Vegetarians are the most under-served diners in Vancouver. Doubt it? Try nabbing a table at The Acorn before 8 p.m. You will likely be out on the sidewalk, waiting in line for an hour.
Despite all the buzz and rave word-of-mouth reviews, I can't help thinking the local vegan-raw-gluten-free community is so desperate for a semi-upscale restaurant that its standards have slipped. Because as laudable as this modern, veggie-focused east end eatery may be, the food is really hit and miss.
Let's start with the good stuff – and some of the dishes at this stylish green bistro are indeed very good.
Take beet “ravioli,” for instance. Such a pretty plate. We were oohing and aahing over the pink candy-striped and golden-yellow discs, thinly sliced and layered over a smoothly pureed macadamia-nut filling, before we even had a chance to taste their respectively distinct sweet and earthy flavours. Who knew these swollen roots could be so expressive?
Exquisitely garnished with tart grapefruit segments, peppery radish ribbons, woodsy sorrel-infused olive oil and a bright cider glaze, this complex ravioli is exactly the type of dish one expects from co-owner Brian Skinner, a 32-year-old chef who spent five years working at Michelin-starred European restaurants (Viajante and Sketch in London, and Noma in Copenhagen).
His zucchini “tagliatelle” – cold julienned noodles tangled with edible flowers and the subtle crunch of candied olives over a creamy cashew rosé sauce – certainly towers above the lowly brown-rice standards doled out by most vegetarian restaurants.
But that's about as far as his creativity reaches.
A toothy kale Caesar salad tossed with crispy capers, smoky paprika croutons and sharp splinters of asiago cheese in an egg-free dressing is certainly alluring, although hardly groundbreaking. And who wouldn't appreciate the simple pleasure of a freshly sliced heirloom-tomato panzanella salad bursting with basil and roughly torn, toasted potato-scallion bread drenched in olive oil. (Although I do still believe both dishes could be vastly improved with a few mashed anchovies).
Perhaps if I were a vegan with no other options, I too would wax rhapsodic about this relaxed hipster hangout lined with dark-wood planters, where the sound of chirping birds is piped into the bathroom.
For the sheer ease of not having to ask if a full-bodied terrine of artichoke paté (adorned with zesty preserved lemon, walnut and shiso leaves) is made with dairy, I could probably overlook a surly French bartender who never makes eye contact, happily oblige when asked to shove over to another table just as we've started taking our first few bites and shrug it off when the mains arrive before we've finished our appetizers.
But there is no way, no matter how seriously devoted to a meat-free diet, that I would ever enjoy the Acorn's stinky “aubergine,” a tian of thickly mushy, tough-skinned rounds with barnyard-ripened taleggio melted over top.
The first time I sent this dish back, I gave the kitchen the benefit of the doubt. It was late on a Friday night. Perhaps the eggplant had been sitting under a warm salamander for hours and the kitchen had run out of greens. That would explain why the plate was served with a shovel of overcooked chickpeas and heat-puckered romesco sauce, looking like the amateur kind of mess a recently converted, 18-year-old vegetarian might proudly whip up in a dorm room.
So a few weeks later, I ordered it again. This time the chickpeas came dusted with toasted almonds, but they were still overcooked (as was the eggplant). And the cheese smelled even stronger.
“I'm not sure about this,” the reformed vegetarian who was with me demurred, politely forking the bland mash around his plate without taking a second bite. He didn't argue when I insisted we send it back.
Sweet corn soup, stewed with blueberries and strewn with cilantro, was another inedible mishap. Although it sounds like an odd flavour combination, it could very well have been delightfully innovative if the watery broth actually tasted like corn (which it didn't).
Beer-battered halloumi batons were fried to a nice golden crisp. But this mock version of fish and chips would have been better if the smashed peas weren't so stodgy and its soggy zucchini pancake (actually a rosti) had more grated potato.
French-pressed Costa Rican coffee is superbly dark and rich. And a short, smartly edited wine list is enticing.
But the desserts won't set your taste buds alight. Rhubarb confit is an ordinary jam-like preserve, crumbled with pasty short bread. Ginger-cacao cake, overpowered by cardamom and anise-preserved cherries, isn't the least bit sweet. It tastes like it's supposed to be good for you.
If I wanted wholesome and healthy, I'd go to The Naam or some other crunchy-granola hippy stalwart around town. The Acorn has been touted as a fresh new seedling. But apart from its dim lighting, funky décor and few standout dishes, it really doesn't fall far from the same old trees.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution