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The meatless smoked-meat sandwich with miso poutine served by Malloreigh Hamilton and Kaylie Barflied at their weekly underground vegan brunch. (Malloreigh Hamilton/ The Globe and Mail/Malloreigh Hamilton/ The Globe and Mail)
The meatless smoked-meat sandwich with miso poutine served by Malloreigh Hamilton and Kaylie Barflied at their weekly underground vegan brunch. (Malloreigh Hamilton/ The Globe and Mail/Malloreigh Hamilton/ The Globe and Mail)

Alexandra Gill

Why are Vancouver's hungry vegan crowds forced to hunt for a meal? Add to ...

Vegetables have never been more fashionable.

From New York City, where the lardo-loving Mario Batali has embraced Meatless Mondays across his entire eatery empire and hired a full-time "vegetable butcher" at his gourmet megamarket, Eataly, to Las Vegas, where the newly converted casino magnate Steve Wynn has introduced vegan menus at every restaurant in his Sin City properties - green is the new black.

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So where is Vancouver's great vegivore restaurant? A couple of promising seedlings are to be found in a new catering company and an underground brunch series, but they haven't sprouted into full-grown establishments yet.

To the rest of Canada, Vancouver has always appeared to be at the forefront of the plant-eating, wheatgrass-chugging, healthy-living lifestyle. This is, after all, where the world's first commercial veggie dog (Yves) was created, and the bestselling dairy-free cheese (Daiya) is churned. Celebrity vegan chef Tal Ronnen is based here half the year. We even have a vegetarian mayor.

Yet when compared to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and even Seattle, our vegetarian restaurants really lag. Most are hippy dippy relics from the Summer of Love, ethnic mom-and-pop shops or raw-smoothie counters in dingy basements and industrial warehouses. The food typically ranges from mediocre to barely passable. And they certainly aren't the type of places you'd want to take your parents for their anniversary or impress a first date. The only moderately upscale meatless restaurant with candlelight closed a few months ago. It was housed in a yoga studio. 

What would a great vegivore restaurant look like? It would capture the elegance of Candle 79 in New York, where modern organic-vegan cuisine is presented in a fine-dining oasis with white tablecloths, biodynamic wine in crystal stemware and sophisticated service.

And it would incorporate the sustainable ethos of Raven's Restaurant in Mendocino, Calif., where haute contemporary vegetarian and vegan cuisine is sourced from local seaweed harvesters, seasonal foragers and regional organic growers.

But most important, it would give vegetables a starring role at the centre of the plate, rather than treating them - and the people who enjoy consuming them - as afterthoughts.

"It's all about featuring vegetables as a primary ingredient," says Vancouver chef Jonathan Chovancek. "It's not about mussels with arugula; it's about arugula with mussels."

Together with his partner, mixologist Lauren Mote, Mr. Chovancek has recently launched Kale & Nori Culinary Arts, a catering company that aspires to wow Vancouverites by showing us just how bold and modern vegetarian food can be. Their sample menus include such dishes as oysters & caviar (a kelp-brined lychee topped with spherified peach juice) and carrot dumpling (an orange Chinese wonton made with carrot juice, stuffed with carrot purée, Swiss chard, hazelnuts and black quinoa, and topped with a green-onion vinaigrette and a chili-dusted bok-choy chip).

"We want to create an experience that is on par with eating at any of the top restaurants in the city," says the highly decorated chef, who is currently searching for a permanent restaurant space.

Malloreigh Hamilton can't wait for this sort of eatery to arrive in Vancouver. "There is something so wonderful about going to a restaurant and just ordering off the menu," says the young vegan entrepreneur. "For so long, I've had to either invent my own menu item or say 'Put together all your sides for me and leave out the butter.' It makes me feel like a jerk."

Ms. Hamilton and her partner Kaylie Barfield were so tired of lamenting the lack of decent vegan options in Vancouver they decided to open their own underground restaurant. Every Saturday, they host a vegan brunch in their tiny Mount Pleasant apartment. The invite-only, by-donation event (on hiatus until August) has become so popular they typically feed 40 people each week. That's a full house of 10 guests at all four Saturday sittings; only about 20 per cent, on average, are full-fledged vegans.

"I just want to make beautiful food, that non-vegans will enjoy, with a lot of care and love in it," says Ms. Barfield, who plans to open a proper restaurant after graduating from culinary school.

And she does make beautiful comfort food, all from scratch. Her cheese-flavoured perogies with a lovely caramelized crust, faux-bacon bits and rich dairy-free dill cream would impress even the most old-fashioned Ukrainian. Her Montreal-style smoked seitan sandwich (slow-cooked for 24 hours, then roasted and thinly sliced) is a marvel of creativity. Poutine hash with vegetarian ricotta, wild mushrooms and truffle oil packs more flavour than most versions in town.

But is this - a caterer and an underground restaurant - as good as it gets? Why, when restaurants all over North America are putting plants on a pedestal, is the rest of Vancouver still dragging its knuckles in the dirt?

 

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