Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Grazing: Thoughts on Vegetarian eating in Toronto


Some people think that it’s hard to be a vegetarian, that if they try to give up meat, they’ll find themselves starving in the corner, cinching their belt one notch tighter and looking on enviously as the carnivores feast on fat, juicy steaks, or meditatively contemplating their moral superiority while ordering the side salad at McDonalds. My opinion is this: if it’s hard, maybe you aren’t meant to be a vegetarian.

I don’t see myself as a master of self-control for resisting the siren call of the bacon double cheeseburger. Instead, I see myself a picky eater. A very picky eater. There are foods I just don’t like and never will: artificial banana flavour, olives, mushrooms and meat. It’s not that the smell of a Christmas turkey in the oven doesn’t get my stomach growling, it’s that when it comes time to eat it, I can’t forget that it’s a turkey. A big ugly gobbling bird running around in the dirt that I am about to grab and take a big bite of. I just can’t circumvent that mental image. If you can, I say bon appetite.

The truth about vegetarian dining is this: you will rarely find yourself with nothing to eat. Virtually every restaurant has something for you on the menu, and those who don’t will often alter a recipe or put together a collection of side dishes for you. As a last resort, you can always order double dessert. (Food for thought: If the tomato is a fruit, pasta pomdoro contains the same food groups as a slice of cherry cheesecake: fruit, cheese and a refined flour starch. It’s practically health food!)

While most anywhere will suffice, there are lots of restaurants in Toronto that have something special to offer vegetarians. This space will feature my thoughts on some of my favourites. I’ll be gradually adding my reviews and random thoughts over time, but lest you think I’m holding out, I’ll start at the top:

In my opinion, the best vegetarian meal in Toronto is to be found at Biryani House. One can be forgiven for never having come across this gem because it is located in Roy’s Square, which is, let’s face it, an alley one block south of Yonge and Bloor. Even if you ventured down the alley, the unobtrusive ten-table space might not jump out at you. But looks can be deceiving. At lunch it serves a cafeteria-style buffet of perfectly decent choices, but it’s after five pm that it comes alive. The bustling dining room is overseen with the utmost efficiency and courtesy by a gentleman I believe is the owner, and alone he can provide a full house of hungry customers with better service than a team of 20 waiters of the kind you’d find at a suburban chain restaurant.

The menu is roughly 50 per cent vegetarian choices. Crispy appetizers such as pakoras and samosas with sweet-tart relishes warm up the taste buds, but the best of the bunch is the Dal Soup. Lentils cooked so long they’ve liquefied carry the perfect blend of spices, delivering just the right amount of heat without sacrificing flavour. Main courses always seem to arrive just as you finish the last spoonful. I’ve tried almost every vegetarian option on the menu (with the exception of the mushroom curry; this is a decision based on my own personal feelings about mushrooms. If you like mushrooms, I’m sure this dish would be good too), but harbor a fondness bordering on addiction for their Aloo Gobi Masala, and Eggplant. The first dish is a potato-cauliflower blend coated in a sunny yellow mix of spices, the second a stewed mix of tomato and eggplant mashed up to become so much more than the sum of its parts. Neither is hot-spicy but both are seasoned in a distinct yet complimentary manner. Served over nutty basmati rice and soaked up with a piece of fluffy naan bread which comes in servings big enough for two, every bite is perfect. There are desserts on the menu but I’ve never made it that far. A meal for two rings in at under $30 and I usually have enough leftover to eat for lunch the next day.

I’ve been to a lot of restaurants I’ve liked and oftentimes I’ll find one I’ll rave about. But if I keep going back, eventually I’ll be let down. I have been to Biryani House dozens of time and have never been disappointed. This is why I can confidently declare it to be the best vegetarian meal in Toronto.

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