By Adam Waxman
Where do Toronto restaurant chefs go for dinner? Enter Harvest Kitchen—they’re here amidst the curious and in-the-know; we can count them. The Harbord Street strip is home to many restaurant gems, and the space at Harvest Kitchen, renowned for it’s tree-canopy rooftop patio, has been through a few incarnations over the years. Now a bright pumpkin orange sign invites us in from the cold like a lighthouse signaling weary travelers to port.
Warm, unpretentious, the bar is as comfortable as any table. We sidle up and sip a revitalizing Blushing Bride of cantaloupe, lemon, raspberry and rosewater.
For starters I need look no further than the first item on the menu. A cup of African peanut soup is a velvety rich blend of smoky tomatoes, bell peppers and crushed peanuts. It’s the kind of soup we just drink up, savour in silence and then say, “boy that was good!” I could have a few more of those.
A garden in a bowl: black and green kale, softened and crisped in a touch of brown butter and oil, is bedazzled with toasted walnuts, grilled slices of butternut squash, crispy shallots and blue cheese. Mild and sweet, there is no bitterness to these greens, and it is quite hearty for a warm salad.
While the Harvest Kitchen menu boasts meatless meatballs and cheese-less cheesecake, it is inclusive for meat lovers and vegans, vegetarians, the gluten sensitive and carb-abstainers alike. I’m sure that one look at this menu will even encourage a few crossovers. From tempura-fried pickles to grass-fed ground beef burgers with cheddar and bacon on challah, we’ve already staked out what we’re having next time. For now, I go with a bibimbop bowl of chicken, barley, brown basmati rice, shiitake mushrooms, sprouts, chili and a sunny side up egg. This tasty mélange of textures, colours, and flavours mixed into one bowl contains all the food groups and is a complete diet in each bite. There are a few different shepherd’s pies listed that showcase the range of the Harvest Kitchen. The vegan option of wild mushrooms, walnuts and a medley of herbs and vegetables under a crisp and fluffy layer of mashed potato, tastes of country goodness.
Here’s the test for quality of food: how do you feel by the end of the meal? Eating should re-energize us, not weigh us down. This is the philosophy and passion of Chef Owen Steinberg who, throughout his storied career, has shown that good quality ingredients need no additives; and processed sugars and starches are just not optimal nutritional fuel—not when you have better choices. In fact, except for one item, there really isn’t any white sugar, white flour or even white rice on the menu. “Being vegetarian is not just about vegetables”, Steinberg tells me. The ingredients he sources are as multicultural as is Toronto, and are prepared with balance and a conscientious understanding of flavour and health. Indeed, after dinner, far from being sluggish, I feel I could go for a run. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—I’m not actually going to leave without dessert.
What is Grown-up Jello and what is No-Cheese Cheesecake? Elegant and fun, a glass of jello, one layer made from concord grape, the other from 13th Street Winery’s tropical fruity Riesling, is topped with light whipped cream. I opt for the cheesecake made from tofu. Hesitant, I take a bite; then another. At first I’m aware that it’s not as dense as a typical cheesecake. Then I quickly become addicted to it. Fresh, light and touched with wild blueberry compote, this is a sweet ending that encapsulates the fresh, casual, comfortable feeling of a harvest kitchen.
~ Harvest Kitchen, 124 Harbord Street, Toronto, 416-901-5901 ~
* Also open for breakfast and weekend brunch.