Plant-based Toronto: nine top vegetarian stops in the city
“Plant-based” is trending in Toronto, Canada, a city seeing a new wave of upscale vegetarian restaurants. From the sleek Planta on Queen, with its ahi watermelon nigiri and crispy snow pea leaf dumplings with truffle oil and wasabi, to vegan Mexican destination Rosalinda, with its earthy mole, young coconut ceviche and creative small plates like salsify with persimmon, peanuts and chimichurri, more restaurants are skipping the meat entirely and still delivering high-quality, big flavour dishes.
In addition to new all-vegetarian restaurants, however, a number of recent fine dining openings are offering locally sourced, vegetable-driven menus with just a few touches of meat (which can be made vegetarian or vegan upon request), meaning that if you want a three-course table d’hôte or a 10-course vegetarian tasting menu, your wish can be granted. Or, if you just want a scoop of vegan ginger ice cream, a cinnamon-dusted churro or a crunchy-crumbed blueberry-lemon loaf, that can also be arranged.
Here are our picks for the best upscale vegetarian restaurants, cafés and bakeries in Toronto.
Away Kitchen and Avelo
For more than two years Awai’s local, seasonal tasting menu was the epicenter of vegetarian fine dining in Toronto. But the building was slated for demolition from the start, so in the meantime, two casual offshoots opened: Away Kitchen on College St. and Away Kitchen on Queen St. and with their panca pepper-marinated maitake mushroom steaks, pan-fried artichoke hearts with sundried tomatoes and almond parmesan and a full lineup of pizza. But now, a new fine dining adventure is set to launch very soon.
Avelo, meaning “hazelnut” in Esperanto, is housed in Hazel Cottage, an historic building originally built as a worker’s cottage in the late 1800s. According to Away owner Roger Yang, the 20-seat restaurant will come with a completely new seasonal tasting menu, but plans are also in the works for an upstairs cocktail bar where diehard fans of Awai will be able to enjoy some of the original restaurant’s top dishes on a tapas-style menu.
ritish-born chef David Lee’s first Michelin starred restaurant job came at the age of 17 at now-closed Le Souffle in London. After that, he was off to the Relais & Chateau Hotel Fleur du Lac in Switzerland and then back to London to Mosimann’s, where he spent weekends cooking for the Prince of Wales. Even after coming to Canada in 1994, he stuck to mostly traditional, meat-centric French, Italian and European fare at fine dining institutitions Centro, Splendido and Nota Bene.
But after getting into plant-based eating himself, he opened Planta, bringing his fine dining experience to upscale-casual fare. Each of his three subsequent Planta locations has a different menu. The Yorkville location tends Italian with a few international exceptions: arancini with salsa verde; hearts of palm “crab cakes” with white wine, caper vinaigrette and sautéed spinach; lentil pâté with fruit compote and grainy mustard and pizza bianca with rosemary potatoes, olives, chili oil and cashew mozzarella. And the newest location on Queen St. is pan-Asian, with dan-dan noodles with coconut milk and kamut; ramen with truffle broth; snow pea leaf dumplings; and unagi eggplant and watermelon maki.
This vegetarian restaurant in Toronto’s financial district offers upscale versions of Mexican fare, from its very Instagrammable jackfruit tacos sprinkled with crispy fried slices of taro root to an avocado tostada with black beans and sunflower salsa macha. The restaurant trends upscale-casual with its affordable tofu and rice bowl with a chipotle-lime vinaigrette and vegetarian chorizo-quinoa bowl with sweet potato, fennel, zucchini and pomegranate, but there’s elegance to the young coconut ceviche with its bright green leche de tigre.
While the debate is still open on whether Bloor St. at Ossington or the Danforth between Monarch Park and Greenwood is Toronto’s unofficial Little Ethiopia, it’s easy to find a vegetarian platter of injera topped with spiced split peas, melting collard greens and sweet cabbage, carrots and potatoes in either area. But unlike most Ethiopian restaurants in the city, which also feature meat and make generous use of spiced butter, the city’s first 100 per cent vegan Ethiopian restaurant is located underneath its meat-loving older brother, Pero. At Selam Vegan, the focus is on quality and presentation, putting it a cut above most of its neighbours.
Case in point: each à la carte dish comes in its own bowl instead of being poured over a bed of injera (instead, the fermented bread is served rolled on the side) and micro-greens and pea sprouts are wonderfully bitter counterpoints to braised cabbage and carrots. Cocktails – another Ethiopian restaurant rarity – and a coffee ceremony round out the experience.
Copenhagen Vegan Café & Bakery
This pretty-as-a-postcard café comes from the owners of the former vegan Danish bakery in Thornhill and those of nearby vegetarian comfort food dens Doomie’s and Mythology Diner, adding a touch more culinary finesse to an area of the city known as “Vegandale.”
Faux-tuna sandwiches and vegan paté on sourdough multigrain are acceptable lunch offerings, but winners here are the pastries and desserts. Scones are stuffed with vegan pesto cream cheese; Danish rum balls are their own happy hour; and dense, creamy cheesecakes come topped with thickly-piped coconut whipped cream and a sweet, cherry glaze.
This organic, vegan and gluten free café in Kensington Market is an oasis of calm in the bustling, gentrifying neighbourhood. The café opened in 2005, but the original owner moved away and the café was bought by longtime customer Andrey Malkov and his sister Elena, who more recently opened a second location in the Assembly Chef’s Hall.
Thankfully, they barely tweaked the menu, keeping the café’s popular sweet and savoury buckwheat crêpes and mixed salad plates made up of a daily changing roster of seasoned sweet potato, lentil, tofu, bean and broccoli options. But what most don’t know (though Andrey surely did) is that this is a mecca of vegan ice cream, made with coconut, mung bean or almond milk. Punchy ginger and black sesame are standouts from a changing list, though seasonal fruit and a handful of chocolate varieties are also popular.
Julian Bentivegna and sous chef Simon DeSousa’s 10-course tasting menus are the most haute vegetable-forward experience in the city. The restaurant only opened in January 2019, which is probably why it’s still possible to get a reservation at the 10-seat restaurant.
Bentivegna left his home in Calgary and moved to Chicago where he learned a lot about fine dining at now-closed Grace restaurant before coming to Toronto and some of the city’s top kitchens. His menus include small amounts of meat and fish, but he can easily alter any dish to make the meal vegetarian or vegan. Ingredients are locally sourced and menus change daily, but think buttery roasted pumpkin slices with puréed cashews, pumpkin seeds, pickled butternut squash and a drizzle of rosemary oil; miso soup with potato sliced thin like spaghetti; or fennel purée with black walnut, green onion and jalapeño.
Wine pairings from sommelier Jennifer Hunter are generally organic and biodynamic.
Currently sitting at #18 on the list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants, Dandylion’s farm-to-table three-course tasting menu has been lauded since it opened in 2015. Of the three options for each course, one is usually vegetarian and can be made vegan if requested in advance.
Chef Jason Carter is a master of sourdough, but leave room for daily changing seasonal dishes like paper-thin slow-cooked root vegetables tinged with truffle; burrata with white peach and vinegar; persimmon with sprouted black lentils and spinach; fava beans with barley and artichoke; or sweet corn with charred broccoli and crispy rice. To end, think nectarines, blackberry with sweet and herbal anise hyssop or rhubarb compote with beeswax ice cream and white chocolate crumble.