The Acorn brings elegance to vegetarian dishes.
By Daryn Wright
There is a peculiar raising of stakes that occurs when waiting for a seat at a restaurant. It is hardly noticeable when the wait is short, or when the would-be diner is not very hungry. When the wait is long, however — and the diner is famished — the suspense increases exponentially with every added minute, a gastronomical Achilles-and-tortoise race that, as 15 minutes turn into 45, puts the metaphorical ball further and further into the restaurant’s court. Can the restaurant live up to the stakes that were raised so high by the prolonged wait? At the end of the meal will the diner be impressed, or just no longer hungry?
This restaurant did much more than rid us of a negative stimulus. It caught us off guard.
It’s an overcast evening and we stand shivering outside of The Acorn, a vegetarian restaurant recently opened on Main Street and 24th. We’re told the wait will be half an hour, so we savour our sample of roasted cashews and mill about the street. The 30 minutes pass and we’re seated at the bar, still waiting for our table. Tall, narrow glasses of water are given to us as we sit and watch like hawks for a table opening. Nobody seems to want to leave. An hour passes, and we’re finally seated.
The outside is inconspicuous; a giant, roughly sketched acorn cues that you’re at the right place. The interior has the same minimalist quality: dark wood beams hem us in, white washed window frames are pushed open, and yarn-wrapped lanterns hang from the roof like the cocoons of butterflies.
The menu is simplistic and straightforward: the names of the dishes are dictated by prominent ingredients. We order the “Beet” appetizer, which is presented beautifully. Bright beet medallions are arranged in a triangular shape, and thinly mandolin-shaved fennel adorns the center. The dish is a reimagining of ravioli: the centre of the “ravioli” is made from macadamia cheese, and the thin beet slices act as the encasement for the nutty paste. The dish is garnished with pickled green strawberries, which are bright in flavour. We put down our forks and knives and make our detailed and eloquent judgments: “Wow.” “So good.” “Mm.”
Three entrees arrive: the Halloumi, the Harvest, and the Mushroom. The Halloumi consists of beer battered halloumi oblongs, flattened zucchini pancakes, and bright green smashed peas. The yogurt and lemon garnish cools down the whole dish, toning down the saltiness of the cheese. Everything is working in perfect harmony here, and it’s obvious that the flavours are meticulously thought out by the head chef, Brian Skinner.
The Harvest dish changes according to what produce is in season. Our version is like a splattering of paint on a white canvas: it is the most colourful dish I have ever seen. Bright red beet and goat cheese risotto acts as a bed for thinly shaved fennel and radishes, mandarin slices, basil leaves, with a poached egg sitting atop it all.
The Mushroom consists of creamed wild quinoa, seared King Oyster mushrooms, edible fuschia-coloured blooms, and pickled string beans. This dish is by far the heartiest, and is incredibly filling despite being not only completely vegetarian, but also gluten free and vegan.
Already we enter into the realm of rhetorical inflation — words like “gosh” and “dreamy” are tossed around to the point of meaninglessness. The food leaves us inarticulate; all intention of rigour is lost. What began as a meticulous readiness to review the restaurant with objectivity — with our arrangement of three people and three dishes — has turned into a primal and voracious appetite. And dessert hasn’t even come yet.
The Rhubarb demonstrates a mastery over sweet and savory combinations: black pepper strawberry sorbet sits among a short crust crumble and a rhubarb puree. The Basil is refreshing and unique; the bright green sweet basil creme brulee is accompanied by strawberry glaze, and the pairing is so perfect I wonder why I haven’t been eating this every day of my life.
What The Acorn does well is dressing up produce elegantly, without disguising it as something it is not. It is not trying to make up for its lack of meat; it is aware of being herbivorous. It is the most refined vegetarian restaurant I’ve ever experienced; presentation and experience are not threatened by constraints, rather they thrive on the vegan, gluten free, and raw alternatives.
In short: the stakes, raised high by our hunger and even higher by the wait, were more than satisfied. If only we were able to articulate it.