This was my second visit to the popular, vegetarian eatery on the U of T campus near Bloor and Spadina. My dining companion, John G., and I talked in some detail about why vegetarian hasn’t really caught on as a restaurant category. As I see it, the first battle that veggie restaurants face is that most people view eating out as something special, involving celebration, adventure, or entertainment and some expense. I imagine that for at least eighty percent of North Americans a vegetarian meal at home–pasta with a meatless sauce, vegetable soup, or a cheese omellete–is a choice motivated by convenience and economy. When we go out we want something special and for those who eat meat that means more than just vegetables. Secondly, there really is no equivalent to the sushi house’s chicken teriyaki or the bistro’s steak frites to satisfy dyed-in-the-wool meat and potato eaters and override their objections when selecting a restaurant with more adventurous companions.
John went for the deluxe burger. Frankly, I get confused when vegetarian food pretends to be the best that meat has to offer. I think I speak for most carnivores who love a good burger when I say that it is not the hockey puck shape or the ubiquitous lettuce, tomato and pickle (the ones at Fresh are excellent, though) toppings that we long for but the meaty, greasy, juices-flowing goodness that only six ounces of ground chuck and/or sirloin can deliver. Each to his own and JG says this was a pretty good veggie burger as veggie burgers go.
I had the Kathmandu wrap which features a delicious chickpea curry, tahini sauce, and the other usual suspects (tomato, lettuce, cucumber and sprouts). In my opinion the wraps and bowls are really the way to go at Fresh. I don’t know if I botched things (probable) but by the time I was ready to tackle the second generous half of my wrap the bottom had become soggy and it was falling apart. Chickpea curry with tahini is tasty but doesn’t look very appetising when it is being pushed around a plate with a knife and fork.
We both went with the sweet potato fries and agreed that they were unusually good. JG had the miso gravy with his and we both found that it was over-salted and much too thick. Vegetarian restaurants like to use meat words (“gravy”) and techniques (thickening a flavourful liquid with a roux) that are essential to cooking with meat. The problem here is that miso broth is too delicately flavoured to stand up to the butter and flour and the sauce was so tepid and thick that it was basically a fry-grabbing morass.
The service at Fresh is definitely not perfect. Everyone is friendly and efficent but at the same time they seemed inattentive and were never nearby. Upon arrival we were asked if we wanted to take one of the tables for two that is within easy elbow-reach of its neighbours or if we preferred to wait for a more spacious booth. We chose to wait. Ten minutes later we were led to one of the sardine can two-tops anyway–sometimes its best to just roll with the punches. The restaurant’s shoe box design that has the patrons face the long sides of the rectangle while the servers congregate at one of the short sides makes getting your server’s attention difficult. Somehow management needs to get servers to circulate and pay more attention to customers. Other high volume/low margin places on this strip of Bloor manage.
Fresh is a step above most other small (and large) chains in Toronto. The food does taste fresh and, intellectually I’m glad to see a vegetarian restaurant making a go of it. I won’t be rushing back here though. I guess I’m just too attached to the vibrant, all-sensory experience that is meat.