Blintz On Tour: Early Bird Espresso & Brew Bar, Toronto

I was loving Toronto, but the one thing I was missing was a proper coffee. I’d been relying on Tim Horton’s to keep me awake during film screenings, and while it was leagues preferable to Starbucks I got to a point where I just needed a coffee that tasted like coffee, not French vanilla.

I’d noticed Early Bird Espresso & Brew Bar on my walk looking for Grasslands a week earlier, and noted it down as a likely possibility for good coffee. It reminded me of Melbourne cafes a lot, with lots of exposed brick walls, chalkboard menus and LOTS of coffee machines and paraphernalia purring or bubbling away.

I nearly cried with joy at seeing a flat white listed on their menu. It was a very sharp, bordering on bitter initial flavour hit – these are clearly some hefty beans they are using here – but the further into the cup you go that sharpness starts to level out. It never quite gets to a smooth, sedate flavour profile, but hey, at least you know you’re drinking coffee. Also the barista knew how to pour a flat white PERFECTLY, I may have experienced a significant stab of homesickness at the sight.

I ordered myself a little brunch as well – a tomato and soft-boiled egg sandwich with rocket on olive paste sourdough. I couldn’t go past the idea of a boiled egg sandwich, to the point where I bypassed my usual olive trepidation. I normally find olives far too overwhelming, they tend to blot out other flavours for me, but the balance here was spot on, with the toasted olive sourdough nicely coupling with the fresh, lightly salt-and-peppered tomato and thin slices of boiled egg with their creamy yolks.

There’s plenty of pastries and cookies available as well, along with sweet brunch options of yoghurt pots or chia seed puddings topped with a variety of fruits and nuts. While I didn’t notice anything obviously vegan, considering they served a pretty famous vegan a few days before my visit I’m going to guess that they can cover you.

Early Bird is a great spot for anyone hankering for a drop of the good bean, and especially so for antipodeans longing for a coffee that possesses a whiff of home.

Early Bird Espresso & Brew Bar

613 Queen Street West, Toronto

Ph: +1 (647) 962 4204

www.facebook.com/EarlyBirdBrew

Blintz on Tour: Grasslands, Toronto

The funny thing about Toronto is that the subway doesn’t operate on a Sunday until 9am. This obviously made it a little difficult for me to get to the 9am film screening I’d planned to attend on this particular Sunday, but no matter – instead I decided to go on a nice long walk through the University and Chinatown, ending up on Queen Street West in the hope that Grasslands might be open at the end of my hike.

Steph was so effusive about her visit to Grasslands back in June that before I left for Toronto she essentially grabbed me by the lapels to shout “GO TO GRASSLANDS OR YOU WILL BE FORFEIT TO ME AS A PERSON.” Well, I did not want to be FORFEIT, so I was pleased that Grasslands was indeed open by the time I loped into the Queen Street neighbourhood.

I remembered Steph heartily recommending the hangover plate, but I liked very much the sound of a morning burrito, so went with the breakfast burrito: house scrambled tofu, corn, black beans, mushrooms, daiya cheddar cheese, onions, peppers and guacamole wrapped in a flour tortilla, served alongside a house salad of dressed greens, cabbage, red onion and slivered almond bits, another mound composed of house fries, and, delightfully, two pieces of watermelon.

The meals at Grasslands are served on these long platters with each component laid out end to end, which is perfect for weirdos like me who like their food SEPARATE, for ease of individual component tasting. Moving down the platter, firstly the breakfast burrito was nicely sized, big enough to feel like a solid handful, but not, you know, the size of your head, which is initially exciting but ends up after a while feeling like the kitchen is just trying to intimidate your stomach. The tofu mixture inside was properly spicy and will definitely wake you up should you be having a sleepy morning. Also, everyone was right about daiya being the only vegan cheese worth bothering with – no nasty chemical overtones, actual proper cheesy taste achieved. I’m not sure what is stopping daiya from being widely available in Australia but we have to get on that, stat.

The salad was lightly dressed in a mayo-ish sauce and provided an excellent creamy crunch. Also crunchy were the fries, and I would like to put forward that my Official Stance is that fries for breakfast are entirely acceptable and I would like to see more of it, MORE I SAY. And of course the sweet juicy burst of watermelon to finish and cleanse the palate was a very thoughtful touch.

Grasslands also has a nicely varied drinks menu. While I could of started the morning in an alcoholic fashion with a breakfast cocktail I decided to be slightly sensible for once and instead chose one of the mocktails, a cucumber lemonade complete with a sugared glass rim, all tart and refreshing and just what was required to hit that spot.

Steph was right (she always is) that Grasslands was a Toronto must. You must, you must, you must.

Grasslands

478 Queen Street West, Toronto

Ph: +1 (416) 504-5127

www.grasslands.to

Blintz on Tour: Bunners, Toronto

Two doors down from Hibiscus is Bunners, a vegan and gluten-free bakery. Toronto doesn’t seem to lack for vegan bakeries – I was devastated to discover too late to visit the existence of Apiecalyspe Now in Mirvish Village because IT WAS A VEGAN BAKESHOP CALLED APIECALYPSE NOW, THAT IS A-GRADE PUN WORK – and if Bunners is any indication of the general standard of vegan baked goods in Toronto then veg*n Canadians are disgracefully lucky.

Faced with an array of cupcakes, danishes, cookies and pie slices, I was a little overwhelmed for choice. Upon noticing though that they were down to a single butter tart, I knew that it had my name on it.

Butter tarts are a particularly Canadian dessert and usually involves, you guessed it, an obscene amount of butter, so I was very curious to see how a vegan version would pan out. It panned out like so: flaky, deceptively light yet decadently buttery pastry encased a golden, custard-like filling that was creamy, slightly greasy in a good way, and wholly melt-in-you-mouth delicious. I was immediately sad that there was only one to eat, yet simultaneously EVER SO SMUG IT WAS MINE.

I also took away a ginger molasses cookie with me, which I ended up eating for breakfast the next morning (cookies are a PERFECTLY CROMULENT holiday breakfast food, okay?). Nearly the size of my hand, top covered in fat cubes of granulated brown sugar and a piece of crystallised ginger marking the centre, it gave away easily when bitten and burst forth with a spicy, ever so satisfying mouthful. Your wouldn’t have realised it was vegan AND gluten-free if you hadn’t of been told.

I highly recommend Bunners as a must-visit on the Toronto veg*n trail. Pair it with a visit to Hibiscus and reward your vegie bowl health with a perfectly crafted sweet treat.

Bunners

244 Augusta Avenue, Toronto (there’s also a second location at 3054 Dundas Street West)

Ph: +1 (647) 350-2975

www.bunners.ca

Blintz on Tour: Hibiscus, Toronto

I was honestly very lucky to have so many friends who had traveled to Toronto in the past few years who were more than eager to give me food tips, eliminating my having to do a lot of strenuous research and soothing my lazy soul. Hibiscus came highly recommended by Carla, who rated it among her best Toronto food experiences.

The first thing I appreciated about Hibiscus was the CALM. It’s situated in the middle of Kensington Market, which seems to be Toronto’s hippy-dippy alternative heart (a bar was advertising “Spliff Reggae Night” if you want to get the general vibe) and is quite bustling, but as soon as you enter Hibiscus this heavenly, relaxed sense of calm descends.

Hibiscus keeps things simple. You essentially have three savoury options: soup, salad, or a selection of savoury and sweet vegan crepes. Since all I could see around me were folks tucking enthusiastically into bowls of salad I figured this was the best way to go.

The bowl is nicely hefty, but not completely belly stuffing, really the perfect amount. And it’s a generous bowl in terms of fillings, featuring on this particular day quinoa, broccoli, kidney beans, tofu cubes, brown lentils, shredded kale, grated beets and carrot, a kind of rough sweet potato mash, served with a thin square of raw cracker and topped with a little mound of cellophane noodles. A terribly attractive bowl of colour it was.

I really like this tendency in Canadian vegie eateries of “here, this is a big bowl of ALL THE THINGS, mix and eat to your heart’s content.” They’re great in terms of offering a meal with a variety of textures, and if all the flavours work then its just a delight of a thing. In this bowl particularly I loved the beets, the excellent sweet potato, the noodles that provided an exciting contrasting bite, and the bright pieces of broccoli that had been blanched just enough and allowed to infuse with some kind of light dressing. It all presented a front of being very simple, yet underneath it all very, very clever.

Did I also mention that the entire menu is gluten free? Yeah, yeah it is. And there’s a cold cabinet filled with ICE CREAM. Hibiscus is the BUSINESS.

Hibiscus

238 Augusta Avenue, Toronto

Ph: +1 (416) 364-6183

hibiscuscafe.ca

Blintz on Tour: Sadie’s Diner, Toronto

Sadie’s Diner was another Toronto vegan landmark that came highly recommended by Michael, and his recs weren’t steering me wrong, so I took myself out early one morning before my films started for the day to find the place. It wasn’t hard: it’s a bright blue house on a corner down Adelaide Street West.

Sadie’s does veg*n diner food, as you may have guessed from the name, and you can expect a lot of scrambles, fry-ups, waffles and pancakes on their menu. I was indeed tempted by sweets (the chocolate chip pancakes ALONE), but thought it was probably more sensible to have a hearty savoury dish under my belt to get me through a lot of films. So alongside a tall glass of cranberry juice I went with the tofu scramble with home fries, vegan sausage and rye toast.

The scramble was indeed hearty, threaded through with liberal amounts of spinach and red onion. I did find it a tad dry, but this is a problem I tend to have with tofu scrambles across the board, so do not blame Sadie’s. The home fries were smoky, slightly herbed cubes of delight – you know that I have never looked askance at a good potato, and I am now all aboard the home fries train.

The vegan sausage was the most intriguing and surprisingly most delicious component, chewy on the outside with a tough skin yet packed full of flavour within. It might perplex others texturally but with a thump of the ketchup bottle I was in heaven.

Sadie’s is definitely a place you should take a look see at if you happen to be in Toronto’s woods. I’m STILL nursing a bruised sadness that I didn’t make my way back to have a crack at all the sweet breakfast options. Ah well, next time.

Sadie’s Diner

504 Adelaide Street West, Toronto

Ph: (+1) 416 777-2343

www.sadiesdiner.com

Blintz on Tour: Fresh, Toronto

I took to Fresh like a newly minted cult member. This is only slightly hyperbolic a metaphor. I was in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival, and when one is seeing upwards of five films a day, food becomes a very pressing concern, and it can’t just be any food, as salty processed stuff just ends up making me sluggish and more prone to tune out during a flick. For preference it needs to be healthy and hearty stuff, while also being served quick enough that I have plenty of time to duck out between films to refuel.

I’d already been recommended Fresh by a couple of folks who had been to T-town relatively recently, and on discovering there was an outpost on Spadina Avenue a few blocks from the cinema I’d be spending most of my time in, I visited on my first day. And then went back, no lie, nearly every day. I was fanatical, swift and deep.

The reason Fresh struck such a chord with me, apart from my very exacting film festival food requirements, was that everything was simultaneously healthy and delicious, with a wide breadth of options. Indeed, within ten days of visits I didn’t end up ordering any dish twice, I kept being beguiled by something new every day.

My favourite dish all over was probably my second Fresh meal, the panko crumbed squash tacos. These were definitely not eat with your hands tacos as the fillings were so multitudinous that there’s no way you’d be able to trap them all in a tortilla. The two of them spilled forth with tomato, red onion, kale, coriander leaves, fat little nuggets of crispy crumbed squash, and drizzled with creamy jalapeno lime sauce. Squeeze over a wedge of lime and attack with a knife and fork, and it was a zingy delight.

For a quick injection of health, their huge selection of salads and bowls were a great choice. The ‘ace of kales’ salad was an explosion of vegetables, with a kale base supporting heirloom grape tomatoes, spring onions, avocado, jicama, toasted mixed nuts, and thick slabs of tempeh bacon. I did find the tempeh bacon just a bit too sweet for my liking, but otherwise who could sniff at such a bowl of goodness? The green goddess bowl, which had already come with Steph’s seal of approval, was served on soba (you can choose rice instead if you would prefer) and came with broccoli, pickled ginger, grilled tempeh, toasted sunflower seeds, tahini sauce and steamed greens. It was lucky I ordered a baby-sized bowl of this, as despite the deliciousness it was an absolute stuffer for my tiny Australian belly!

Michael had been VERY INSISTENT on Fresh’s quinoa onion rings being a must-try item. I first had them as a component of the BBQ burger, which along with the rings comes with an almond and grain patty, banana chilies, napa cabbage, tomato, lettuce and garlic mayo. As a burger it was huge and quite overwhelming, and quickly had to be reduced to its parts in order to be easily eaten, but it revealed that the quinoa onion rings were indeed devilish magic and needed to be sampled further. So on a later visit I dutifully ordered them alongside a cup of Cuban chickpea and sweet potato soup. Served with vegan dipping mayo, the solo onion rings properly proved themselves to be appropriately off tap. Let’s all be deep frying quinoa, it is clearly a boss idea.

The only thing I had which strayed off the healthy agenda (okay apart from the onion rings, but they don’t really count, they are our crunchy friends in a bowl) was the green poutine. Now you might think from the word ‘green’ that surely it would be somewhat healthy, but that shows your unfamiliarity with poutine. Chips, cheese and gravy are still chips, cheese and gravy, even if the gravy is made of real mushrooms, even if the cheese sauce is a creamy vegan alternative, EVEN IF it is topped with sauteed rainbow chard. THE GREENERY IS A TRAP! This is still poutine, and it will sit in your tum like delicious potato concrete, and even if you roll out the door groaning there will be no regrets. THIS IS POUTINE.

Fresh also have a selection of takeaway sandwiches, baguettes and salads, which were very helpful for those gaps between films that weren’t long enough for a sit down meal. I very quickly found my favourite in the mock turkey with aged cheddar sandwich, with salad bits all held together with a light mayo. Mock meaty sandwiches are something that I really wish I could get around Melbourne easily.

Given Fresh places equal emphasis upon it’s juice bar status as it does their food, I can’t wind up without saying a bit about the drinks menu. Basically you can get any fruit and vegetable known to man whizzed up into a juice or smoothie. My particular favourite was the Grapefruit Glow, comprising of grapefruit, cucumber, lemon, fresh mint, agave and mineral water, and was a bubbly, zingy pick me up. There’s also plenty of green smoothies and juices – thankfully Fresh follow the rule of ‘make sure your proportion of sweet fruits outweigh your greens so that it doesn’t taste like iron-rich sludge’. I also recommend, in the case of a slightly ticklish throat and sluggishness brought on by too many doughnuts, the Ginger Fireball, which juices up a bunch of fresh ginger and lemon with hot water and your choice of either raw honey or agave, it’ll strip any trace of ill feeling from your body and throw it at the nearest wall.

This is probably the most comprehensive review I’ve ever given on this blog, hence the fact it is running to such a huge number of effusive words. I ate more of Fresh’s menu in a week than I’ve managed at most of my regular Melbourne haunts in a year. And I already miss having such an easy, healthy veg alternative that ticks all those veg*n eating options yet isn’t hippy-dippy or aggressively hipster, and just puts its head down to pump out good, quick, yet still interesting food. Could we perhaps open a Melbourne outpost, Fresh HQ? I think you would do very well here.

Fresh

147 Spadina Avenue, Toronto
(other locations on Queen Street West, Bloor Street West and Eglinton Street West)

Ph: +1 416 599 4442

www.freshrestaurants.ca

Hellenic Republic

Do you know how long I have waited to eat at Hellenic Republic? ALL OF MY LIFE. Or at least it seems that way. For years I’ve been trying to lock it in as my preferred birthday blow-out treat venue, but as I share these outings with my mother as our birthdays are mere days apart, and she has the shocking temerity to not like Greek food (WHAT), it was not to be. Thankfully when catching up with Jen and Zoe for a long overdue dinner of awesome, Jen had the good sense to book at table at Hellenic, throwing me into an excited/nervous maelstrom of “oh yes FINALLY but will it be good oh god I hope it’s good.”

Zoe had thankfully been to Hellenic many a time, and had the good oil on what we should order. As long as we finished on the loukoumathes, the Greek doughnuts that have become chef George Columbaris’ specialty and have long been haunting my most covetous dreams, I was very happy to accept whatever showed up. And very happy I ended up indeed.

To start we went with a pair of dips with grilled pita bread, because I can’t pass up the chance to slather bread in things. The tzatziki of cucumber, dill and olive oil drizzled yoghurt was agreeably tart, but my heart was immediately taken by the fava Santorini – yellow split pea dip with white truffle oil, capers, and shallots. THIS DIP WAS BROUGHT DOWN FROM OLYMPUS BY SOME WILY HERO THIEF OF ANTIQUITY, THIS IS MY FIRM BELIEF. Because how else could it have been so outrageously, surprisingly good? I don’t ordinarily expect dips to rate among the best part part of a meal (who does) but this was extraordinary and a must order.

Our other starter was the tyri saganaki kefalograviera with peppered figs. I’m always happy to eat up hot salty cheese like it is manna, but felt slight trepidation about the idea of a peppered fig. I should not have been so silly and trusted in George, as it turns out peppered figs are quite delightful, the sharp burr of peppery heat mellowing out against the fig’s sweetness so that with the salty cheese it was a fantastic hot-savoury-sweet taste melange.

The Cypriot salad of grains, pulses, nuts and yoghurt was our concession towards vaguely healthy eating, and it was a very good choice indeed, being very nutty, lightly dressed with olive oil yet allowing the simple grains to pop against the tart yoghurt.

And immediately directing spite at any sense of healthy eating was the next dish, the Tiganites Patates – potatoes fried in olive oil, and flaked with oregano and salt. You probably don’t need yet another description from me about crispy fried potato, so I will spare you, but it was good, ever so good.

As my vegie main I got for myself a spanakopita, which as we all know is a Greek cheese and spinach pie in flaky filo pastry. A nice round of a pie, it was light and flaky, not at all greasy or oily, a nice salty golden pillow threaded with green.

I was growing dangerously full by this point, and was worried at the fact I still had two desserts to sample! The much longed for loukoumathes were first – Hellenic doughnuts generously drizzled with honey, dusted with cinnamon and then topped with scattered walnuts. These were as divinely sweet as the description implies, puffed balls of dough liberally coated in thick, oozy, sweet sweet sweet honey. They were in all honestly probably a bit too rich for their own good, we actually couldn’t finish the bowl between the three of us! But they were still very worth trying, I would just recommend either eating less before they are scheduled to hit the table (a very difficult proposition), or having more people to share them with.

Our second dessert was the Bougatsa me Frouta tou pathous – semolina and passionfruit custard pie, encased in filo pastry and topped with vanilla ice-cream. This was the secret stealth winner of the whole meal. Akin to a round roll version of vanilla slice, it was a gorgeous rich custard delight, bright yellow and decadent yet not at all heavy once settled in your stomach, it was somewhat a feat of wizardry. Zoe informed us that this is a dish commonly served for breakfast in Greece, which seems enormously unfair in comparison to cereal and means we should all probably pack up and go to Greece tomorrow.

So did Hellenic Republic live up to my wild expectations? Yes, and then some. The staff were a delight and enormously professional while still being friendly, the space although large manages to make you and your table of diners feel they have an intimate cocoon, and the food, as gushingly detailed above, was well worth the wait. I hope I don’t have to wait as long for a second helping.

Hellenic Republic

434 Lygon Street, East Brunswick

Ph: 9381 1222

hellenicrepublic.com.au