Gone Vegan

Lindsay Hutton discovers the politics and pragmatics behind a meat and dairy-free diet.

Despite my having to cut my weekend with the girls trip a bit short, one of the highlights of my stay was the food. Say what you will about Toronto, but their cup runneth over with incredible eats for vegans and vegetarians. 

Being a vegan in a “regular restaurant” can get a bit exasperating at times. Often, the only menu items available are a green salad and French fries. It’s sort of how I used to feel during a trip to the mall to buy shoes. I have size 11 feet, and up until a few years ago most women’s shoes were only available in Canada up to a size 10. What I was left with were usually rather dowdy size 11 clodhoppers the warehouse had accidentally sent the store. The same is often true of regular restaurants and their lackluster vegan offerings. 

Likely one of the most gastronomically glorious experiences of my vegan life took place at Fressen on Queen West. This place isn’t some under-wraps hole in the wall one finds through word of mouth. Most international vegan restaurant listings tend to carry something about this place, and the reviews I read seemed to indicate that most of their patrons exit weeping tears of joy. These are top-drawer vegan nibbles, and I had been dying to give it a go for months. 

Now, I’ll preface this by assuring you that I’ve never been one to suck on the teat of good reviews and let them influence my experiences. Example #1: Last night, I watched The Reader, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Kate Winslet, and found it creepy in an entirely uncreditable way. Example #2: I find the Ramones to be rather terrible (which, in my circle, is comparable to heresy). I wanted to give on of our country’s premier vegan restaurants an honest review, and here it is. 

Entering Fressen is rather like walking into an enchanted forest. It’s warmly lit with tree branches illuminated by strands of lights – it works. Reminiscent of the sort of space where a unicorn or gaggle of Elvens might come rolling in and not seem out of place. My date and I didn’t call ahead to reserve a table, but the hostess was kind enough to squeeze us in before a reservation. Of course, said table was right at the back of the restaurant near the kitchen, but seemed a fitting penance for not making a reservation on a Friday night. Duh.

Drinks were obviously in order, so I decided to try one of their featured martinis. I can’t figure out if the shot was a bit short or if it was premium vodka, though I imagine it’s the latter. My date, a seasoned beer drinker (read: guzzler) chose the Mill Street Organic draught, and seemed rather pleased with the choice and happily slurped away. The menu is based on a tapas format, offering a choice of dishes in categories, namely starches, salads, vegetables and crispy, all priced at $9 each. We were feeling worldly and hungry and decided to pick one of each. 

To start, we were brought the shredded jicima and mango salad as well as spinach blinis served in a warmed avocado and corn sauce. The salad’s tangy lime dressing suited the ingredients perfectly and was quickly consumed. The blinis, however, were a bit of a disappointment. Though the sauce was lush and beautifully prepared, the blinis, which rather resemble a greenish puff pastry, were a bit of a disappointment. Rather bland and the colour reminded me of the days when Wonderbread would dye their breads bright colours as some sort of weird marketing ploy I never quite understood. (“Son, why aren’t you eating your hotdog? The bun is your favourite colour!”)

Next came the eggplant pizza tart. Crusted in flax and cornmeal and topped with sweet basil, sundried tomato and olives, this was boss. Perfectly rendered. My date found it a bit sweet, and wondered if a touch of heat would liven it up a bit to run alongside the sweetness of the basil. Killjoy; I had no complaints. Saving the best for last, we were brought pan-seared king, honey and shitake mushrooms with a lemon garlic sauce. This was our favourite, hands down. Each variety of mushrooms took on the flavour of the sauce slightly different way, with each bite offering a nuanced version of the other. It was at this point in the evening I considered breaking into the place after hours and dig through the drawers for their recipes. 

Too stuffed for dessert and worried about the arrival of the patrons who had the good sense to actually reserve the table, we asked for our bill and gleefully paid the $60 tab, which was worth every shekel.  I hereby urge one and all, including flexies, veggies and yes, even you carnies, to visit Fressen. Charming surroundings, friendly staff, excellent organic wine and beer choices and of course, incomparable vegan grub plated beautifully and with satisfying portions. 

Next on Gone Vegan: Kids and veganism. How parents navigate their munchkins through a meat-and-dairy-free upbringing. 

Photo courtesy of Fressen's website.