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review

Unlike meals at most vegan eateries, a dinner at Rosalinda doesn’t feel like penance.Alexa Fernando

  • Rosalinda 
  • Address: 133 Richmond St. W.
  • Atmosphere: Vegan Mexican food in a modernist greenhouse-themed room.
  • Price: Shared plates ($11-15), tacos ($14), mains ($13-18), desserts ($8)
  • Drinks: Cocktails ($12-$15), draft beer ($8.5-$9), ten wines by the glass ($12-15)

Rating:

2 out of 4 stars

Vegans are a touchy bunch.

I’m eating at Rosalinda, the new Mexican vegan restaurant in Toronto’s financial district, and the roasted eggplant becomes a surprise subject of debate. I liked the dish; my vegan friend resented its existence on the menu.

The eggplant, served with pomegranate grains, cashew cream and a Mayan pumpkin seed-based condiment, hits all the right notes: smoky vegetable, nutty sauces and acidic fruit mix brilliantly. My friend, however, could barely bring himself to eat it. Roasted eggplant is a cook’s crutch at wedding banquets, he claims, the unimaginative option for vegans among the meat majority, a reminder of ostracization. It takes enormous effort for me not to roll my eyes.

The irony: Rosalinda is the creation of restaurateur Grant van Gameren, a chef who first rose to local fame based on his charcuterie at The Black Hoof.

Rosalinda is one of two new restaurants Mr. van Gameren has opened as a one-two Mexican punch. The pair of new rooms hits on Toronto’s current hot dining trends: vegan cuisine and live-fire cooking. Rosalinda checks the vegan box. Quetzal, a contemporary Mexican restaurant with an omnivorous menu, opened just last month on College Street, and is a loving, refined ode to regional Mexican cooking.

Mr. van Gameren, along with the husband-wife chef duo of Julio Guajardo and Kate Chomyshyn, have created two fascinating and fun restaurants with strong cooking to re-establish Mr. van Gameren as a major player on our dining scene. They’d be rated even higher if it weren’t for the fact they’re both tests of patience – service at these young restaurants requires improvement.

Vegan burger at Rosalinda.Alexa Fernando/The Canadian Press

Few chef-restaurateurs have been as feted as Mr. van Gameren was just three years ago, when he opened Bar Raval, his second Spanish restaurant after Bar Isabel. Praise and crowds poured in as he captured the city’s zeitgeist with tapas in a stunning Gaudi-esque room.

Mr. van Gameren has expanded his empire since, although his subsequent efforts – mostly revamps of dives in Parkdale – were neither as ambitious nor as well received. His first foray into Mexican food was El Rey, the mescal-inspired joint that opened in 2016 in Kensington Market. Chefs Mr. Guajardo and Ms. Chomyshyn, who were previously working in Montreal, opened the restaurant, which was decent, but not great, according to the critical consensus at the time, and definitely a few notches below Mr. van Gameren’s Spanish joints.

Rosalinda, located in the polar opposite of boho Kensington Market, is on the ground floor of a financial-district tower. Tourists from nearby hotels, women on girls' nights and young dates mix together in a room decorated like a modern greenhouse with many hanging plants. It’s airy, expansive and a welcome contrast to the harsh, cold concrete of the neighbourhood.

Mexican and vegan are rarely mentioned together in Toronto, but they should be more often. Unlike meals at most vegan eateries, a dinner at Rosalinda doesn’t feel like penance. It’s actually fun and entertaining. (Matthew Ravenscroft is the chef de cuisine, with Mr. Guajardo and Ms. Chomyshyn acting as consultant chefs.)

No one will mistake the multigrain-flour crisp as pork crackling on the chicharron plate, but the texture is close and the seasoned smashed avocado is a delicious dip. My favourite is the jackfruit taco, featuring the titular ingredient, roasted with achiote paste (a blend of annatto seeds and various spices); it absolutely works.

The service isn’t as successful. Our server was polite but there were long, uncomfortable lulls to order, and between dishes, an indication of a lack of co-ordination between the front of the house and the kitchen.

Julio Guajardo and Kate Chomyshyn, chefs and part-owners (along with Mr. van Gameren and bartender Owen Walker) of Quetzal, visit Mexico twice a year for research.Jeff Wasserman

  • Quetzal
  • Address: 419 College St.
  • Atmosphere: Contemporary Mexican cuisine based on live wood-fire cooking in an impressively designed space with undulating ceilings.
  • Price: Raw seafood ($14-26); big sharing plates ($46), grilled meats and sausages ($10-$26), vegetable sides ($8-$12), corn dough dishes ($10-$14), desserts ($8-$12)
  • Drinks: Cocktails ($12-28), beer ($8-28), mezcales and tequilla ($8-$36), 12 wines by the glass ($12-19)

Rating:

2 out of 4 stars

While Rosalinda is whimsical and innovative, Quetzal is an homage to traditional Mexican cuisine in a contemporary setting. The room is impressively designed with an undulating low ceiling accented by wood beams that make you feel a bit like you’re walking into an enormous, ancient whale carcass.

Quetzal is the culmination of an eight-year quest for Mr. Guajardo, a Mexican-Canadian, and Ms. Chomyshyn. The couple, who are the restaurant’s chefs and part-owners (along with Mr. van Gameren and bartender Owen Walker), visit Mexico twice a year for research. Quetzal is the distillation of their love of Mexico and their fine-dining training, and they’ve aimed high by committing themselves to making everything in-house and cooking with live fire.

Ceviche verde at Quetzal.Jeff Wasserman

On the authenticity spectrum, dishes range from the traditional to the knowing nod. At both ends, there are successes: Green ceviche, with scallops, halibut, green apple and a herb-infused oil, was a standout, full of subtle sea flavours. A trio of grilled homemade sausages was top-notch. Grilled king mushrooms, perfectly cooked, are accompanied by a brilliant roasted vegetable broth that is poured tableside.

My visits to Quetzal were with Mexican culinary experts who insisted on the barbacoa, a slow-roasted lamb that is then pulled apart by diners for tacos. It’s rare to find good versions of it outside of Mexico, where barbacoa is a whole-roasted animal. Quetzal serves just lamb neck. It’s a cheap cut, and at $46, the price would be offensive if it weren’t so delicious. Marinated over two days, wrapped in banana and avocado leaves and slow-roasted in a wood oven, the tender meat is a wonderful balance of smoke and herbs. Along with luxurious fatty skin, salsas and a squirt of lime, it’s taco paradise. (Mexican connoisseurs may be disappointed that the rice-and-broth soup that often accompanies barbacoa in Mexico is missing here. Ms. Chomyshyn says they will serve an accompanying soup later in the fall.)

Barbacoa de Borrego at Quetzal.Jeff Wasserman

Like Rosalinda, the food excels at Quetzal but service doesn’t. Live-fire cooking is difficult to time and the co-ordination between service and kitchen needs improvement. There were long, uncomfortable 15-minute-plus lulls between dishes. On one visit, the kitchen simply didn’t produce one of the items we ordered. And despite these delays, waiters never once offered to change our personal plates between courses even after we’d eaten a mix of raw seafood, roasted meats and various salsas. Our plates looked like an oil painters’ palate through the entire meal.

Still, Quetzal and Rosalinda signal that Mr. van Gameren and his merry band are back to creating ambitious restaurants – a positive for our dining scene. In particular, Mr. Guajardo and Ms. Chomyshyn are cooking at Quetzal with confidence and ideas. That this team can pull off two intriguing restaurants in a span of a few short months is a feat onto itself. If they can sort out the service in short time, it’d be a triumph.

Caramelized onion cooked in the wood burning oven at Quetzal.Jeff Wasserman

Our star system

No stars: Not recommended

One star: Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds.

Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.

Three stars: Excellent, with few caveats, if any.

Four stars: Extraordinary, with near-perfect execution.

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