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Best New Vegetarian Restaurants 2013

In a cluster of new rooms, and in established restaurants all over town, we’re celebrating salad days. Vegetables are no longer the supporting cast—they’re the stars on the plate
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An Heirloom tapa rounds up sheep's cheese, fried olives, and medijool dates (top). At The Acorn, halloumi is fish 'n' chips manqué (bottom)* Christine McAvoy
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In a cluster of new rooms, and in established restaurants all over town, we’re celebrating salad days. Vegetables are no longer the supporting cast—they’re the stars on the plate

It's a good thing I like nuts. At The Acorn--a warm space of dark-stained plywood walls and crafty jute-string lamps at Main and 24th--I started an evening's sampling of Our New Vegetarian Cuisine with a pâté built from walnut and portobello mushroom ($9). It was smooth, a little oleaginous, but nicely balanced with the sweet acidity of pickled shimeji mushrooms strewn atop.

The best moment was the presentation: the server set a Mason jar on the table and popped the lid. A puff of camp smoke djinni'd up from within and in that moment the loamy look of the spread, the timber of the walls, the smell of fire--our senses aligned and we were transported to a primeval woodland...with a decent cocktail program.


That was only the first of several tricks from chef/owner Brian Skinner, one of a brace of accomplished cooks opening intriguing and inventive meatless kitchens around town. Skinner (who staged at Copenhagen's top-reigning Noma) is keen on wordplay. Hen + Egg is a dish of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, beluga lentils, and poached egg, as well as reference to a famous Noma dish. He likes visual puns (that smoke curling off the chilled mushrooms), and even some taste bud trickery. My favourite dish was halloumi ($19), a salty semi-soft sheep-and-goat's milk cheese that Skinner batters and serves atop a zucchini fritter and a mash of green peas. The revelation was in the taste. I've been a vegetarian for almost 25 years, but I still remember what makes fish 'n' chips work: the right balance of salt, fat, lemon, tang, and squeak. This had all five in spades, without a halibut or even potato in sight. It's not a dish to replace the original but it does, as the server cheerfully predicted on presenting the tower, scratch the same itch.


Union Street's The Parker has been drawing a similar mix of gourmand vegetarians and carnivore lookyloos. In fact, the rooms share many elements: like Skinner, Parker chef Jason Leizert (ex-Boneta, but he worked with co-owner/bartender Steve Da Cruz at the Corner Suite Bistro De Luxe before) eats meat but wanted to open a restaurant that could celebrate local farms. Like The Acorn, The Parker is tiny (20 seats to The Acorn's 48), nicely designed, liquor-friendly, and crammed. We waited 45 minutes for a table at The Acorn on a Sunday night (there are no reservations) and almost that long at The Parker-with a reservation. Keep reading

 

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*Note to readers: the original print version of this article tagged The Union as home of the halloumi fish 'n' chips. This was incorrect. The dish is a product of The Acorn's vegetable wizardry.

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