Some of my best friends are vegetarians. I know it's wrong to stereotype. Today's plant eaters aren't all pale, preachy hippies with scrawny arms poking out from tattered hemp ponchos.
Yet even here in Vancouver, where sprouted-buckwheat protein bars are probably more popular than Snickers, it still feels weird to watch a former Olympic wrestler lumber through a busy lunch service extolling the virtues of blue-green algae lemonade.
"You can't eat steak every day," says Herbinder "Yogi" Johl, the strapping, 280-pound co-owner of Heirloom, a new vegetarian restaurant that carnivores will appreciate. (He eats steak about once a month.)
Mr. Johl's business partner is Gus Greer, a proprietor of two downtown dive bars: Johnnie Fox's Irish Snug and The Bourbon. The latter is billed as an "old-fashioned hoedown" with free bull riding every Friday and Saturday night.
I honestly can't imagine a less likely match for this light, airy restaurant that smells of gardenia diffuser sticks and ginger-poached pears. (I know, I know. Stop judging.)
Ensconced on the main floor of South Granville landmark Douglas Lodge (where Primos Mexican Grill operated for 53 years), Heirloom is as pretty as Mr. Johl is brawny. The high-ceilinged room, washed in blonde wood and white paint, glows with sunshine by day and soft candlelight at night.
If you haven't yet heard, vegetables are the new beef. Heirloom is one of several new Vancouver restaurants (including the Acorn and The Parker) that are giving veganism a modern makeover.
Georgia Morley, a former private chef for Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, has designed a casual menu that offers something for everyone, be they vegan, vegetarian or vegivore (omnivores who are trying to eat more vegetables). If anything, the menu seems more heavily weighted toward the latter.
"This is not a restaurant for hard-core vegans," my friend Seema notes, declining a bite of my tempeh reuben sandwich. It's piled high with purple sauerkraut, red onions and cranberry-mustard sauce, and I don't even miss the meat. The thinly sliced tempeh (soy protein) gives the sandwich a satisfying chewy texture.
But with its thick grilled rye bread drenched in tahini maple vinaigrette and gooey Swiss cheese oozing out the sides (vegans can substitute walnut cheese), it's probably not the lowest-calorie choice for vegetarians watching their waistlines.
That's okay by me. I'm sure many vegans don't mind indulging occasionally. Heirloom's got them covered with all sorts of sweets, rich nut creams and deep-fried treats.
Avocado frites (vegan and gluten-free) are a revelation. The peeled wedges are dredged in cornmeal flour and sweet paprika then flash fried to give the coating a light golden crisp without melting the buttery flesh. The textural contrast is awesome.
If you're in the mood for something lighter, Heirloom offers many interesting salads, especially at lunch. Seema, a fair-weather vegan, loved her warm barley with frisee lettuce and soft-poached pairs. (I thought the Dijon vinaigrette could have been better balanced. When mixed with the pickled crimini mushrooms, it made for a puckering, acidic mouthful.)
It isn't inexpensive. Then again, South Granville is an expensive neighbourhood. The above salad was $16, or $20 with soup. I don't mind paying for premium ingredients, which Heirloom certainly does use. But I was a surprised when, at the end of the meal, the handheld debit machine prompted an automatic 18 per cent tip. That seems a bit bold.
When Heirloom opened in October, the menu was tapas-style, offering small plates for sharing. Ms. Morley has since added more substantial entrees to the dinner menu.
Butter chickpea curry is one of the new dishes. The chickpeas were the perfect consistency – firm on the outside, creamy on the inside. Sundried apricot chutney had a marvelous meaty depth of flavour. But the tomato cashew cream could have used a few more shakes of the kitchen's house-made garam masala.
The curry paled next Cuban black bean chili, stewed thick and hearty with multidimensional pops of cocoa, espresso and toasted cumin.
Desserts aren't the kitchen's greatest strength. Especially not the chocolate cake (moist and earthy) with its not-so-sweetly poached beets. More cane sugar, please.
But the bar is a standout. The head bartender, a holistic nutritionist, mixes some highly inventive cocktails. She infuses vodka with cedar tips, adds hibiscus to tequila and shakes E3Live blue-green algae with Victoria Gin and honey.
Heirloom inherited a late-night licence from Primo and is open until 1 a.m. One side of the room is filled with high-top tables. It's a serious bar that gets fairly crowded in the evening.
"We want it to be the best vegetarian restaurant that you ever got drunk at," Mr. Johl told a reporter from Scout magazine.
Even if its customers don't all get smashed, Heirloom is certainly doing a fine job of shattering old stereotypes.
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