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Looking for a vegetarian-friendly city? Go North

By Carl Francis Penders

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances of survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet,” said Albert Einstein. If old Albert, who was right on about relativity, is right about meal planning, then Toronto might be the place it starts. With numerous meat-free and vegan options, the city once known as Hogtown is now one of North America’s most vegetarian friendly cities.

You know you’re in a progressive restaurant town when you find a vegetarian directory, and one that is distributed by many hotels. It’s a four color brochure containing the locations of vegetarian restaurants all around the Greater Toronto Area.

Cycling through Toronto’s Annex neighborhood and then on the relatively tranquil University of Toronto campus was a pleasant and relatively painless experience. However when I found myself bicycling down Bloor Street, I began wondering whether this tour was worth it. But upon arriving at Hogtown Vegan, home to vegan comfort food, the cycling adventure bore fruit with an Unchicken Club.

Made with tempeh and textured vegetable protein (TVP), a grain and vegetable based protein made by Gardein, the sandwich resembles chicken in taste and texture. Served with french fries aplenty, the club’s size was certain to satisfy my longing at least until my next time in Toronto.

Though it was well past breakfast I couldn’t resist a breakfast tart from Through Being Cool bakery. With firm tofu and sautéed onions, garlic, ginger, broccoli, red peppers, and herbs and spices inside a pastry crust, it’s a healthy snack any time of day. Perhaps it’s only coincidence, that they’re both on Bloor, just blocks apart, but similarly to Hogtown Vegan, vegan comfort baking is the Through Being Cool brand.

Camros was our next stop, a 100 percent organic restaurant on Hayden Street, south of Yorkville. The influence here is Persian, with an emphasis on colorful, flavorful foods. From there it was on to the Kensington Market. With its various restaurants, bars, cafes and arts community, it’s more of a neighborhood than a market. But its many open-air vendors lend it the aura of a public market.

There we hit Hibiscus, which specializes in vegan and gluten-free items, and Wanda’s Pie in the Sky bakery, where vegan desserts and organic Dark City coffee are served.

From there, it was Udupi Palace on Gerard Street in Toronto’s Little India. While not a total stranger to Indian food, I was mildly overwhelmed by my Udupi choices. But I eventually decided on what so many around me were having – a paper masala dosa.

Part pancake, and bearing resemblance to a crepe, at Udupi, with one end so wide you could peer into it, and the other narrow enough to take a bite out of, the dosas look more like something you blow into than eat. But Udupi’s waiters in bright, distinctive orange shirts served them up all around the large room, bordered by walls displaying musical instruments, and characters engaged in dance and yoga. My dosa came filled with onions and potatoes, and despite its apparent enormity, I managed to eat it all.

The following day my fellow diners and I ventured to Pulp Kitchen’s Queen Street location. The name choice was a community project, resulting from its inception as a juice bar. And its proximity to Queen Street’s film business makes it a frequent destination for production crews working nearby.

Juice continues to play a starring role here, and at their 565 Danforth St. site, with a wide variety of fresh pressed juices, smoothies, and power shakes, positioning Pulp Kitchen as Toronto’s best juice bar, as selected by NOW magazine. Its Almond Beet salad was named No. 1 by BLOGTO, and the menu offers a dairy-free grilled cheese sandwich, and healthy hummus and Thai quinoa wraps.

Sadie’s Diner on Adelaide Street was up next. With its traditional ’50s feel, it’s the culmination of a childhood ambition for owner Al Ridley, who because of his love for animals, as a youth declared, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a vegetarian.” Today Al proudly wears a V for vegan tattoo on his arm, and named Sadie’s after one of his old dogs.

Sadie’s is a place where non-vegetarians feel comfortable, and most Monday through Friday customers fit that category, while weekends bring in a mainly vegetarian crowd. Ridley says Toronto is a big brunch town, which I can confirm as many restaurants I encountered serve it both Saturday and Sunday. Sadie’s started by capitalizing on the trend with omelets, vegan bacon, sausage and waffles. Dinners eventually made it onto the menu with vegetarian chicken drumsticks, a barbecue plate with corn on the cob, burritos and quesadillas.

Nimisha Raja joined us at Sadie’s to guide me on the final stops on my vegetarian taste of Toronto. Through her company Evolving Appetites (EvolvingAppetites.com), Nimisha helps people choose healthy lifestyles.

Our afternoon began at Richmond and Spadina’s Fresh. It’s a busy bistro atmosphere, geared to young, upscale eaters at Fresh’s four locations around town. As I was coming off of meals at Pulp Kitchen and Sadie’s I ordered a healthy dessert and agave sweetened lemonade.

Fresh’s vegetables and fruit juices are varied, and protein and power shakes are offered, as are green smoothies. Salads, burgers, vegetarian of course, wraps, and “Fresh” bowls comprise Fresh’s menu, along with a vegan weekend brunch.

When it comes to vegetarianism, there are the dedicated (full disclosure, I’m one of those); the hard-core vegans who see vegetarianism as a movement; and the rest for whom it’s a moment. Many will know that kind of moment. And if looking for that moment in Toronto, it can be found at Vegetarian Haven.

The atmosphere is quiet, with a simple elegance, friendly staff, and an eclectic, Pan-Asian influenced menu of Moroccan, Thai, Indian and Chinese entrees, along with North American options.

If instead of touring the city’s many restaurants you want to experience the scene in one place, this is the time to do so. The Vegetarian Food Festival is starts on Friday and runs through at the Harbourfront Centre on the waterfront. The free event is North America’s largest promoting vegetarian food and related products.

The gathering attracts more than 100 vendors. Vegetarian food from the world is available at the festival, including fare from Latin America, India and China. Between bites there are lectures, films and cooking demonstrations.

For additional information and a schedule of events go to: www.veg.ca/festival.