First Look: Grasslands, a longstanding vegan institution reincarnated on Queen West
By Caroline Aksich
Mustard crusted tempeh with maple mash, Chinese broccoli and seasonal vegetables, $18 (Images: Caroline Aksich)
When Fressen owner Stephen Gardner announced that he was shuttering his vegan stalwart last December, fans were despondent. Some speculated Gardner would trade in his fine dining establishment for another Urban Herbivore (Gardner’s other enterprise), while others acquiesced to that fact that maybe Toronto just isn’t a vegan-friendly city.
Luckily for the animal-product averse, Gardner has decided to throw his hat back into the Queen West restaurant ring. After a three-month renovation, Fressen has been reincarnated as Grasslands.
“We’ve been here for 13 years and it was time to freshen up,” explains Gardner as he plates a three-dip mezze ($9) composed of red lentil kibbeh, black olive tapenade and basil hummus.
The rebranded space is right on trend: with exposed Edison light bulbs, a pressed tin ceiling and dark pleather booths — softened by the ubiquitous use of wood — Grasslands fits in seamlessly with glut of new restaurants that have recently opened on the strip.
Gardner has played with the split-level space, creating a front entry with a bar-like feel. A window nook seats up to six, and the bar, the tables and the decorative wall piece that has the Urban Herbivore logo carved into it (Gardner hopes to foster a cohesiveness across his growing vegan empire) are all made from wood that was sustainably sourced from two northern Ontario maple trees.
The kitchen stops serving its regular menu at around 10 p.m., but tapas such as sliders ($11) and crispy oyster mushrooms ($11) are available until closing (around midnight on weekends). Bartender Tanaz Irani is still getting her bar set up, so the selection of beers was modest when we visited, but her traditional cocktail list has a few innovations on it that make drinking seem almost healthy — such as The Harvest (rye served with fresh apple juice and ginger juice, $10).
Despite the mod face lift, long-time patrons will be pleased to see that the menu still offers Fressen favourites such as the seitan roast (a gluten based “roast” stuffed with miso-date garlic gui-lan and served with a maple mash and seasonal vegetables, $19). The main difference between the old and new menus? Gardner is hoping to cash in to the gluten-free trend. The majority of the new dishes use alternative flours, including the corn rigatoni ($17), which is served in a celery root cream with shiitakes, leeks, spring peas and spinach.
Currently, Grasslands is only open for dinner service, but Gardner is hoping to start serving brunch and lunch over the next couple weeks.
Grasslands, 478 Queen St. W., 416-504-5127