I don't remember exactly why I started recoiling from anything animal-derived. When people ask me now, a decade after I became vegan, I recall watching an assembly line of chickens dangling by their necks in a grotesque Animal Alliance video presentation, and a rad geography teacher who impressed global disparities and the relative environmental impacts of herbiculture and animal husbandry on my mind. There's also basic teenage rebellion.
Whatever, my personal boycott of meat, eggs and dairy has stuck.
As a girl with a tendency to date meat-eaters and raised in an omnivorous family, I often find myself foraging for iceberg lettuce in joints that wouldn't know veggie-friendliness if a carrot bit them on the arse.
With that in mind, I set out on a mission to see whether I could track down a decent vegan meal at decidedly non-vegan establishments.
Round one: La Palette
(256 Augusta, 416-929-4900)
The menu here is a veritable zoo (ostrich! bison! horse!). I light upon the one vegetarian entree, a combo of herb-encrusted tofu, sautéed greens and red quinoa 'n' rice smothered in herb cream sauce.
I ask whether the dish can be done up sans egg and dairy: "Vegan?" says the server. "Yeah, the chef can do it with another sauce."
I munch on a decent mixed green salad while we wait. When the food arrives, I gaze longingly at the fancy-looking sauce on my companion's plate (she's ordered the conventional veggie meal) and tuck into my naked version greedily, then freeze. Something's not right.
I can sniff butter out a mile away - and this meal is smothered in it. My tablemates try forkfuls and agree.
Another server stops by to check in, and I ask about the butter.
"Oh, that's not vegan at all," she exclaims. "I'll check with the kitchen."
A little later she reappears to announce the chef insists it's just oil. Dude, I know oil, and this ain't it.
Two bites later, I can't shake the curious Kraft Dinner pong coming off my tofu. The table weighs in again: it's some sort of cheese - Asiago? - probably used to bind the tofu crust. Oh, the horror.
I don't blame La Palette for its hidden bombshells (Julia Child taught me to count on butter from the French), but the subterfuge makes me queasy.
Round two: Canoe
(66 Wellington, 416-364-0054)
Super-swank Canoe's a completely different experience. The mention of my food restrictions sets off a formidable chain of whispered commands that results in a personal Canoe handler appearing to jot down my preferences.
"We'll make sure you're well taken care of!" he cries.
You get what you pay for, I guess.
The server suggests a wholly vegan mushroom soup off the lunch menu, then asks if I'd trust the chef to "improvise something with organic vegetables from a farm in Cookstown." Hell, yeah.
The soup is fuckin' incredible - a heap of assorted mushrooms ranging from king to lobster to chanterelles smothered in a thick, musky broth. The veggie plate, while gorgeously presented, is just that: a veggie plate. Simply prepared, al dente chunks of multicoloured root vegetables, squash, rocket and two tiny coins of blue potato.
Though Canoe's passed the egg-and-dairy-free test with flying colours, I wonder what it'd take for a chef to devote the same attention to balanced nutrition. Considering the biggest obstacle vegans face is ensuring they consume enough nutrients (hello, anemia), it wouldn't hurt to expand awareness of, say, alternate protein sources. Jeez, it could even make for more innovative non-vegan meals.
Round three: Rancho Relaxo
(300 College, 920-0366)
I'm not expecting much from good ol' Rancho. Mexican food offers a bunch of red flags for us vegan folk: gobs of cheese, sour cream, hidden meaty things in the refried beans...
Rancho, amazingly, has one completely vegan entree on the regular card (tofu sautéed in tequila with pickled cactus, tomatillo salsa, rice and beans), but our server insists the chef can adapt most items for vegan consumption. I opt for the tequila tofu but add on a chipotle enchilada to see whether they can successfully pull off something edible and nix the animal-derived add-ons.
Niki reassures our table that the refried beans are prepared without hidden dairy or meat broth. We also check out the Aztec salad, a superlative combo of crispy tortilla strips, grilled mango, peppers and fresh greens. It's better than any salad I've eaten so far.
The meal is good and - a first in my vegan sleuthery - nutritionally complete. Even without the extra enchilada, which is super-spicy and loaded with veggies, I couldn't have finished my entree. I'm floored by the healthy servings of beans, rice (a complete protein right there), properly cooked tofu, greens and salsa. For a fraction of the price of either of the other two restos, Rancho effortlessly assembles the only correct vegan meal.
More importantly, it's the only joint where the staff seem to have a clue what to look out for.
VEGAN VALUE Though nearly every vegetarian restaurant in town offers meat and dairy-free dishes, most are not exclusively vegan. To find out where to dine absolutely free of animal by-products, check out the listings for the topTop 25 vegetarian restaurants in Toronto on page 41 and look for the V symbol.