It has been a year since I wrote about the rise of plant-based cuisine. In that time the scene has exploded. Besides exclusively vegan and vegetarian restaurants, many establishments (especially the hybrid, part coffee shop, part bakery) now offer an innovative array of plant-based and dairy-free options. Until recently vegans, vegetarians, and patrons adopting quasi-vegetarian diets in an effort to eat more healthily, routinely faced uninspiring, predictable meat-free dishes. We all remember restaurants serving the ubiquitous, poorly-executed mushroom risotto, token vegetable pasta or baked Portobello mushroom stack. The “V” symbol seldom, if ever, appeared on a menu, and more often than not you had to make do with a salad that was nothing more than a listless afterthought. Today you can frequent almost any respectable independent restaurant or café and find a menu adorned with those helpful “V” symbols that denote vegan.
As the market for non-dairy products increases, so does the diversity of options, including a variety of innovative non-dairy cheeses, ice creams and yogurts, along with a selection of nut and plant-based milks that are used to make them. Hazelnut, macadamia, cashew, hemp, flax, oat and quinoa varieties have joined the ranks of soy, almond and coconut milks. Fortunately, non-dairy cheese has made tremendous strides in terms of texture, taste and the ability to be melted. Good local examples of food artisans making vegan cheese are Helen Drummond of Main Vegan Deli in Glencoe, Nuts for Cheese founder Margaret Coon at the Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market at Western Fair, and Amarjit Singh at Local Dairy in Ingersoll. Speaking of culinary innovation check out zen’Za Pizzeria (formerly Rico’s Pizzeria Downtown). It’s known for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free thin-crust pizzas. In no particular order, here are the ten plant-focused hotspots that deserve your attention.
The Boombox Bakeshop, with its bright pink facade and entry doors flanked by two decorative lions, is situated in new premises at the corner of Adelaide Street and Princess Avenue. The bakeshop is a popular veg-friendly bakery and café specializing in vegan and gluten-free goods. The offerings include delicious (and stunning) pies, tarts, cupcakes, popovers, mini pies and other mouth-watering seasonal treats. There is a deluxe state-of-the-art Elektra espresso machine, a selection of teas, kombucha, and Patrick’s Beans coffee. There is a seating area to enjoy your treats in-house. Alexandra Connon creates purposeful partnerships with other local businesses that have a similar mindset.theboomboxbakeshop.com
Glassroots, led by Chef Yoda Olinyk and Sommelier Mike Fish, recently decided to close. In a statement posted on Facebook they said, “The last 16 months have been the best months of our lives but we have decided to choose our mental and physical health over 90-hour work weeks and everything that goes into running such a successful restaurant. We have new opportunities on the horizon and the timing is right to move on.” Chef curated a weekly list of what’s available from local farmers and then created a seasonal made-from-scratch menu based on those ingredients. Fish curated an all-Canadian wine list and innovative cocktails. Fish and Chef Olinyk will undoubtedly continue to be tireless and dedicated proponents of London’s vegan scene. Expect to see them at events and pop-ups this fall. www.glassrootslondon.com
Globally Local, billed as Canada’s first vegan fast food restaurant, opened last year at 252 Dundas Street in downtown London, right across from the Central Public Library. James McInnes had success earlier when he developed the “Big McInnes,” a vegan interpretation of McDonald’s Big Mac, which he offered on the menu of his McVegans food truck at local festivals. McInnes recently launched the “World’s First” 24-hour Vegan Drive-Thru — located at a former Harvey’s at Highbury and Cheapside. www.globallylocal.ca
The Ground Up Organic Café at Richmond and Piccadilly offers an organic, plant-based and eco-conscious menu that changes daily. Try the “No-Chicken Curry Wrap” or the “Chili Cheezy Potato Bowl”. The café features espresso drinks, smoothies and various grab-and-go items, including “Drop the Beet Slaw”. “Plant-based” puts an emphasis on real food. Everything at The Ground Up Cafe is by definition vegan, entirely free from animal and animal by-products. But they take it a step further to make sure menu items are health-promoting whole foods, prepared fresh. www.thegroundupcafe.com
Heather Pinsky’s Naturally Vegan Company is London’s boutique vegan kitchen. Pinsky prepares strictly vegan meals created especially for home or office delivery. All meals are prepared in the commercial kitchen at The London Food Incubator at 630 Dundas Street. Pinsky also offers themed, interactive vegan cooking workshops. Recent themes have included The Vegan Pantry, Middle Eastern, Italian, Mexican, and Sauces, Dressings and Condiments. Pinsky’s focus is healthy and “yummy” vegan food with a particular emphasis on baking. www.naturallyvegancompany.com
Plant Matter Kitchen, located in the heart of Wortley Village, is owned by Glenn Whitehead and business partner Melanie Wendt who are dedicated to health and wellness. PMK is the culmination of many of their passions, including healthy eating, organic cuisine, collaborative cooking and supporting local business. This wholly vegan, plant-based, organic restaurant has a distinctly back-to-the-earth vibe with an open kitchen and a modern urban sensibility. PMK features a smoothie and juice bar and offers chilled organic brews. Giving back to the community is part of the PMK’s mandate, making the eatery part of an ethics-driven model of business culture that adopts socially responsible practices. A second exciting iteration of PMK is expected to open soon downtown, in the former Braywick Bistro location. www.plantmatterkitchen.com
The Rhino Lounge Bakery Coffee Shoppe in Museum London has an in-house scratch bakery that brings plant-based options to a whole new level. You have to try Michelle Lenhardt’s vegan hybrid doughnut, homage to the cronut, available only on Thursdays. There is also a vegan dutchie and a brookie (brownie meets cookie). Lenhardt’s baking has a dedicated following as does her protein-based, gluten-free Mac ‘n’ Cheese and her vegan Horticulturalist Pie. Always the innovator, Lenhardt tells us that aquafaba (the liquid inside canned chickpeas) is the perfect egg-replacer and a versatile ingredient for whipping up vegan meringues or making vegan mayonnaise for her signature baked potato salad. Check out “Plant-based Wednesdays and Fridays.” www.rhinolounge.ca
The seeds for VegFest London were sown in 2013 when founder Krista Kankula, after attending the Niagara VegFest and Toronto Veg Food Fest, realised that London needed its own festival. Organised by a dedicated group of volunteers, VegFest London is an annual festival showcasing alternative food, health, and beauty products that are all vegan. The festival’s educational aims are further achieved through a speaker panel of noteworthy experts, live cooking demos and a dedicated resource area. Visitors of all ages are welcome to attend. VegFest 2016, held at the Western Fair District last November, had over 120 vendors and 7,500 attendees. This year VegFest will be held at Western Fair District’s Agri-plex. www.vegfestlondon.com
The Harvest Pantry partners with other local producers to offer wild foraged Chaga mushrooms, organic spices and sweet seasonal jams and jellies. If you are looking for lacto-fermented turmeric cauliflower this is the place! (The process is completely vegan and should not be confused with the term “lactose”.) Located at the Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market at Western Fair, the focus of Valerie Andrew’s food and small wares panty is on preparing small batch ferments, like kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, cultured mustards and chickpea miso. www.theharvestpantry.com
Dan Plamondon’s Wellington Market has opened in the revitalized space formerly occupied by the Organic Works Bakery and Revive Kitchen, bringing wholesome food to the SOHO neighbourhood. Plamondon believes in supporting farmers and partners like Organic Works Bakery, so he sources locally and uses organic ingredients whenever possible. This is the newest hot spot for vegetarian, vegan, omnivore-friendly and gluten-free, dine-in or grab-and-go. www.wellingtonmarket.ca