VEGETARIAN HAVEN (17 Baldwin, at McCaul, 416-621-3636) While 60s fashion and music continue to inspire, the era's health-food hippie vegetarian cuisine remains best lost in a cloud of smoke. Recently relocated from Etobicoke to downtown's alterna-restaurant row, this pleasant, friendly spot features the lot: tofu, gluten, seitan and TVP combos in garlic- and onion-free sauces over rice pilaf sided with steamed root vegetables. Look deeper and find some surprises. Complete meals for $25 per person ($15 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a squeezed-to-order juice. Open weekdays 11:30 am to 10 pm, Saturday-Sunday noon to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
We're scanning the laminated lunch lineup at Vegetarian Haven, the Etobicoke vegan eatery formerly called Health Haven that's just relocated to Baldwin Village, when our server returns to our table and presents the daily special, a large plate loaded with Giant Stuffed Mushrooms ($6.99/$9.99 dinner), a pair of not-exactly-gigantic 2-inch portobellos piled high with more minced 'shrooms. It looks like the lacquered grub found in the window of a Japanese fast food joint. Should we sample? Before we can, it's whisked away to a table by the front door, where it greets arriving custom, the next one pronouncing, "What a groovy restaurant!"
Indeed it is. This pleasant generic bistro - narrow mirrored room, exposed brick, jazz muzak - on Toronto's alterna-restaurant row specializes in the kind of hippie vegan health food that first blossomed with flower power.
And though Haven occasionally rises above the stereotypical brown-rice-and-lentil cliché, much of its non-animal menu makes one wonder why one bothers to eat in the first place. It's all very nutritious. It's just not very delicious.
The Literary Device and I have dragged along a serious 17-year-old vegan to act as our authenticity litmus test. This kid's tough. The other day she morally objected to her sandwich when a local vegetarian chain served her chèvre.
The gals split a starter of Tofu Drumsticks ($4.99), two TVP fritters skewered with sugar cane stalk. I agree with the younger and find them quite tasty, the sugar cane acting as a sweet crunchy finale, but she tuts their deep-fryer greasiness. Fried Crispy Tofu ($2.99) turns out to be four half-inch slabs of tofu tossed with sesame seeds and sauced with sweet 'n' sour. We three like, especially after we add a sizable shake of cayenne. As a digestive, of course.
Garden-variety Fresh Thai Garden Rolls ($3.99) find raw rice paper loosely wrapping rice vermicelli, soy-marinated tofu, bean sprouts and mint leaf. But their sour vinegary dunk isn't the fiery peanut counterpoint we expect.
Today's soup ($3.50) is an autumnal potage of silky tofu in hearty vegetable stock with puréed cauliflower and swimming with carrot and potato. Some bread would be nice, but we don't get any.
Maybe it's because half of the menu items are wheat-free (though the other half are gluten).
That's definitely a bun containing VH's organic tofu burger ($8.99) with grilled zucchini and green pepper. Sided with blue corn chips, it also comes with the house's unusual salsa, a combo of minced cabbage, tomato and daikon that recalls kimchee minus the heat. Large enough for two to start, Tofu Pastrami Souper Bowl ($8.99) is easily the best we try at Haven, again a very good broth and a raft of wide, slurpable rice noodles, sliced Chinese mushrooms, baby bok choy and snow peas layered with faux cold cuts that taste remarkably like cured brisket.
The kid's not impressed with purple rice with grilled vegetables and tofu in clay pot ($9.99), a rudimentary version that she sniffs isn't worth 10 bucks. The Device stops three forks into Bird's Nest ($10.99), an appallingly gloopy Cantonese kitchen-sink stir-fry that comes surrounded by an inedible aerie of deep-fried rice thread. Think StyrofoamTM.
And while there's far worse in town - hello, Hungary Thai - Haven's curried pad thai ($6.99) dotted with mint leaf holds its own, leaning more toward Singapore than Bangkok.
Spicy Cayenne Tempeh ($9.99) sounds like the name of a very hot stripper rather than yet another tepid stir-fry, this time nutty fermented soy cake, roughly chopped grilled bell pepper, celery for crunch and a puzzling toss of peas, carrots, beans and corn that suggest a certain green-tinged giant known for his ho, ho, ho. We greatly improve the dish by exchanging the standard sides for all mains, three steamed broccoli and cauliflower florets and pink rice (white, red, brown, wild, black and gifted), for the more than competent veggie chow mein ($2.50 extra).
After 10 years in the burbs, Haven honcho Shing Tong appears ready to take on popular mainstream vegetarian spots like Le Commensal and Fresh by Juice for Life.
Their fans will bite for her minimally herbed spaghetti and wheat balls ($9.99) and oven-crisped tofu turkey cutlets stuffed with minced chestnuts ($11.99), just the thing come the holidays to feed the serious 17-year-old vegan in your household.
Those of us heathens who see food as more than mere fuel and believe a meal isn't complete without garlic and onion (Vegetarian Haven abstains from both) will find shelter elsewhere.