You know it. I know it. Everyone – excluding the instant-ramen addicts on Utopia (can you believe those reality show nutters?) – understands that a healthy lifestyle should include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, medicinal herbs, good fats and small portions of wild fish or free-range meat.
Yet it is also true that when faced with the choice between pork belly and fries or quinoa and tofu, it's just so darn easy to be bad. Especially in a restaurant where you can leave the stink of boiled grease behind.
So when a friendly new neighbourhood joint comes along making all that healthy stuff taste delicious without being preachy, it's time to rejoice. How could anyone resist a devilishly charming manager who tries to tempt his customers with holistic green Caesars at brunch?
"It's good for you," says Cory Munro, extolling the vitamin-rich virtues of this frothy vegan cocktail mixed with potato vodka, pickled veggies, fresh-pressed juice and blue-green algae.
Booze before noon is good for you?
"Everything in moderation," he winks.
I like this guy!
There is actually quite a lot to like about this plant-forward restaurant that features primarily vegan and vegetarian dishes, about half of which can be fortified (if you choose) with ethically sourced game meat. Most of the plants, flowers and herbs come from local forests and small farms.
The restaurant is owned by Vanessa Bourget, a holistic nutritionist and chartered herbalist from Quebec who was the holistic cocktail bartender at the Waldorf Hotel, a bar manager at Heirloom vegetarian restaurant and beverage manager at Nuba.
At Exile, Ms. Bourget wears many hats. She directs the menu and leads what she calls a "co-operative kitchen collective" comprised of herself and four other cooks (completely turned over since the restaurant opened last spring).
She also does most of the foraging, supplying the kitchen with wild mustard, clover flowers, thimble berries, Oregon grapes, licorice fern root, devil's club and all sorts of mushrooms, including the curiously fluffy and relatively rare lion's mane (also known as bear's head tooth) recently featured with roasted purple cauliflower, spelt kernels and brassica beurre blanc.
Ms. Bourget also creates the apothecary-inspired cocktails, which have garnered a cult following. The tumeric-and-yam bourbon sour is gently spiked with ginger, while a beautiful bright-red beet margarita packs a strong hibiscus-infused-tequila punch.
On the beverage list, you'll also find a few small-batch craft beers and an impressive selection of natural, organic and biodynamic wines that run the gamut from a clean, crisp and cheap Ponte di Piave prosecco to the classically elegant and pricey Domaine Pattes Loup Chablis.
Tucked away like a secret gem on the cordoned off stretch of Bute Street next to the rainbow-painted crosswalk, Exile is a tiny 22-seater. The interior is appointed in dark glossy wood, white upholstery, large mirrors and paper-pyramidal modules that hang from the ceiling like a honeycomb canopy.
Despite its tall sidewalk-fronting windows, the room feels slightly boxed in during the day. On a sunny morning, I'd rather be sitting at the colourful public picnic tables outside. Exile does have a small patio, but the seats don't look very comfortable.
Innovative brunch dishes and exceptionally friendly service compensate for the lack of ambience. Eggs Benedict comes on a crumbly, but deeply herbed gluten-free biscuit topped with runny soft-poached eggs and a brightly acidic hollandaise that uses yogurt in place of butter for impressively plump creaminess and a small fraction of the usual fat.
If the seasonal toppings include cured venison, I suggest you ask for boar bacon instead. The former is slightly leathery, while the latter is lusciously smoky, meaty and crisp.
The farinata, an eggless chickpea omelette, looks limp and dry, but bursts with bold flavour – caramelized onions, crispy basil, earthy tagliatelle – in each bite. Seed-bread toast has great chewy texture.
Brunch made me eager to return for dinner. And after sunset, the room feels much more cozy. I went on a Monday without realizing it was Industry Night, with a live DJ spinning from 9 p.m. on. It was the perfect spot for a girlfriend get-together. Mr. Munro kept us in stitches all evening. And the tapas-style menu makes it easy to share.
Cedar smoked potatoes is a Canadian northwest rendition of patatas bravas. The potato hash is smoked over cedar boughs, drizzled with cedar oil and a cloud of crème fraîche (all made in-house).
Collard greens, steamed in coconut oil and dressed with black sesame and truffle oil, have a nice firm tooth pull. But when the dishes are this small, they don't need to be staggered so far apart. The kitchen is a bit slow.
But the best way to understand this restaurant is to order the fondue, a dish that encapsulates its flextitarian ethos in a single cast-iron pot. You can order it with game (we had venison and elk) or substitute extra roots and shoots. The latter – an already large helping of radishes, beets, kohlrabi and potatoes – come par-roasted on a wooden platter with sauces (mustard seed, wild herb aioli, sometimes berries) and salts.
The ambrosial broth is vegan mushroom. But if you want to make it meaty, the kitchen will add roasted-bone glacé concentrated with lots of tasty minerals and collagen. After you've finished dipping and cooking the meats and/or vegetables, you toss a bundle of dry soba noodles into the pot to make a richly decadent soup.
If healthy food always tasted this good, I'd happily exile myself off the island of conventional eating.