whether for ethical or health reasons, vegetarianism continues to increase in popularity. You'd think the variety of vegetarian venues would be on the rise as well. Instead, Toronto's few herbivore havens fall into two camps -- crunchy-granola joints or Buddhist Chinese spots.As its name attests, Buddha's Vegetarian Restaurant is one of the latter. An austere white and grim grey room staffed by smiling servers in green smocks, this tiny storefront with the potentially worrisome address -- 666 Dundas West -- will disappoint those looking for a luxe dining experience in a restaurant with a cutting-edge design concept. Decked out with only an incense-burning shrine and a poster or two, the sterile space offers sizable veggie noshes that are not only nutrition-conscious but consciousness-raising.
Although I'm a card-carrying carnivore, I love tofu. But I have never been able to fully appreciate the Buddhist practice of taking a perfectly good piece of soy protein, injecting it with red food colouring, drowning it in radioactive gloop, then calling it faux sweet 'n' sour pork.
I do understand the religious context of the exercise -- in a nutshell, all is illusion -- but that doesn't excuse the horror that is mock duck made from pressed bean curd sheets. Call me disillusioned.
There's a display case at the front of the eatery full of this sort of faux flesh, but unless it's ordered as a separate dish -- combo platter of gluten and soya products ($3.90 small/$6.75 large) -- little of it shows up in the rest of Buddha's single-sheet lineup. And it's not just meat that's missing. Garlic and onions are off-limits, too. Thought to arouse lust, encourage an explosive temper and create non-karmic body odour, onions and garlic are supposedly counter-indicated for spiritual purity.
Of course, you can always get takeout and add the evil bulbs at home.
Theosophical matters aside, there are lots of good things to be had here. Many of the menu items can stand as main courses, be combined with noodle dishes or get mixed into soups both plain or pasta-rich.
Three kinds of mushrooms -- meaty 3-inch-diameter Chinese, slivered button and whole straw -- show up with Chinese broccoli and carrot coins ($6.75) or mixed with thick rice noodles ($6.20 for a Pyrex-pie-plate portion, both big enough for two), in veggie broth alongside rubbery hair seaweed ($4.95 to $12.50) or with greens and noodles ($3.50 to $8.95).
Toasted cashews add tasty crunch to pressed tofu, celery, bamboo shoot, water chestnut, red pepper, cubed carrot, canned baby corn and fresh garden peas ($6.95). Though a bit greasy, Buddha's deep-fried spring roll ($1) is considerably larger than those available elsewhere. Its companion wrap, deep-fried soya roll ($1.30), comes burrito-sized and stuffed with bamboo shoots, wood ear fungus and carrot.
well-meaning and earnest might sound like the name of a Bay Street law firm, but it's an apt description for the Junction's not very imaginatively named Vegetarian Restaurant (2849 Dundas West, at Keele, 416-762-1204). I stopped by for lunch to check out Toronto's longest-running -- 25 years -- veggie venue.
Things started promisingly with miso-tomato soup, a smoky autumnal potage punched slightly by peppercorns and thick with tiny cubes of firm tofu, chunks of carrot, kale, tomato pulp, celery and onion. Priced at $3.95, the 10-ounce serving seems stingy.
Menu-described as "a taste sensation originating in Buffalo, NY" -- oh, dear -- Tempeh Delight Yumwich ($6.95) turns out to be a soft 8-inch tortilla wrapped around nuggets of pecan-crusted fermented soybean cake, tomato, cucumber and sprouts and topped with yogurt-tahini sauce. Think falafel.
And consider Super Soy Burger ($6.75) an alternative Big Mac, complete with sesame-seed bun, wimpy dill pickle and Velveeta-esque soy cheese. The additional $2 surcharge for a few shards of grilled onions and 'shrooms is a rip-off, man.
However, caramel peach pie ($2.25) topped with cobbler-like crumble is worth every penny.
The search for a first-rate, exclusively vegetarian restaurant continues. With so many new restaurants opening downtown that have almost identical meat-heavy menus, why doesn't some smart restaurateur start an all-veggie eatery that reflects Toronto's multi-culti tastes? The public's starving for one.
BUDDHA'S VEGETARIAN FOODS (666 Dundas West, at Bathurst, 416-603-3811) Possibly the bleakest-looking eatery in town, this austere Chinese vegetarian spot makes up for its lack of decor with honest, clean-tasting noodle and 'shroom dishes. Bring your own garlic. Complete meals for $8 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Wednesday through Monday 11 am to 8 pm. Closed Tuesday. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: three steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN