the catalyst that gets the masses thinking more about the health of the planet.
“Not only in Toronto,” he continues, “but I think in North America and the world, there is a growth in this market because it’s becoming a part of mass awareness.”
Adding that while he loves the food, he’s driven by his passion for a healthy planet. He wants to entice people to think that this is a suitable way of having a night out as much as going to a restaurant that has your typical range of meat-based proteins.
“You can eat in a positive way and have a good time. We’re trying to combine the two.”
Diners aren’t complaining about the everexpanding options. In fact, there’s so many of them now that the Toronto Vegetarian Association has created a mobile app to help hungry vegetarians navigate the restaurant scene. It’s called the Veg Guide, and it locates plant-based options across the GTA.
“One particular trend seems to be that established vegan restaurants are opening additional locations,” Barbi Lazarus of the Toronto Vegetarian Associtation says. Planta and Hello123 are two prime examples.
“At the rate things are growing, I think we’re set to surpass vegan destinations like New York City and Portland, and Toronto will be the city to add to your bucket list of travel destinations,” Lazarus forecasts.
The plant-based scene has established itself in Toronto. Whether you want to wear dress shoes or Birkenstocks to these spots is up to you – it’s just nice now that there are so many different options to choose from.