Ever since hearing about Fressen, a “slow food” vegan restaurant in Toronto a few years ago, I’ve wanted to try it. For one reason or another I never did – Fresh was casual; Vegetarian Haven was cheaper. But this New Year’s Eve was different. I was looking for a multi-course vegetarian meal that would take at least 2 hours to enjoy, in a romantic setting. It didn’t take long to realize that Fressen fit the bill perfectly, and vegan to boot.
For New Year’s Eve, Fressen was doing 2 seatings of 6 course prix fixe dinners, at $45 per person for the earlier 6pm appointment and $50 for the later 8pm appointment (which turned out to start around 8:30, and later for most). I was not surprised that people who showed up for the 8pm seating had to wait a while before the first group was out, given the common comments from reviewers on Yelp and Urbanspoon that Fressen’s time management was questionable. Knowing this in advance, my date and I opted for the 6pm seating, which would also allow for New Year’s Eve activities after dinner.
Upon arrival, we were greeted warmly by one of the servers, who led us to our table in the inner half of the restaurant, raised by a few steps, close to the kitchen. Immediately, we noticed the warmth of the place – dimly lit by candles, round paper lanterns, and red teardrop hanging lights at the bar. The middle of the long rectangular restaurant was marked by groupings of tree trunks, and so walking through the restaurant to get to our seats felt like walking through a grotto. The decor and ambience was definitely a step up from Vegetarian Haven which is on the nicer spectrum in terms of vegan/vegetarian restaurants in downtown Toronto.
And now, on to the food!
With the exception of the tapas starter and the dessert, there were 2 choices of each of the four courses. We decided to make the most of our adventure and have one of each (except for the soup because we both dislike leeks). The menu (the wording might differ slightly from the actual menu – I didn’t have the forethought to take a photo!):
- Tapas plate of chickpea hummus, 3 types of olives, toasted bread
- Soup: corn chowder (we skipped on the potato leek)
- Pasta: rigatoni with creamy white wine celeriac sauce vs. whole wheat pasta tossed in pesto, olive oil, sundried tomatoes
- Salad: Swiss chard salad tossed with blueberries and mango vs. spinach salad tossed with strawberries and almond
- Vegetable: Assortment of wild mushrooms cooked in white wine sauce, with pan fried polenta vs. roasted asparagus on a bed of Japanese style spinach cooked with sesame
- Dessert plate of poached figs with a fruit coulis of some sort (we think it might have been kumquat), assortment of 3 cookies on chocolate-date fudge, fresh fruit
The tapas starter was a combination of two tapas plates from their main menu. We could clearly make out the chickpeas in the hummus, the olives were olives, and the bread was bread. Nothing to write home about. Other patrons had tapas starters with two types of dips, probably also from their regular menu. I would price this dish at $8, and no higher than $10.
The soup was also nothing to write home about – it was something that any home chef could whip up. It had corn, potatoes, carrots, other nondescript chunks that were totally not memorable, and dill. We felt it could be taken up a notch with addition of coconut milk. I would price this at $5, no more than $8.
I’m not sure if other patrons noticed, but all of the main courses were served on top of a thin piece of decorative paper with a golden square printed on top of a deep orange square. This type of paper is called joss paper, used for the making of funerary money in Chinese and other Asian cultures… it threw me off, a lot, and I had to block the Chinese part of my brain to proceed in peace.
So far, sounds like a bad review, right? It would seem so, but read on – Fressen redeems itself with the next course.
The whole wheat pasta was nothing to write home about – you can make that stuff at home any day. What stood out to me, the thing that woke my palate, was the rigatoni with creamy white wine celeriac sauce. Ok, so there was just one mushroom and barely any other vegetables in there, but the sauce! THE SAUCE! So good – it was smooth yet light, deep from white wine, and delicate from celeriac. Finally, a dish worth $15 if only it was a slightly larger portion.
I’m not even going to write about the salad other than it being exactly as the title describes, with the Swiss chard being way too large to eat without making a mess on the table or my face. Maybe they put the salad between the two mains to clean the palate, because BAM the next course was delicious.
The polenta, that is. It was pan fried to perfection on the outside, soft and comforting inside, and it was wading in a delicious wild mushroom sauce cooked in white wine. Hmm maybe I just really like white wine… En tout cas, I couldn’t stop eating this dish and was sad when it was finished. The asparagus… it was asparagus. I was just weirded out because asparagus is not even remotely in season. I would gladly pay $12 (and not more than $15) for the polenta.
Finally, the dessert. The fig was warm and gooey, which could be either good or bad depending on your taste. I thought it was a nice way to finish the meal. The cookies were another matter… guys, I know it’s a vegan restaurant but B. Goods Bakery and Auntie Loo’s in Ottawa make perfect vegan cookies and squares every day. Vegan doesn’t have to mean ultra healthy and devoid of fat. Fressen’s cookies were dry as the desert, and so very sad. The dish could easily have done without them. The chocolate fudge was interesting, because it had an underlying taste and texture that was hard to pinpoint. We decided at the end that it was dates. I can see restaurants charging $12 and up to $16 for this, seeing as it’s got poached figs in it, but I would just skip dessert entirely and head over to Wanda’s Pie in the Sky in Kensington Market.
A word about service because there are so many mixed reviews on the internet. The service was excellent, if a tad hap-hazard (we were asked by two different waiters if we needed pepper). Our glasses were never empty, and the courses came with good timing. The waiters were courteous and attentive.
Overall, I found the prix fixe experience worthwhile. We got a good sense of what the restaurant was good at – ambience, specialty vegan dishes; and what the restaurant needed work on – more in-season dishes, dessert. I’d like to note that the food was very filling – I didn’t get hungry after an hour or two of leaving the restaurant which is what I would find after visiting Vegetarian Haven or any other Asian vegetarian restaurant. It’s very rare to find a romantic vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Toronto/Ottawa; in fact there seems to be only one in each – Fressen and Zen Kitchen. I wouldn’t rule out Fressen in the future, but it would have to be a special occasion. Despite some of the misses, we had a great time and it was an honestly decent way to spend the last evening of the year.
Happy New Year, friends!