Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 18, 2017

© Cinda Chavich

Think that’s tuna? Think again. The faux fish at the Faimont Pacific Rim’s RawBar is salted and compressed watermelon.

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Plant it here

Don’t leave these Vancouver restaurants without eating every meatless meal on their menus

To everything there’s a season, and after the season of parties and indulgence, a cleaner approach seems appropriate. Enter the newest trend in the food world: part-time vegetarianism.

Whether you call it Meatless Mondays or Vegan Before 6 (New York food writer Mark Bittman’s answer to a food lover’s lifestyle), giving up meat, at least occasionally, is the latest choice for the conscientious gourmand. And Vancouver may be the best place to practice.

It’s hard to say what came first: the Lululemon-loving yoga crowd and A-list Hollywood celebs or the West Coast penchant for laid-back, healthy living. Either way, upscale vegetarian dining fits right in here. It may even become a new kind of regional cuisine as chefs experiment more with the bounty in their backyards.

This year, Vancouver city council has even mandated Meatless Mondays — or at least adopted the idea put forth by the Vancouver Food Policy Council. It’s designed to “protect global resources and contribute to planetary health” and now meat-centric spots like Sean Heather’s Irish Heather in Gastown have a long-table communal Meatless Monday dinner.

Among the hottest restaurants to open their doors in recent months are a handful of chic spots serving vegetarian or “vegetable-forward” food: The Parker, Heirloom, Graze, Burdock & Co. and The Acorn, recently named one of Canada’s top new eateries in enRoute magazine’s annual tally. It’s abstinence, without a whiff of denial.

Nuts for vegetables

While there have long been crunchy granola-type joints for a tofu fix on the Left Coast (like The Naam in Kitsilano where you can get fries with miso dressing 24/7), there wasn’t anything too sophisticated about vegetarian dining.

Chef Brian Skinner and co-owner Shira Blustein of The Acorn (3995 Main Street; tel: 604-566-9001; theacornrestaurant.ca) changed that by offering vegetarian and vegan plates that are beautiful, innovative and ultimately satisfying — without resorting to fake turkey or tempeh sausage. The restaurant doesn’t advertise as vegan or vegetarian, but carnivores won’t miss the meat.

Even before the recent enRoute award, it was nearly impossible to find a seat in their small, no-reservations eatery on the corner of south Main Street. When my husband, a friend and I visited, we perched at the bar for creative cocktails alongside a pretty vegan plate of candy cane beet “ravioli” with a fluffy macadamia nut “cheese” filling as sweet as fresh ricotta followed by a bubbling pan of cauliflower mac and cheese, and a plate of beer battered halloumi served with a zucchini pancake and mushy peas; a whimsical riff on fish and chips.

“We wanted to do beautiful vegetarian cuisine,” said Blustein. “No meat substitutes or fake food, just celebrate the beauty of vegetables.”

An internship at famed Noma in Copenhagen undoubtedly influenced his cooking style, as did growing up in Vancouver where fresh, local veggies are available year round.

Free of debris

It’s the same story at The Parker (237 Union Street; tel: 604-779-3804; theparkervancouver.com) where Top Chef Canada competitor Curtis Luk is now behind the stove in the restaurant’s small open kitchen.

Known for its über-sustainable stance — they buy fresh greens year-round from the vertical Local Garden above a downtown parkade and generate less than half a kilo of waste per month — the blonde wood, lucite and concrete restaurant is minimalist in décor, but its vegetarian menu is anything but.

When we stopped in for a late night cocktail, owner and barman Steve Da Cruz explained the concept.

“My girlfriend is a vegetarian and there was really nowhere to take her,” said Da Cruz of his idea to open this chic little spot on the edge of downtown Chinatown.

Luk brings his Asian eye to the menu, which ranges from a colourful sous vide beet and quinoa salad to wontons and bok choy in a porcini broth to kohlrabi slaw with seaweed and a miso dressing. Wild BC mushrooms, including cauliflower and pine mushrooms or yellow chanterelles and morels, are a specialty and appear throughout the seasons, the perfect replacement for meat.

Plus, the place is as green as can be.

“We really do focus on zero waste,” said Da Cruz as we headed out the door. “I can email you the bill.”

Less meat is more

At Heirloom Vegetarian (1509 West 12th Avenue; tel: 604-733-2231; heirloomrestaurant.ca), on the upscale shopping strip of South Granville, the diner-inspired menu features hearty vegetarian fare. You can start with daily brunch selections of eggs benedict and omelets with locally-made vegan sausage. That sausage also turns up with roasted Brussels sprouts and carrots in the sizzling skillets of paella or try the cornmeal-crusted deep-fried avocado appetizer, big kale Caesar salad or breaded tofu and goat feta Greek burger.

Back in the King Edward neighborhood off South Main, the newly opened Graze (3980 Fraser Street; tel: 604-620-8822; grazerestaurant.ca) has vegan and raw food aspirations with antipasti platters of fresh fruit, olives, glazed nuts and a house-made herbed “cheese” spread, nary a dairy product in sight.

Chef Karen McAthy has a passion for local food initiatives and food safety, so it’s no wonder she supports Inner City Farms, Sole Food Street Farms and Food Pedalers when she creates vegan dishes like her signature toasted almond and herb “mignon” topped with wild sea asparagus, oyster mushrooms and red peppers sautéed in garlic oil with a juniper, Thai basil and plum reduction.

You can also opt for meat-free meals at top city hotels. Our waterfront digs at the new Fairmont Pacific Rim (1038 Canada Place; tel: 877-900-5350; fairmont.com/pacific-rim-vancouver) features vegetarian choices at all their restaurants whether it’s sushi in the lobby, take-out Italian at Giovane or upscale Pacific Rim cuisine at ORU. Executive chef Darren Brown supports local farms and even creates vegan combinations.

We started our lunch with a creamy squash and corn chowder enriched with coconut milk, and a beautiful beet and Tiger Blue cheese salad with chimichurri before diving into penne with traditional Italian eggplant and tomato sauce.

Later, in the lobby’s RawBar, there was time for cocktails paired with vegetarian look-alike sushi by Chef Taka Omi: bamboo shoot inari pockets, rice wrapped in paper-thin slivers of cucumber with fresh shiso leaves and pink slabs of faux tuna (salted and compressed watermelon) belted atop rice balls with strips of nori.

In good company

Back on south Main Street, we booked at table at Burdock & Co. (2702 Main Street; tel: 604-879-0077; burdockandco.com), where one of the city’s top female chefs has opened a cosy neighborhood spot. Andrea Carlson — most recently the chef at Bishop’s — has a resume that includes many of the West Coast’s top tables, from Sooke Harbour House to C Restaurant, and she’s learned much about showcasing fresh, local flavours along the way.

While the food at Burdock & Co. isn’t strictly vegetarian, it’s “vegetable-forward” with many of the sharable small plates focused on seasonal produce. The decision to bring local, organic vegetables off top tables and into a smaller, neighborhood venue was intentional, Carlson explained, so they’d become part of the main meal and not just garnish on a more expensive protein.

We had delicate braised leeks balanced with a rich hazelnut and red pepper Romesco sauce, and a hearty combination of corn, beans and local pine mushrooms with crunchy wheat berries, before adding a small bowl of fat mussels, lightly cooked over smoky wood, and a few tender braised short ribs, all with exquisite, but suitably small wine pairings from an educated staff.

“Vegetable dishes are open to a lot more creative input, more layers and textures,” said Carlson of her pine mushroom and parsnip soup topped with slivers of more pine mushrooms, a brunoise of caramelized parsnips, and freshly shaved chestnuts. “With a steak, you’re just going to cook it.”

Even if you don’t want to give up eating meat, you may have to consider it. The latest science suggests that in 40 years, the planet and its water resources won’t support the current scenario where humans derive 20 percent of their protein from animal-based products. A mostly vegetarian diet will be the answer. Or we could just start now.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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