Urban Herbivore Restaurant (College Street Location) Toronto

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Urban Herbivore have three Vegan food outlets in downtown Toronto. We’d been interested in paying them a visit for a while as we were really impressed by their straight talking website (We do not use food factories or commercial bakeries to prepare our food. We honour a whole-food philosophy so that you receive a quality product without any preservatives, additives, or ingredients you can’t pronounce...”) and by their menu, so last week we paid a visit to the branch at 967 College Street. It’s a large place but you have to look for it relatively carefully as it shares the location with the Octopus Garden Yoga Centre, and although there’s the Urban Herbivore logo on the door itself it’s the Yoga Centre that has the larger sign on the building. Here’s a couple of views from the outside.

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We arrived around lunchtime and found it busy with yoga students and also casual visitors like ourselves. The area had seemed chilled and thoughtful as we’d walked from the subway station to the restaurant; across the street from the restaurant is a shop called Mystical Herbs, people passing us seemed as relaxed as they could be in temperatures of -5 and there were posters on walls and lamp posts advertising interesting happenings…

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This nice vibe continued inside Urban Herbivore. People sat comfortably – feet tucked under them on the wide, communal benches – as if they were at home and for those who just wanted to eat and do a little world watching the large glass windows were lined with stools.

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It was a large seating area, with space for about fifty people. Here’s Lamia and Dila settling in at our table.

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Before we get started on what we ate, here are a few more images we took of the interior.

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We were all pretty cold so we decided to start with a round of hot drinks before ordering food. The server explained that we could have either soy or almond milk; Lamia had a cafe mocha with almond milk.

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“The cup’s hot, just what my fingers need right now! And there’s a strong coffee aroma and taste. Quite frothy and overall it’s just how a mocha is supposed to be, not too milky or sweet.” (Lamia made this drink last through the meal, and later commented that it went perfectly with her dessert).

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I had a latte with almond milk.

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Like Lamia’s drink, mine was frothy and didn’t try to hide it’s flavour behind a wall of over-sweetness. It’s the first time I’ve had a latte with almond milk and I found the subtle taste of almonds matched the slight bitterness of the coffee and also ensured that it wasn’t too creamy a drink. I felt I got more out of the coffee flavour by drinking it this way, and also it didn’t feel as heavy as if it’d been made with regular milk, although it was just as satisfying.

Dila had a Numi Organic tea.

“It’s a green tea yet there’s a light hint of fruit,” she said. “It’s warming me up and calming me down at the same time.”

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Having warmed up, we took a look at the juice bar.

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I picked a green juice.

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It was made with kale, spinach, celery, apple, ginger and lemon, a brilliant combination, just green enough but not so the taste of the country was overpowering. I was already loving the Urban Herbivore experience by the time I tasted this. Our recent nine month tour of Europe had really instilled a love of subtlety when it comes to eating and drinking, rather than the quick highs that are experienced at so many food outlets who try to drown out their lack of real flavour with excessive use of sugar, salt and chili. This drink was vibrant and fresh, absolutely lovely.

Dila and Lamia shared a cranberry lemonade.

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This was made from cranberry, pineapple, lemon, organic cane sugar and mint.

“It’s like a slushy, very thick,” said Dila. “More lemony than cranberry. I like it but I have to say that I prefer the green juice. There’s a lot of lemon flavour in this drink here, it’s slightly overpowering for me but perhaps that’s because I’m from Turkey and we use lemon a lot, but in a certain way that’s very different to this, whereas the green juice is superb, no doubt about it. It tastes like a veggie disco in my mouth.”

We decided to share a salad bowl. I asked the server if the portion size was big enough to share and he said yes, it should be ok. The idea at Urban Herbivore is that you create your own salad from the array of toppings on display.

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The server told me to pick a leaf base of either spinach, iceberg or a rocket/bistro mix, then a meat substitute such as BBQ tofu, then to finish with six choices of toppings. I got the spinach with a hint of the bistro style leaf, the sesame tofu and then topped it with bruschetta tomato, chickpeas, snap peas, broccoli and then I ran out of ideas. It was like being in a gelato shop in Italy and having to choose three flavours from a choice of ten delicious looking ones. Perhaps easy to do if you’re mega experienced in such things but I’m not and plus, even if I was, I like to try new things, so I asked the server to recommend a final two more toppings and then choose a dressing that’d work well with the whole dish. He was happy to do so and I must say, he knew what he was doing as it turned out to be an amazing salad.

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It was, as you can see, well dressed (if you want it drier then you should ask for that). Some salads don’t need that much dressing – a basic rocket salad for example – but this one thrived on the lemon tahini and carrot sesame mix.

“It’s amazing,” said Dila, “like a cross between a meze and a salad.”

“Best salad I’ve had in Toronto,” said Lamia, who’s lived in the city for the past eleven years. I had to agree. It’s hard to talk about the best salad in the world as I’ve been on the road for the past few years and passed through over sixty countries (so I’ve eaten a lot of salad!) but I can’t think of a better one than this one. There was an incredible mix of texture and flavour.

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We also decided to share a Moroccan stew. We were asked what grain we wanted with it.

“Rice is standard,” the server said, “but you can also have quinoa if you like.” We chose quinoa as none of us had ever tried it before in this format.

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“It’s not a watery or loose stew, it’s more like a curry,” said Lamia. “I really like it. The vegetables are tender but not mushy and the tomatoey style sauce is interesting.” It was certainly the Urban Herbivore’s own version of a Moroccan dish. I enjoyed it too. We’d spent six weeks in Morocco during the past year eating out every night so we were pretty well versed in the cuisine, and I could detect hints of it in this dish. The cumin, the depth and heartiness, the slight spicy hit, these are all things you can expect to have in your food in Morocco although I’d venture to say that you’d never eat anything like this there unless you found a contemporary restaurant in Casablanca, or perhaps Marrakech. The only slight issue for me was that whilst quinoa is said to be very healthy, I didn’t think it was an improvement on couscous from a taste and texture point of view. But that’s personal, I just like a little more moisture in my grain. It wouldn’t hold together as well as the quinoa did, for sure, but I guess it’s what I’m used to. Maybe a bit more experience with quinoa and I’ll come round to it. I’ve certainly got to find out more about the grain. The press is often talking about how the Western trend for quinoa has skyrocketed prices of the crop for the rural people in the countries where it’s grown, to the extent that many can’t afford to eat it anymore. How true this may be is worthy of investigation. I used to believe in the Organic and Fair Trade labels before I dug a little deeper and now know differently than to rely upon them, so perhaps the same is true of quinoa’s recent bad press.

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We each ordered sandwiches. The server asked if we wanted wholewheat bread or rosemary.

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I got a BBQ Tofu on Wholewheat.

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I loved the bread. We all did. And one thing that struck me as all the dishes were laid out on the table were the vibrant colours. I understand that this isn’t meant to be fine dining but it did seem like a degustation menu at times when you looked at it from a point of view of pleasing all the senses. The sandwiches looked great, felt reassuringly substantial (we were hungry!) and tasted amazing!

My sandwich filling was made up of basted tofu, bruschetta tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, red leaf lettuce and lemon tahini. The tofu was firm, had a lot of bite to it. Perhaps normally with a sandwich I might have a dip like mayo or ketchup on the side but the lemon tahini dressing made the salad loose and moist enough so I didn’t find it necessary. It was also a fair portion size, and definitely large enough for the average person to enjoy on their own for a filling lunch.

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Lamia had the BLT sandwich on Rosemary Bread.

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“I love the crunchy bread,” she said. “And the textures are excellent. It’s filling is made from smoked coconut bacon, crispy tempeh, sliced tomato, red leaf lettuce and cashew mayo. It’s a very interesting take on bacon; this coconut bacon tastes really good! It’s a very colourful and hearty sandwich, very fulfilling.”

Dila found it tasty too, you can see her tucking into Lamia’s sandwich in the photo below.

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Dila had the grilled vegetable sandwich on Rosemary bread.

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“The filling is seasoned zucchini, peppers, sweet potato & eggplant, bruschetta tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, red leaf lettuce and lemon tahini,” Dila said.” I love the Rosemary bread, superb. I’m not sure that sweet potato is a good idea as a filling – I tried it as I was curious how it would work – as its bread on potato, carb on carb, and the sweetness overwhelms slightly and doesn’t allow the other subtle flavours, such as the zucchini, to shine through. The salad dressing is yummy and gingery though, so overall it’s a pleasant sandwich.”

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To finish we chose from the dessert cabinet.

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Lamia got the chocolate cupcake with red sprinkles.

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“This is a dreamy cupcake,” Lamia said. “Fresh and soft, creamy icing with plenty of sugary sprinkles, it’s made me feel very cute and girly. It’s a delicious ending to a satisfying vegan meal. I’d come back again for sure just to try another sandwich, and more cupcakes!!”

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Dila chose the Vanilla cupcake.

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“I don’t like it,” said Dila. “It’s too hard. I love Lamia’s chocolate cupcake, but mine’s very different.”

I could see what she meant, although I really liked her vanilla cake. If you don’t have any expectations of how a cupcake should be – and I don’t as I understand that with vegan baking the results might sometimes be very different to what you’re used to, although every bit as good and probably far more healthy – then it’s a pleasant dessert. For me, eating vegan isn’t about eating food that tastes as good as if it had animal products in it, it’s about eating good food that’s been created without harming animals and with the health of myself and the world in mind. That means sometimes opening myself up to a new range of flavours, textures and eating experiences, and so for me this cupcake was every bit as good as Lamia’s, even though it was a little denser in texture.

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Finally, for my dessert I had the trail cookie.

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I could see the list of ingredients and being a long distance runner whose into his nutrition I knew that they were all super good for me.

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It was also very tasty! Crunchy outside, soft inside and of a solid thickness.

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I could just about pick up a hint of cinnamon above any other ingredient as every taste was subtle, just how I like it. In keeping with my whole meal it was enjoyable to eat yet didn’t feel unhealthy at all. I tried both the girl’s desserts and they were nice yet I liked my trail cookie the best.

By the end of the meal we’d all eaten quite a lot of food each but all agreed that we didn’t feel bloated or too full, just satisfied. We also agreed that we’d definitely re-visit the Urban Herbivore. Amazing salad, superb sandwiches, relaxed atmosphere, knowledgeable staff and on top of that we know that we’re giving our business to a company that has sound ethics. Local and fresh is the way to go, served up by people you trust, and for me the tell-tale signs at Urban Herbivore are all leading in a very good direction, and it’s a direction that I’d like to be heading in.

If you’d like to discover more about Urban Herbivore, please visit http://www.herbivore.to/

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