Upscale Vegan from Fressen
So here’s the situation: It’s your 30th birthday, you’ve recently gone back to a fully vegetarian diet, and you want a nice dinner out to celebrate. You look over menus at many of the well-known restaurants in the city, and consider many of them, but then think to yourself that it sucks to go somewhere that only has two or three things you can eat on your own birthday. Then you remember those reviews you’d read about Fressen, and your problem is solved.
Fressen is Toronto’s only upscale (yet still casual) vegan restaurant. As any vegetarian knows, most vegan and vegetarian places are comfortable, casual lunch places on purpose. It isn’t that they don’t think vegans and vegetarians go out for fancy dinners, but rather that a cafe or lunch takeout spot tends to draw in the non-herbivorous crowd too. But Fressen wanted to do something a little different, and they have.
The menu here is comprised entirely of small plates intended for sharing, and is split into five categories: salad, starch, crispy, vegetable, stew. A separate wine list contains mostly organic wines from a few different regions of the world, and the drink list focuses on pear and ginger cocktails.
We arrive a few minutes early for our 8 pm reservation, and are seated pretty promptly, at which point we are given water glasses and menus. Then… we waited. For a good ten minutes no one even approaches our table until one server asks us if the other server had told us about the soup of the day. It is at this point we realize Fressen has the same problem we’d had issues with at the Village Cafe in Ottawa – servers work all the tables instead of being assigned sections. Hmm. We decide to just shrug and see what happens, and order some of those pear and ginger cocktails, with gin, please.
Another few minutes go by and the second server asks us if the other had taken our order yet. We explain we’d ordered drinks, but otherwise needed a few minutes with the menu. She nods and dashes off. Shortly after that, our drinks do indeed arrive, and are quite delicious. Clearly the pear and ginger are fresh from a juicer, and the gin goes surprisingly well with that combination. I consider ordering a second, but decide I’d rather switch to wine once the food comes.
Ordering food goes smoothly. We ask if they’d prefer us to just order one thing at a time, like at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, or if we should order everything and they’ll bring it when they’re ready. We are told that everything should be ordered immediately and they’ll pace our meal. We choose four dishes: the ‘rawzagna’, the crispy battered tempeh ‘fish’, the corn and taro dumplings, and the pan seared mushrooms. Right after ordering, some black olive bread is delivered to our table, with what tasted like hummus to spread on it. Way better than the dry baguette and olive oil that passes for bread at most restaurants these days. We’re hungry, so we snap it up pretty quickly.
Our first dish arrives rather quickly: the rawzagna. Layers of mushrooms and zucchini piled with pesto and hemp butter, it is delicious, if a bit difficult to share between two people. As we are just starting to finish that, our second dish arrives, and only moments later, our third. I guess by pacing our meal, they meant pile our small table with dishes. We just shrug and chuckle a bit, then dig in to the battered tempeh ‘fish’ and dumplings. The fish are great – crispy as promised, pleasantly chewy, with a tangy sauce reminiscent of tartar sauce. The dumplings are a bit misnamed – they’re more like falafel balls of corn and taro than dumplings, but they are still my favourite dish of the night – lightly spiced and served on a lemongrass skewer with fresh mango salsa.
Our fourth dish arrived just shortly after we finish the previous ones, so perhaps it needed more preparation time, or maybe someone realized there was no room on the table for more food. Regardless, it was a nice pile of delicious mushrooms with sesame, garlic and tamari flavours. Rich commented that this was his favourite dish of the night.
One of our servers popped by to ask if we wanted dessert, and when we ask what is available, she seems a bit frustrated to have to explain that they only have one dessert – a chocolate terrine done with chocolate, avocado, and various fruit. It sounds as good as the rest of the food was, so we’re happy to take an order, and also order two cappuccinos. The dessert arrives pretty quickly, and is as good as it sounded. The fruit is quite fresh considering it is winter, and the chocolate is not too sweet, and there is plenty of it to share between two people.
Oddly enough, however, our cappuccinos don’t arrive while we’re eating our dessert, or after our plate is empty, either. One server pops by to take our plate and we ask her to check on them; the second server soon pops by to say they’ll be free because they shouldn’t have taken so long. Great!
At the end of the evening, just moments after our late cappuccinos arrive, our bill is placed on our table on a little silver tray. No one asked if we wanted anything else, and we didn’t even get the typical ‘take your time’ that you usually get when someone drops off the bill before you ask for it. At this point I got the distinct impression they were trying to rush us out of the place so someone else could have the table, but a quick glance around confirmed there were several tables for two available. Worse? The cappuccinos weren’t taken off the bill.
So here’s my take on Fressen, which is similar to many of the reviews I’ve read: really delicious vegan food. Mediocre service. Most of the service problems would be resolved if they would simply assign each server a section and have the other server only help by running food or busing tables if needed.
That said: I’d go back! That menu looks too good to pass up the chance to try more of it, and the service issues weren’t deal breakers.
Now, if only I could duplicate those dumplings at home…
Fressen – 478 Queen Street West, Toronto, 416.504.5127. Dinner for two with drinks and dessert, $100.