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At Grasslands, the charcuterie board offers a cashew cheese ball, braised celeriac, mushroom walnut pâté and more. Photo by David Laurence.
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Owner/chef Stephen Gardner preps mini-sliders.
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Grasslands’ polenta over shiitake mushrooms show real veggie creativity.
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Grasslands’ corn fritters show real veggie creativity.
GRASSLANDS (478 Queen West, at Denison, 416-504-5127, grasslands.to) Complete dinners for $40 per person, including tax, tip and an organic lager. Average tapas $11. Open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday 5:30 to 10 pm. Closed Monday, Tuesday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
Vegetarians aren't generally the most adventurous diners - vegans even less so.
Perhaps that's why so many strictly veg restaurants serve little more than variations on tofu salad with a dairy-free vinaigrette. Given such a limited palette, what else is there?
Enter Stephen Gardner and the two-week-old Grasslands. Gardner's responsible for Urban Herbivore, the popular Kensington café that brought health-conscious vegan wraps and humongous muffins to the fast food court of the Eaton Centre. He also owned Fressen, the long-running Queen West resto he shuttered last fall to make way for Grasslands.
The new joint is a very different animal, though none of its by-products were used in the makeover. The room's been stripped down to exposed brick and stone from the veritable forest of twigs that covered its walls and ceiling. The bar's been moved to the front, beside a row of stylish pleather-upholstered booths.
Gone, too, are the seared seitan and battered bean curd of yore, replaced by a short card of forward-thinking mains and smaller shareable plates. In a word: tapas. Yes, it seems even hardcore vegans are jumping aboard that too-trendy train.
And so we get marvellously light gluten-free corn fritters studded with fresh kernels and sweet red pepper, and gently battered popcorn "chicken" on a bed of napa cabbage slaw, the two dishes brilliantly sided with pineapple salsa kissed with basil (both $9). A plate of deep-fried oyster mushrooms proves the evening's sole dud.
Gardner barely sears rounds of impossibly smooth polenta, then plates them over meaty shiitake mushrooms and garlicky wilted spinach in a no-slouch tomato sauce. His clever rice-flour cannelloni in that same tasty sauce come stuffed with tofu faux ricotta and walnut pesto nipped with mustard greens.
We've eaten enough cardboard veggie burgers in the line of duty to know an exceptional one when we come across it. Here, it's a trio of sliders on house-baked buns dressed with pickled red onion, arugula and psychedelic swirls of smoky house ketchup and hot Dijon mustard (all $11). And don't miss chef's exceptional twice-cooked rutabaga 'n' parsnip frites ($7).
Dessert calls for Cookies and Cream, aka house-baked ginger snaps and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies served with a dark chocolate cashew mousse that's so delish you'd swear it's loaded with dairy fat ($10).
Clearly, the kitchen's under control, though the pacing could still use some work. Servers are erratic - charming and well informed until they're nowhere to be found. It takes 30 minutes in a near-empty restaurant for our initial drink order to show up, and another 20 before we see any food.
But if Gardner wants to attract the lucrative cocktail crowd, he'll need something more cutting-edge than apple juice with Canadian rye ($10). Where's the vegan Caesar? And we're pretty sure the same Dido CD was playing when we first visited back in 1999.
"Any feedback would be great," smiles our server when the bill eventually arrives.
Well, she asked!