Do you remember when littering suddenly became taboo in the 80s? At the time, it was a bit strange changing our habits. But after awhile, people started recycling and carrying coffee flasks to clear their environmental conscience.
Today, a new shift is happening. We are reflecting on our meat and animal product consumption. I dare say, a heightened awareness of what we eat and where it comes from is bubbling up in Toronto’s urban consciousness. And Stephen Gardner, Owner and Head Chef of Grasslands, is here to welcome us (dabblers and activists alike), to take a walk on kind side.
Grasslands is a contemporary vegan tapas bar located in colourful Queen West. Yes, we all know this location used to house vegan favourite, Fressen. But change is the law of life and Stephen knew it was time to revamp your vegan dining experience.
“Establishing a new concept wasn’t difficult,” Stephen told me. “We opened the space to fit more tables, and moved the bar to the front window to act as a focal point. I love the design qualities of wood, and found a small independent carpenter to custom build the tables and bar area.”
To keep pace with the new look, the vegan menu was re-imagined – giving way to gourmet dishes created to include something for everyone (I’m looking at you, carnivores).
“With the new menu, my goal was to engage customers,” said Stephen. “Ultimately, I serve food that I want to eat. The menu at Grasslands reflects the meals that I have been inspired by and that I crave.”
Grasslands offers a variety of bar snacks, appetizers, mains and fresh cocktails. Creations range from truly plant-based to meat-inspired with herbs, spreads, breads, “cheeses” and juices all made in-house. Here are some highlights from the menu: Charcuterie Board (above): House made meats, cheeses, pickles spreads and bread. During my visit Grasslands prepared cilantro mango chutney, pickles celery root, homemade crustini, almond cheese, meatless sausage and pate and fig spread. For once, I do not miss the salty meaty goodness of my dark mistress; traditional charcuterie.
Avocado Salad (above): Kale and sweet mango, pickled onion crushed almonds, root chips, organic hemp oil. The kale and sweet mango stuffed avocado is complimented by the avocados crispy exterior and crunchy roots chips and the presentation is down-right charming.
Mixed Mushrooms: For me, this was the highlight. A sweet tangy mixture of savoury mushrooms topped with sesame seeds, this dish has me chasing the dragon. This dish a blend is sautéed king, oyster, shitake and button mushrooms with toasts and sesame spinach. Satisfaction is an evil master.
Grasslands also features a beautiful bar lined with vegan approved organic seasonal cocktails and wines. I sampled a wonderful Pinot Noir from Sibaris Reserve Chile, 2010 and the Harvest Cocktail, a refreshing mix of rye and fresh apple ginger juice made in house.
For over 25 years, Stephen has been building relationships with local suppliers to bring new and exciting products to his tables.
“Whether it be the farmers at the Ontario Food Terminal, or my organic grain company,” he told me. “It is reassuring to know exactly where the produce and grain comes from and the business owners by name.”
For plant-based food enthusiasts looking to expand their animal free repertoire outside of Grasslands, Stephen suggests heading to farmers markets and purchasing new or unknown produce or dining out at ethnic restaurants to enjoy great meals without compromising on taste.
No one is suggesting we all ditch the soft cheese and go vegan, but it’s important to remember that herbs, produce and grains are what make most dishes taste so good. All I’m saying is give peas a chance. And Grasslands is a great place to start.
478 Queen St. West in Toronto
To make a reservation call (416) 504-5127.
Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 5:30 – 10:00 and drink until last call. Closed Mondays.