Fresh Restaurant, Toronto, Canada

Fresh is on Spadina Avenue, near to Kensington Market, Chinatown and Queen Street East – an interesting area for tourists and hipsters alike. It’s an easy 10 minute walk to Osgoode Tube Station, or 20 minutes to Dundas Square, the centre of downtown Toronto.

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Before we talk about our experiences there, here’s a record of a chat we had with Fresh spokesperson Jennifer.

How would you describe Fresh, your core values, what’s generally on the menu, etc, to somebody unfamiliar with the restaurant?

We aim to offer vegan and vegetarian food and juice to all people, whether vegetarian or not. We try to have something for everyone, while still remaining true to our roots and staying on top of food trends.

Since our first days, we have made it our mission to prove that vegetarian food can be satisfying, energizing, and crave-able. Our food is made daily in-house, from whole, natural ingredients, and our juices are made right before your eyes. Our menu is totally vegan friendly, with dairy options available throughout. Our menu is full of items that are familiar and comforting, along with ones to satisfy the most adventurous eaters. At Fresh we try to make the world of vegetarian dining as approachable as possible. Our menu ranges from comfort food classics, like burgers, fries & onion rings, to healthy staples like kale & quinoa salads and noodle and rice bowls with steamed greens & grilled tempeh. On the juice bar, our menu ranges from fresh carrot and spinach juice and green smoothies to mint chocolate espresso shakes – all made to order right in front of you.

Do you cater for Gluten Free and Vegan as well as Vegetarian?

Our entire menu is vegan, except for the dairy options you can choose to add (cheddar and goat cheese that you can add to burgers, wraps or salads and milk & cream for coffee). But if you do not choose to add any of those things, you can be assured that your meal is vegan. We also have many items that do not contain gluten, and have a separate menu listing all of those items. We don’t classify these things as ‘gluten free’ though, since there is gluten in the kitchens, and we can’t guarantee that anything in our environment hasn’t come into contact with gluten.

Do you source your ingredients locally, and from organic sources?

For things that are available locally and in organic versions, we always try to go with that option.

For the benefit of a tourist who might want a taste of the city, are there any dishes on the menu at Fresh that are quintessentially Torontonian?

Well, our All Star was named the best salad in town by BlogTo, so I guess that one!

What’s your own favourite dish on the menu?

I go through phases of having the same dishes over and over again, and right now I am really into the Tiger Bowl and the Macro on soba with tofu steaks and both miso gravy and house dressing. But I’m also partial to the Picnic Burger.

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So, now let’s talk about our own experience at Fresh. We were surprised to find the restaurant so crowded at 5pm (we had to wait a few minutes for a table – no problem, we could wait inside in the warm and we were happy to see a health/sustainability orientated restaurant so popular). By the time we left at 7.30 there was a queue almost out the door for a table.

The interior is nicely decorated with chandeliers and walls scattered with large mirrors and block colours; the in house music was cool too – they even played New Order at one point! It was part poets cafe, part salon – if there was such a style as Beat Bourgeois, I think it’d refer to something like Fresh on Spadina.

The atmosphere was pleasantly different to a similar type of restaurant that you might find in my part of the UK. I’ve been to a couple of healthy option eateries in London and on both occasions I’ve had to spend my mealtime listening to my fellow over-loud (and in my opinion over-privileged) customers ramble on about advertising or what horse Daddy is going to buy them for their next birthday or what model cycle they get to work on and oh, how awful car drivers are. And then on top of that you have to put up with food that might be healthy but sure isn’t tasty… Thankfully it’s not like this at Toronto’s healthy restaurants, including Fresh. It’s wrong to say that Fresh is completely relaxed as the seating is very intimate – the tables are extremely close to one another – but it was calm and the sort of people that frequented the place were respectful of each other’s personal space (it’s very downtown Toronto in that sense). I guess the fact that the menu is a little pricier than the cities’ cheaper burger joints helps to ensure you’re going to share the space with a clientele that knows how to keep their voices low and their language civilized. In short, it’s the sort of non-rowdy place you could bring your family, your kids, your mom, your boss or your date to, or indeed somebody who hasn’t tried vegetarian food before but wants their first foray to be a success.

The service was fine, and considering that Fresh is a chain restaurant it was very good. You know how it is, at privately owned restaurants you usually find that the service is superb whilst at chain restaurants the staff’s smiles rarely reach their eyes; at Fresh it was nearer the feeling of a privately owned place than a chain.

We ordered drinks first. There was complimentary water already on the table which was a pleasant way to start – in so many European restaurants you have to ask for tap water and are often made to feel cheap for doing so. I didn’t see any fizzy water or other of the usual tricks on the menu which was a relief, it’s nice to eat somewhere honest.

I had the Super Buff Power Shake (acai & guarana, raspberry, almond milk, banana and sprouted chia & flax seeds) for starters. It wasn’t thick, like milkshakes I’ve had before, but it was deceptively filling. I didn’t realise at the time I was drinking it though. Only later, when we’d finished sharing the starters and my main had arrived and I felt kind of full already, did I think back and say, yeah, it makes sense that the shake filled me up. Just look at the ingredients, they’re a full breakfast for some! Raspberry was the dominant taste, although it wasn’t overpowering, and I’d say that this shake probably isn’t the ideal drink to have if you’re planning on eating a full meal, as we were. It’s lovely, but very filling!

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Kayla had the Shamrock Power Shake (matcha green tea, peppermint, banana, agave and almond milk). She said it was “a cool, minty power shake – the aesthetic of this drink lived up to it’s name. As tasty as a dessert but it didn’t leave me feeling heavy afterwards. It was satisfying enough to stand alone or maybe with a lighter dish, like a salad on the side.”

I agree with Kayla here; the Power Shakes are tasty, light and satisfying and perhaps best drunk alongside a salad or even a starter for lunch or a small pick me up anytime.

Lamia had the Hot Chocolate. She was sticking to hot drinks as she’s got a slight head cold right now. “This chocolate was different as it tasted very natural,” she said, “it’s not the overly chemically improved chocolate or sugary version you’d get at a chain coffee house.”

It’s worth saying something now so we don’t have to repeat ourselves too much; the drinks and food served at Fresh are going to offer a slightly different experience if you haven’t eaten at a healthy restaurant before. The chefs here don’t go for the easy win – the sugar/bold taste rush – that most restaurants try to impress you with. Their products just taste natural, the sort of thing your mum might make; it’s a different type of comfort food, comfort for the body and the mind, rather than the rush of instant gratification. That’s not to say it’s bland, for the most part that’s not true at all, and Fresh certainly isn’t like some healthy restaurants that require you to totally relearn what real foods tastes like in order to enjoy what they offer.

Later in the evening we ordered a second round of drinks. Kayla had the Beet Root Frappe (apple, beet, carrot, nutmeg and ginger). She said that “the beet root frappe was a stunning shade of off-red and was refreshing and delicious. No ingredient was left unnoticed by me and it was light enough to not take away from the main course I was drinking it with. This would be perfect on a hot day!”

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I had the gluten free Glutenberg Blonde Ale. I was intrigued to taste a gluten free beer, not because I’m a gluten free eater but because I always like to see how regular things taste when you take what seems like vital ingredients out of them. The answer is, not much different at all! All I noticed about this 4.2% lager was that it wasn’t artificially fizzy, that it was very pale in colour and that is tasted light and fresh. I’d totally recommend it to all lovers of beer.

Lamia had the Sweet Ginger Tea (green tea, maple syrup and raw ginger). She said “now this is an interesting one as I have Ginger Tea every time I’m ill so think that I know the drink well. This version was great and I am surprised how the huge pieces of raw ginger weren’t overpowering. It wasn’t too sweet, and was perfect for soothing my throat.”

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For starters we shared 3 dishes.

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Quinoa Onion Rings (hand-crafted, coated with breadcrumbs & puffed quinoa with creamy vegan mayo with garlic and a creamy avocado dip with a hint of smoky spice & citrus).

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This was a hit for all 3 of us. Not greasy at all, very crunchy and light. Lamia usually has a rather odd habit when it comes to onion rings. She usually breaks the ring and takes out the onion and then just eats the batter. With these though she ate the whole thing. “Not sure if it’s the quinoa that subdued the onion flavour, or that the onion was fresh and organic, but it tastes much better than usual”. Normally, onion rings and mayo is greasy, late night food but this was very different to that. And this was a theme that ran through all the dishes and drinks we tried. Dessert, burgers, felafel, dips, beer or shake – we were always surprised at how light they tasted. You may well come away from Fresh feeling satisfied and full but I don’t think you’ll ever come away feeling bloated.

The second dish we shared was the Soho Plate (herb falafel balls, quinoa & adzuki bean tabouleh, flax hummus, toasted pita, tomato & cucumber served with 3 dipping sauces: creamy tahini, spicy zhug and sweet amba).

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Lamia says she wouldn’t order this again as she didn’t really know how to eat it. “I get that there’s pita, and tabouleh, and falafel, but am I supposed to put the hummus on the pita, or what? Usually my falafel comes in a wrap, so I was confused by this. Or maybe it was just that I was too interested in the onion rings…” Both Kayla and Lamia thought the falafel bland. I, on the other hand, enjoyed it, and I do consider myself a lover of falafel and Middle Eastern food in general. I once toured Egypt for 6 weeks purely in order to taste falafel in as many towns and cities as possible, so I came out of that little journey with quite a knowledge of the dish. And for me, good falafel can take many forms. This format that Fresh serves up is part of a well thought out combination of flavours. If you like your falafel bland you can eat it straight, as it is. If you want it spicy or flavoured you’ve got the 3 dips to mix it up with, or the hummus, which is not too lemony or nutty, which shows a good handling of tahini. And there’s no right way of eating this sort of food, except that it’s best shared with friends over good conversation. So I loved this Soho Plate.

Our third starter was the Indian Dosas (spiced pancakes filled with curried chick peas & vegetables with coconut curry sauce, cucumber & toasted coconut).

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Lamia had never had a dosa before and this was an excellent introduction, it was a like an Indian crepe really. Flavourful – not too spicy – and good for sharing. The dosas I have had before have all been cooked by south Indian people and have been very crispy, not at all like these. I enjoyed the change. The dominant flavour for me was cumin so if I’ve any complaint it’s that I’d prefer the coconut to come through much more. I loved the chickpea filling though, that was nicely flavoured, relying on spice rather than chilly heat for it’s power.

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For a main Lamia and I had the house burgers. The Fresh high-protein, made-from-scratch almond & grain burger patty is served on a whole wheat bun with a side of marinated kale slaw. You could also try it without the bun — on a bed of lettuce or in a wrap instead.

I had the BBQ Burger (bbq sauce, quinoa onion rings, garlic mayo, napa cabbage, hot banana chilies, tomato & lettuce with aged cheddar cheese, grilled tempeh bacon and a side of regular fries).

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We also asked the waitress what dip would go with the burgers and she recommended the garlic mayo. It was a good choice. I picked my way around the fries and the salad first. The banana chillies were mid heat, I loved them, but the kale stew was one of those sides that taste healthy but are just a bit too bland for me to enjoy, even though I’m looking to enjoy the subtle flavours of whatever is put before me. The burger was well formed, lightly fried but also a little bland compared to the way I eat veggie burgers usually so I was glad I had the garlic mayo. This isn’t a criticism, I understand that many of the stronger flavours that we’re used to in our foods are chemically enhanced and no good for us at all so I’m happy to eat food that is so obviously not like this but at the same time, I am used to these strong tastes and do enjoy them. A conundrum! But happily, not one that is impossible to solve. At Fresh there is a variety of tasty, non-stodgy dips on offer than can flavour up the burgers. We had the garlic mayo but there was also BBQ Sauce, Curry Mayo, Thai Peanut Sauce and more. I think if I go to Fresh again I’d happily re-order this burger but perhaps I’d ask the waitress to put a double portion of the BBQ sauce on to start with, as that would suit my taste more.

The tempeh bacon was very nutty. I had never had tempeh before, it’s not something we get much of in the UK, but I liked it. Nothing like the veggie bacon we have back home as it’s not really got a bacon taste to it, but it was nice enough and added welcome slightly hard texture to the plentiful salad that went with the burger. Something to mention about the salad, the tomatoes were just so fresh. It’s so easy not to like tomatoes when you get the supermarket version, they’re usually watery, very bland and seemingly pointless, but when you eat fresh ones it’s a delight. The flesh is dense, the juice doesn’t spray out everywhere when you bite into them, the taste is subtle, lovely.

It was a big main meal, they certainly didn’t skimp on the portion size.

Lamia had the Standard Burger (tomato, lettuce, red onion, alfalfa sprouts, dill pickle & house mayo with aged cheddar and a side of sweet potato fries).

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This was Lamia’s first ever veggie burger – she’s usually a keen meat eater. “I didn’t miss the meat at all. The burger held together like meat would and it tasted filling, rather than there was something missing. Combined with the sprouts and other toppings it made for a colourful, crunchy dish. I did think the burger was slightly bland. The sweet potato fries, I started on these first, they were so light and sweet that I couldn’t stop eating them and didn’t even get to my burger for the first 5 minutes of having it before me. If I wanted to have a perfect morning in the summer I’d go for a run along the Harbourfront and then head up Spadina Ave, sit on the patio at Fresh and order these sweet potato fries and one of their power shakes. I reckon that would make for a perfect recovery lunch.”

Kayla had the Clubhouse Wrap (grilled tempeh bacon & seasoned crispy tofu steaks with tomato, lettuce & garlic mayo with avocado and aged cheddar).

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Kayla said “the portion of the wrap was very much larger than I’m generally used to. The vegetables tasted fresh and the tofu and tempeh were flavourful enough that they could fool mine or anyone’s taste palate into thinking it was real meat. I enjoyed every bite. This is one of the more simple items on the menu and I would recommend it for someone who has not tried vegetarian before.”

Then we all shared the Tangled Thai Salad (shredded carrot & yellow beets, jicama, napa cabbage, chopped peanuts, cilantro, cucumber, Fresh Salad Topper and peanut lime dressing).

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It was crunchy, colourful and I enjoyed the hint of peanut, which was the dominant taste. Combine this with a shake for lunch and I’d be in heaven.

Then it was time for dessert. Fresh desserts are all handmade by ‘Sweets from the Earth’, a local vegan bakery. The menu says you can “indulge your sweet tooth with these decadent treats, safe in the knowledge that they are all-natural, certified kosher, and baked without preservatives, refined flours or refined sugars.”

I had the Carrot Cake and the gluten free Walnut Brownie.

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We all shared our desserts and Lamia didn’t like that the Brownie was chewie, it took her much longer to get through her piece than she thought it would. I liked this aspect of it, it looked like a 2-bite brownie yet there were at least 6 mouthfuls hidden in that small size. It was chewy, true, but that wasn’t unpleasant at all, and I enjoyed the nutty flavours.

As for the Carrot Cake, the cake body itself was light and tasty. I thought the topping was too light though as I do enjoy my icing thick, you see. Don’t let this put you off; if you enjoy carrot cake and want a healthy version then this won’t let you down. However, for me, the girls’ desserts were more to my taste.

Lamia had the Chocolate Fudge Cake and said it was the only thing she had at Fresh that tasted like she’d expect other restaurant food to – very rich, flavourful and delicious, and definitely something to treat yourself with. I’d agree with that, it was excellent.

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Kayla had the Strawberry Cupcake. She said “it was the monthly dessert special for February. A fluffy body with a soft pink icing and a cute heart on top – it made me feel pretty just eating it! Also, eating this made me want to habitually find out what cupcake is going to be featured every month.”

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I had a spoonful and think that Kayla’s cupcake was my favourite desert. It has the same light icing as my carrot cake but perhaps because the cupcake is that much smaller it worked better in this format. Also, the strawberry flavour was so delicate, it was divine.

To finish, here are a couple of shots of the restaurant.

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Fresh is a great find for us. We recommend a visit for anybody who’s looking for healthy food or real comfort food – that is, tasty dishes that are good for you and free of the rubbish that infects so much of the other food on offer today. To discover more about Fresh Restaurants, please visit http://www.freshrestaurants.ca/

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