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At Grant van Gameren’s latest, fresh vegan Mexican for the downtown set

At Grant van Gameren’s latest, fresh vegan Mexican for the downtown set

If you haven’t stopped in the last few years to count up all the businesses Grant van Gameren owns or is partnered in, the tally might surprise you. There’s Bar Isabel, of course, his inventive, Spanish-style taberna on College Street, as well as the chef’s beloved Bar Raval, the all-day drinks and pintxos spot that became a Toronto classic the day it opened in 2015.

Through his restaurant company, called Overbudget Inc., Mr. van Gameren is a partner in Harry’s Charbroiled Dining Lounge, a grotty but lovable dive bar and burger joint in Parkdale, as well as in a satellite Harry’s burger stand outside Union Station. He co-owns El Rey Mezcal Bar in Kensington Market, the Eastern-European -themed Tennessee Tavern on Queen Street West, and Pretty Ugly Bar, nearby, which has become a go-to spot for craft cocktail fans. Back up north on College Street, Quetzal, his ambitious, long-in-the-making live fire Mexican kitchen, is expected to open in the coming weeks. He’s also involved in a new wine importing agency called Parasol.

Mr. van Gameren co-owns the catering and events firm Victor Dries, and has been keeping his eye out for the right project in Prince Edward County’s Waupoos area, he said, where he keeps a small vineyard and lakeside farmstead called Cressy House. Cressy House also doubles as an events and rentals space.

Not bad for a guy who was untravelled, unknown and almost laughably inexperienced just a decade ago, when he became the founding chef and co-owner at The Black Hoof. In the eight years since his departure from there, Mr. van Gameren has solidified his place among the country’s most successful restaurant pros—and opened new businesses at a rate that would make many hospitality companies blush.

Yet until Rosalinda, the enormous new vegan Mexican spot he’s partnered in at the edge of the Financial District, Mr. van Gameren’s projects had always shared an indie, west-side spirit that he helped to pioneer: they’ve always been at least a little rough around their edges. With its 140 seats, its airy, eating-in-a-greenhouse feel and its floral motif, Rosalinda, by contrast, is distinctly downtown. The project’s elegant main space feels like nothing so much as money.

Nearly as remarkable an evolution is Mr. van Gameren’s progression from an icon of meat and offal cookery (remember The Black Hoof’s sublime horsemeat deli sandwich?) into a champion of vegan eating. Though he’s not exactly all-in about it (the PETA set might not be so keen on Bar Isabel’s whole grilled octopus), at Rosalinda the chef seems to have taken the plant-based ethos to heart. When Rosalinda’s menu promises “Vibrant, feel-good, vegan Mexican cuisine” it’s not all that far off.

There are bright-tasting, beautifully savoury chorizo verde tacos and crunchy, smartly fatty chicharróns that taste for all the world like deep-fried pork rinds but are made instead with local grains. There’s a brilliant ceviche composed from opalescent young coconut and vivid green herb sauce, and a bean-based chilaquiles plate that even a couple of food-obsessed Mexican friends of mine loved.

At its best, Rosalinda is good enough to make you wonder whether vegan eating, already booming with the likes of Planta, “Vegandale,”and plenty of other leading kitchens, has finally found its mass-market tipping point. But the restaurant’s cooking, the service and the space, especially, can be frustratingly uneven. Depending when you go, where you sit (you might want to avoid the grim back dining room) and what you eat, Rosalinda is either an excellent and groundbreaking new destination restaurant, or a merely pretty good one in need of work.

The project, which opened in May, is a partnership with Pizzeria Libretto’s Jamie Cook and Max Rimaldi (Mr. Rimaldi is a frequent collaborator with Mr. van Gameren). The chefs Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Guajardo, who are partners in the upcoming Quetzal, consulted on the menu, while Matthew Ravenscroft (Drake Commissary) is Rosalinda’s chef de cuisine.

The room, which was designed by Brenda Bent and Karen Gable, is divided into three main areas: the cheery bar and main dining room up front, and an annex of sorts in the back. Those two first spaces are the ones you see in photos, and they’re every bit as gorgeous as they appear. That main dining space is all high glass windows and warm pastels: soft greens, cornflower blues and soothing greys with flowers painted on the walls and the chair backs. There are potted (plastic, mostly) plants all around the room and hanging from the ceiling, which Ms. Bent and Ms. Gable, in a stroke of brilliance, have fitted with an arched greenhouse roof. The effect is of eating not in some random downtown warehouse, but in a sun-dappled garden somewhere. (Disclosure: I’ve appeared a few times on TV alongside Susur Lee, who is Ms. Bent’s husband; my admiration for her work long predates that. I’ve also appeared beside Mr. van Gameren on an episode of Top Chef Canada, and have been writing about his work for the last 10 years.)

The restaurant’s rear, by contrast, is dark and featureless and boomy thanks to its concrete floors and walls. It’s where you don’t want to be. Worse still, you have to walk through Rosalinda’s front space to get there, so you know exactly what you’re missing; as you round a corner built from concrete construction blocks (they’re fashionable on patios in Mexico City, I’m told) you might find yourself wondering where your reservation went wrong.

But assume, at least for now, that you’re in the main dining room with light streaming in the windows at lunchtime, as I was the first time I ate there. It’s hard not to feel impressed.

Rosalinda’s menu tweaks casual and street food Mexican classics to make them vegan, so that at their best you appreciate them for what they are instead of what they don’t contain. The menu’s chicharrón, for instance, is every bit as delicious as the deep-fried pork skin standard. Its texture, from dehydrated, deep-fried wild rice and quinoa, is properly bubbly and crunchy, with a tasty hit of greasiness from the fryer oil. Its base flavour is grainy and toasty, as wild rice typically is, but overlaying that is a strangely savoury spice mix of ancho chilis and salt. Used as scoops for the guacamole they come with, I’d take Rosalinda’s chicharrón over the real thing every day.

The tacos here are also excellent: there’s a sharply seasoned, slow-burning jackfruit pibil with crunchy taro matchsticks, and a smoked onion taco that’s piled onto corn tortillas with coriander leaves, creamy avocado salsa verde and crunchy bits of fried potato. It tastes as sweet and concentrated as onion jam. (The tortillas here, which are made from fresh corn masa and sourced from Campechano, are a big step up over most tortillas in town.)

And the chorizo verde taco, composed from a mix of pepitas, peppers, tempeh, lentils and grains, and dressed with crunchy cucumber pico de gallo, is a standout. It’s fresh and savoury and plays nearly the entire flavour register, from salty and slightly bitter, to sweet, acid and savoury. But more than any of that, it’s just a fresh and deeply delicious few bites.

Young coconut ceviche has become a standard of vegan cooking in the last few years; you can find it at Planta also. That doesn’t make a well-executed version any less appealing. The one at Rosalinda is terrific. The coconut itself is cut into strips and is as white and glossy as alabaster; it has roughly the same texture as cooked, flaked cod. There’s a blush of purplish pink from red onion in the dish, pale chunks of cucumber, celery and tart green apple; the ceviche’s leche de tigre—its sauce—tastes like lime and coriander, basil and mint. It’s the first ceviche I’ve eaten where I wanted to drink the liquid after I’d finished the main event.

I was nearly as excited about Rosalinda’s flautas: long, thin, fried tortilla tubes stuffed with potato and mushrooms, sauced with cashew crema and punchy salsa verde, sided with a refreshing iceberg and radish salad. They’re topped with a cashew and nutritional yeast crumble that tastes a lot like cotija cheese. That’s a whole lot of textures and tastiness in an $11 dish.

And Rosalinda’s chilaquiles rojos are every bit as inspiring. Chilaquiles are fried tortilla chips and sauce with cheese and typically some sort of animal protein; when I said to a Mexican friend, “So they’re like nachos,” she smiled with a look of laboured patience before answering, “No, nachos are like chilaquiles.” Fair enough.

The chilaquiles at Rosalinda come stacked with kale, spinach, spicy red tomato and chile sauce, as well as cashew crema, crumbly cashew queso and avocado puree. In other words, they’re properly salty, fatty, crunchy and spicy. They lend themselves perhaps a little too well to compulsive mouth-stuffing, too.

Where Rosalinda can be much harder to appreciate is in that back room, over a round of its less successful dishes. The Rosa Burger, for instance, is decent enough but far from inspiring: it’s a black bean, beet and tofu patty sauced in gobs of sweet-sour barbecue sauce and chipotle mayo, plus iceberg lettuce and (slightly) bacon-like eggplant chips. On its own it’s reasonably inhaleable, but it’s not a veggie burger you’d ever remember for long. You can also order it with Pizzeria Libretto’s “vegan mozzarella;” this is one of the few things I ate here that I couldn’t abide. The taste of that cheese—from nutritional yeast, I’m guessing—was sour and funky, and not in a good way; it finished with a backnote that tasted a little too much like fish.

You might also note a section called “Bowls” on Rosalinda’s menu. The bowl that I tried, of bland, crisp tofu and a bunch of other ingredients, ate like a sad vegan desk lunch. In its defence, at least, I don’t doubt it’s exactly what some sad vegans most love to eat.

Rosalinda’s heavy, flavourless churros could also use a rethink (I know eggactly what they’re missing), and the roast squash dish I tried, with pumpkin seed-based pipian verde, suffered from too little acidity and salt. The roasted Japanese eggplant I ate on another visit didn’t have the custardy, creamy voluptuousness of good roasted eggplant; it mostly tasted astringent and dry.

I’m hopeful that Rosalinda’s partners will sort these issues. As for that back room, it’s nothing that a bit of money and time can’t fix.

In the meantime, aim to sit out front and order well. Rosalinda does very good to excellent Mexican, at volume, downtown, and also happens to be a vegan restaurant. Maybe we’re all evolving a little bit. Because even a few years ago, I couldn’t have imagined I’d ever be writing those words.

Rosalinda

Cuisine: Mexican, vegan

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Atmosphere: An elegant, window-lit Mexican vegan spot, with a much less appealing rear seating area, at the edge of the Financial District. The service, while friendly, can be slow at times.

Sound: Variable, with the back dining area being loudest, not from music but boomy acoustics.

Prices: Snacks, sharing plates and tacos (two per order) from $6 to $15; larger dishes from $14 to $18.

Drinks: There’s a smart, short wine list from Bar Isabel’s Nathan Morrell, with affordable entry-points, as well as local craft beers, healthy-tasting juices and uncommonly excellent cocktails (with and without booze) from consulting bartender Owen Walker.

What to eat: The chicharrón, ceviche, flautas, chilaquiles, chorizo verde tacos and the roasted pineapple and coconut whip for dessert.

What the symbols mean:

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Vegetarian options available

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Dining and restrooms are wheelchair accessible

Critic's Pick

Critic’s Pick. Our recommendation for a restaurant that doesn’t offer full service.

1 star

One star (out of four). A good restaurant. Recommended.

Two stars (out of four). A very good restaurant.

Three stars (out of four). An excellent restaurant.

Four stars (out of four). An extraordinary restaurant.

Chris Nuttall-Smith is The Taster’s editor-in-chief and founder. He’s worked as food editor, chief critic and dining columnist at Toronto Life, restaurant critic for enRoute (he wrote the magazine’s celebrated Canada’s Best New Restaurant list in 2009), and more recently, national food reporter and Toronto restaurants columnist for The Globe and Mail. Nuttall-Smith’s writing on food, drink and other subjects has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, New York magazine, Toro and Lucky Peach. He’s also a resident judge on Top Chef Canada.