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Individuals dining at chinatown's new plant-based restaurant, MILA, during their lunch service on Nov. 3, 2020 in Vancouver.

Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

  • MILA
  • Location: 185 Keefer St., Vancouver
  • Phone: 604-844-8040
  • Website: milaplantbased.com
  • Prices: Appetizers, $7 to $19; mains, $17 to $23
  • Cuisine: Innovative vegan comfort food
  • Atmosphere: Bright, cheerful hipster hangout
  • Drinks: Creative cocktails, local craft beer on eight taps and terroir-driven B.C. wines
  • Recommended dishes: Smash burger with smash chips, fish and chips, Swedish kofta and mash, MILA roll (in-house), harvest salad.
  • Delivery: doordash.com
  • Hours: Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Additional information: Online reservations recommended, two-hour seating limit, masks worn by staff, table spacing TBD after new Plexiglas dividers installed, no outdoor seating, avoid the stuffy upper level.

The first time I tried MILA’s signature sushi roll – at home, via delivery – it smelled fishy.

This perplexed me because MILA is a new vegan restaurant and the California-like roll isn’t made with fish. It does, however, contain roasted seaweed two ways: as a blackish powder in the creamy heart-of-palm ‘crab’ mix; and as an inside-out nori wrap, which unfortunately wilted during the fairly swift, 30-minute DoorDash journey and turned gummy.

The flame-seared aburi oshi travelled better. This pressed sushi also smelled slightly fishy, which was even more of a mind game because its thin layer of carrot “lox” had been cured for three days to give it a soft, slippery smoked-salmon texture.

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But the dominant scent was gas and this just depressed me because it’s such a common problem with aburi sushi. (Even if using bamboo charcoal as a filter, many chefs don’t take the time to adjust the flame on their hand-held torches so it ends up imparting the top layer of sauce with the noxious flavour of raw fuel.)

It appears other customers aren’t as bothered. MILA’s aburi lox oshi has become the runaway bestseller. And when I visited the restaurant two weeks later, the whole place reeked of gas

Mind you, I likely had the worst seat in the house – in a second-storey alcove directly above the sushi station at the bar. But after an hour, the smell became so nauseating we had to skip dessert and get the heck out of there.

And this distressed me because no matter how innovative the kitchen – and MILA has many great dishes to recommend – the last thing anyone wants to think about these days when sitting in a restaurant is the lack of ventilation.

The original plan for MILA, which was slated to open in May as an upscale vegan restaurant (more akin to The Acorn Restaurant on Main Street), fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chef Jim Vesal, who is also the director of culinary and business development for sister restaurant mini-chain Virtuous Pie, redesigned the menu to make it easier to pack up in takeout boxes.

The burger, pasta and Pan-Asian mash-up actually feels more appropriate for the bright and cheerful Chinatown room, which doesn’t look all that different from its days as Juniper Kitchen and Bar.

The casual menu also seems like a good fit for MILA’s other sister company, TMRW Foods, which makes a faux-beef mince with kidney beans, split peas and quinoa that puts Beyond Meat burgers to shame.

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Mr. Vesal’s TMRW Foods smash burger is amazing. It’s not just the grind (which has crumbly heft) or the flavour (no whiff of earthy soil, which plagues so many vegan burgers). It’s the fact that he portions the meat in two small (two-ounce) patties, sears them to a thickly caramelized crust and then steams them so the Earth Island cheddar gets soft and melty. Served with garlicky, highly addictive smashed potatoes, it’s a killer dish capable of converting die-hard meat eaters.

I’ve honestly never tasted a vegan burger quite so crispy. The magical alchemy apparently has something to do with the mince’s high protein count and proprietary blend of incorporated fats, which release when cooked. The mince also lends itself well to Mr. Vesal’s finely ground Swedish kofta meatballs, which are nicely charred and appear to be mixed with caramelized onions for a kiss of sweetness.

What’s also commendable is that Mr. Vesal isn’t beholden to TMRW Foods. His menu includes a vast range of faux meats and cheeses – whichever suits the dish best.

He also uses whole vegetables to great effect. The ‘fish’ and chips is made with roasted celeriac (a three-day process) in a crunchy beer batter that holds up well for delivery and comes with thick tartar sauce, tangy slaw and a charred lemon. The extra touches are nice.

And even though I thought his wild mushroom toast with vegan demi-glace was too rich and sticky – demi-glace in any incarnation should be used sparingly or as a base for other sauces – the ambition should definitely be applauded.

Ventilation aside, MILA’s safety protocols seem tight.

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There are sturdy stanchions outside to keep the waiting line orderly, the host stand is barricaded behind Plexiglas, a hand-sanitizer pump is prominently stationed at the front door and the staff all wear masks (although customers are not asked to put theirs on when walking in, leaving or going to the washroom).

For now, the tables are well spaced out and the segregated floor layout (five separate, mostly high-ceilinged rooms on multiple levels) is fitting for the times.

Mr. Vesal says the dining room configuration will change when new Plexiglas dividers are received. I hope they’re taller than the sample model on the communal table, where we ate. That barrier barely skimmed the top of my head when I was seated. According to the latest provincial health order, the height should extend at least 1.2 metres above the countertop.

If you go, avoid that middle alcove and high-top table. And not just because of the smell of rising gas. With all the traffic passing back and forth to the washrooms in a rather tight passageway – a challenge faced by many restaurants – it just didn’t feel comfortable.

And I wish I had felt comfortable enough to stay for dessert because the customers on either side of us raved about the peanut-butter cup pie. I guess I’ll have to order it for delivery.

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