LIVE ORGANIC FOOD BAR (264 Dupont, at Spadina, 416-515-2002) Complete meals for $35 per person ($20 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a squeezed-to-order juice. Average main $10. Open Tuesday to Saturday 11 am to 10 pm. Brunch Sunday 11 am to 4 pm. Closed Monday and holidays. Reservations recommended. Unlicensed. Access: 11 steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Jennifer Italiano is understandably stressed.
In less than 24 hours the vivacious chef will host a launch party for Live Organic Food Bar, the 30-seat upscale sequel to her wildly original - but tiny - Annex café.
Acclaimed for its raw California-style vegan cuisine, the stylish bistro needs a lot of work. For starters, the banquettes have yet to arrive, someone just delivered a refrigerator and the construction crew seems to be weeks away from finishing.
As if that weren't nerve-wracking enough, tomorrow's bash will be shot by Opening Soon, the Food Network's resto reality show that's been filming Italiano for months. Three days later, Live is scheduled to welcome its first paying customer. Now, NOW hails the latest version of Live as Toronto's top vegetarian restaurant. You'd be frazzled, too.
"I don't know why, but I keep breaking into tears," she laughs.
Live was still in its infancy when we first surveyed the local veggie scene two years ago, but by the end of 2003 the four-seat eatery was named runner-up for NOW's restaurant of the year, right behind winning Clafouti and ahead of Chippy's, JK Wine Bar and Edward Levesque's Kitchen.
Even if she hadn't moved two doors west into chic new digs and introduced a greatly expanded menu, Italiano would still be topping this year's vegetarian review.
At the new spot, old favourites like Live It Up Lasagna - raw zucchini noodles layered with cashew ricotta, tomato marinara and basil pesto ($7.25) - remain on the card, but Italiano ventures into new territory with vegan sushi rolled in untoasted nori stuffed with Cajun-fired almond "cheese," scallions and processed yam in apricot "cream."
Another maki set sees cooked brown rice - no purist, Italiano isn't afraid to bend the rules - sweetened with red beet and mango garnished with fiery cashew wasabi ($7.50).
None of this will prepare devotees for another novel creation that is surely destined to become Italiano's signature summer dish, a cold, completely raw gazpacho ($5.75) of diced watermelon, corn, tomato and crisp pepper topped with red beet cress and chili coriander pesto. One second it cools you down, the next you break out in a delicious sweat.
Desserts are always a highlight, especially Live's awesome take on Key Lime Pie made with raw avocado mousse, and a double "chocolate" cake made with another mousse of raw cacao and hazelnut, both built on uncooked raisin-walnut crusts (both $4.50).
Yes, service will more than likely be shaky to start, and it's impossible to gauge how Italiano will handle the salivating throng already ringing her phone off the hook.
But, come year end, don't be surprised if they and critics agree that Live Organic Food Bar is one of the best restaurants in town - vegetarian or not.