URBAN HERBIVORE (64 Oxford, at Augusta, 416-927-1231) Complete meals for $13, including all taxes, tip and a lemonade. Average main $6. Open daily 10 am to 6 pm. Unlicensed. Access: four steps at door, no washrooms. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Stephen Gardner's a rarity in the resto biz.
Not only has he charted a remarkably successful course from co-owner and chef at Queen West's Taro and Red Cat Trading to his current solo gig at Fressen, Toronto's snazziest vegetarian joint (see mini-review, this page), but Gardner has ethics, too. At Urban Herbivore, his recently opened vegan offshoot of Fressen, he encourages his employees to be part of the creative process.
"It's not a full cooperative, but it's cooperatively operated," he explains. "Say a baker comes up with a good idea and it sells - he or she gets a bonus."
Whoever came up with the recipe for Urban Herb's terrific flavoured iced lemonade ($3, all prices tax inclusive) - fresh lemon juice mixed on different days with fresh raspberries, pucker-intensifying cucumber or summery watermelon - must be raking in serious coin. Muffins ($2) are equally memorable, massive breakfast-in-ones bursting with raspberry and pineapple, the wheat-free spelt version a delicious riot of contrasting almond, date and sweet potato.
Though salads and sandwiches - baby spinach in cranberry vinaigrette with shiitake, grape tomatoes and broccoli; roasted red peppers and sliced yam on multigrain spread with spinach-walnut pesto and olive-date tapenade (both $7) - can be scarfed at the lunch counter, most do takeout.
The real stars are Herb's six rotating soups ($8 litre/$4 half-litre with a returnable $1 deposit for the Mason jar), most notably its cumin-kicked Mexican black bean loaded with garlicky legumes, carrot, corn and celery.
When cooking classes begin in the fall, this dish deserves to be at the top of Urban Herbivore's how-to list. ($6), a multi-bean patty on a whole wheat bun topped with dill pickle and cheddar, could be a dedicated veg-head's guilt-free trip to Harvey's. The house greens ($5), tossed with sprouts, pumpkin seeds and fresh basil, get a boost from either crumbled tofu or creamy blue cheese.
Starting this weekend, Get Real promises a brunch lineup that includes hemp pancakes topped with maple-glazed plantain, grilled mango and kiwi salsa as well as tofu 'n' tropical skewers fired on the barbie.