Shira Blustein and all her punk rock friends in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, went vegetarian en masse. It was the early ‘90s, and they were all passing around the same VHS tape about animal rights (though now Shira can’t remember which movie it was). Now, 20 years later, she holds the same punk rock ethics. But as owner of the upscale restaurant Acorn in Vancouver, B.C., Shira’s presentation is much more refined.
Acorn is an upscale restaurant that’s popular with vegans and omnivores alike. It was the first vegetarian restaurant ever to make it onto En Route’s top 25 restaurants list. When I visited on a rainy weekday night in September, I enjoyed some of the best food I’d ever eaten.
Blustein opened Acorn in 2012. “In Vancouver, there was nowhere for me to eat that hit all the marks,” she said. She wanted vegetarian food without a grungy, hippie atmosphere, and she wanted a good cocktail. “We were the first more upscale vegetarian restaurant in Vancouver,” she said. “A string of vegetarian restaurants opened right behind us.”
Acorn’s chefs develop the restaurant’s recipes. Right now, Acorn has two chefs, both omnivores. “What I think is amazing about them is they don’t see vegetarian as being a limitation,” Blustein said. They already know the right way to cook a perfect steak. “With vegetables, there are no rules. You can treat a carrot a thousand ways. So there are limitless possibilities.”
For the first few years, Acorn was a dinner-only establishment. This year, they started opening for brunch on Saturday and Sunday only. The restaurant now employs about 25 employees. “I’m so proud of our team,” Blustein said, grinning broadly.
When you read the menu at Acorn, it’s hard to imagine what the finished dish will look like. The dishes are named things like “Carrot” or “Tomato,” and the descriptions read like lists of ingredients.
Since I was there interviewing Blustein and they knew I was writing about Acorn, the staff brought me small portions of several dishes. One of my favorites was Carrot, which featured orange and purple roasted carrots artistically arranged over puffed black rice and garnished with cucumber cashew crème fraiche and caramelized broccoli stems. The tomato appetizer combined warm, marinated gem tomatoes, basil-macadamia cheese, and preserved Meyer lemon in an almond-hazelnut tart shell. The roasted tomato soup with padrone pepper was also excellent.
Acorn has a couple of vegan desserts. I chose the vanilla almond beet cake, which was a little, bright beet-colored, circular cake. It came with sour cashew ice cream, sponge toffee and sweet sorrel sauce. Sour cashew was an interesting flavor, made from fermenting the cashews. The sponge toffee incorporated heat, vinegar and baking soda for a crazy melt-in-your-mouth effect like cotton candy.
“I didn’t even realize till after we were open, but, when you have a business, you have a social responsibility,” Blustein said, adding that choosing suppliers is key. “One of the greatest byproducts of opening a restaurant is meeting the farmers.”
Blustein loves her suppliers. Her ingredient sources run from foragers who come in the door bearing herbs and wild mushrooms, to edible flowers grown in her own backyard garden, to local winemakers and distillers. “It’s very cool when you can support a local, independent person,” she said, citing it as one of her punk rock ideals.
A coop called Victory Gardens helped Blustein plant a garden in her backyard. This year was their third growing season. “The first year we tried to grow vegetables, but the volume couldn’t keep up.” Now they grow garnish and cocktail-flavoring ingredients, such as lemon balm, nasturtium, and lavender.
Blustein, her husband, and a third partner are opening a new place a few doors down from Acorn. “It’s everything that Acorn isn’t,” Bluestein said. The palette will be light colors instead of dark; the feel casual instead of upscale; the food familiar rather than challenging.
“But The Arbor will still uphold Acorn’s commitment to real food, not processed.” No fake meats for Blustein’s restaurants. The Arbor’s southern fried nuggets will be made from artichokes, not processed soy or TVP (textured vegetable protein that’s a by-product of extracting soybean oil).
“Our goal is to market ourselves to meat eaters,” Bluestein says of her burgeoning restaurant empire. “Only about half our clientele is vegetarian.”
A lot of tourists come in because they heard it was a good restaurant. “People will wait half an hour or 45 minutes for a table, then sit down, look at the menu and say, ‘Oh, this is a vegetarian place?’” The fact that they stay anyway – then rave about the meal – proves Acorn’s success. – by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor