HIBISCUS (238 Augusta, at Nassau, 416-364-6183) Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes, tip and an organic coffee. Average main $6. Open daily 11 am to 8 pm. Unlicensed. Access: three steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
It's fitting that hibiscus, the new vegetarian take-away/creperie in Kensington, takes its name from the exquisite tropical flower, as this is a very special spot indeed.
Owner and self-taught chef Joseph Tam has transformed his former organic gourmet grocery store into one of the most stylish cafés in town. It's furnished with just two bare tables, a bench and a tall table a deux in the bright, airy front window that looks out onto the busy crossroads of the market.
The pale yellow walls are lined with dark custom cabinetry stocked with artisanal oils and grains. Diana Krall croons discretely over the CD player.
Tam dishes up a small but sensational lineup of salads as well as a daily-evolving soup, many of them organic, and all vegan.
Tam has also lifted a page from the now defunct Kali's Crepes and whips up an assortment of sweet and savoury French flapjacks.
Available on two types of crepe vegan buckwheat with brown rice flour, or with additional organic egg and vanilla bean ($3 each for the basic model) the savouries get spread with basil pesto and topped with a choice of cheeses (cheddar, mozzarella, chèvre, Brie and bleu) and veggies (spinach, mushroom, tomato), while the sweet come smeared with jam, maple syrup, Nutella or dulce de leche and piled with fruit (banana, kiwi, pear). Each option costs 50 cents.
Is there a more delicious, nutritious street food?
But it's Tam's terrific prepared salads that will put Hibiscus firmly on Toronto foodies' map. Chunks of firm, fibrous sweet potato come showered with a chiffonade of leafy Italian parsley, scallion and sweet red pepper and dressed in a subtle Dijon-lemon vinaigrette.
The same dressing works wonders on quinoa tabbouleh thick with cranberry and sunflower seeds, chickpeas and Puy lentils laced with crisp explosions of celery, and crunchy haricots verts tossed with sweet tomato pulp and button mushroom (all $4.50/8 ounces, $5.50/16 ounces). A 1-pound assortment in a paper box goes for $5.50, 6 bucks with soup.
And what supernal soups these gumbos be! One day, a velvety purée of sweet potato, chickpeas and carrots in coconut milk kicked with curry has morphed into a fabulously textured autumnal tomato potage augmented with fresh basil and thyme that's nearly as good as the version made by nearby It's All Good ($1.95/10 ounces, $2.95/ 16 ounces, both served with a slice of Power Foods' virtuous brown rice baguette).
We discovered Hibiscus too late in the day to give it a deserved spotlight in last week's Vegetarian Guide.
But come next year, look for Hibiscus to place solidly in our veggie top 10.