Darien List knows good barbecue. As the owner of Beach Hill Smokehouse, he’s imported dry-rub ribs and brisket straight from Central Texas to Toronto.
But the pitmaster is adding something a bit different to the menu this month. They’re serving up a vegan mushroom brisket that uses vegan plant-based mayonnaise to soak up traditional barbecue rub and infuse smoky flavouring into the dish.
It’s not what List is used to. But it’s opened-up a new customer base for the smokehouse, he says.
“You may have a couple, one may be a vegetarian or a vegan, and the other is basically like me, just a straight-up carnivore. And they can’t find a restaurant that can come to the middle of the road,” he said.
“That’s the response we’ve had: ‘Thank you very much for allowing us to come together and have a meal outside our home.'”
List put the item on the menu for “Veganuary,” a New Year’s challenge originating from a charity in Britain that promotes trying out a plant-based diet for January.
Many restaurants around the city are promoting vegan dishes that have long been on the menu or introducing new ones to catch customer’s attention— and they say it’s a movement that continues to grow in Toronto, particularly as younger people look for more diverse dining options.
“We experimented with it, and it’s been going pretty good so far,” said List.
Canadians looking to reduce meat consumption: study
Veganuary is a registered charity in England and in 2023, they had 700,000 people who signed up worldwide on their website to take on the challenge.
In Canada, a 2018 study out of Dalhousie University found that 6.4 million people have dietary preferences that reduce or completely cut out meat consumption. It also found that 32.2 per cent of Canadians were thinking about reducing their meat intake over the next six months.
The main reasons reported for reducing meat consumption were health benefits, taste preferences, environment concerns and the cost of meat.
Sarah Fay, the engagement and events manager at VegTO, a vegan advocacy organization, said the January promotions are an easy way to try a more plant-based diet in a casual way.
“It’s something you’re doing to test the waters,” she said.
Based on VegTo’s research, she said more people are wanting to try eating less meat to reduce environmental footprint, care for animals and feel healthier.
Vegan, vegetarian options year-round
Though for some restaurants, the practice isn’t a trend.
Over in Toronto’s financial district, Luis Avila is preparing for the lunch crowd at Chotto Matte, an upscale and colourful restaurant framed by lush green plants, an open sushi counter and a robata grill, where patrons can watch the chefs in action.
The restaurant specializes in Nikkei cuisine, which is a fusion between Japanese and Peruvian food. For Veganuary, it’s been promoting its vegetarian and vegan dishes — which are plentiful — even though the dishes have been on the menu for years.
“There’s a high demand for it,” he said. “We have a couple of signature dishes that are more toward the plant based community … and we always keep evolving our flavour profiles.”
Avila, who is the head chef, says they’ve transformed classic dishes found in Peruvian cuisine, like ceviche, to make them vegan in a way that is purposeful and retains textures and flavour profiles.
Instead of fish, they use lychee for the ceviche. They also use the robata grill, which is a multi-level grill that relies on a charcoal made from bamboo that produces heat but changes the flavour that the food retains, he says.
There they cook their brussel sprouts and edamame. The restaurant also offers two types of vegan sushi, king oyster mushroom tostadas and corn ribs.
Speaking about the brussel sprouts, Avila says “We also like to add just a little bit of that Peruvian twist to it … it just has that minty green earthy flavour to it with some of that spicy chili that we put on top to create a bit of contrast.”
And restaurants that are only offering vegan and vegetarian dishes say they’re glad to see more establishments have more options.
“I think the more the merrier,” said John Fusco, who co-owns Bellona Kitchen in the Runnymede neighbourhood. Bellona opened in December 2022 and serves vegetarian and vegan Italian food.
Fusco and his wife Aggie told CBC Toronto they both decided to become vegans six years ago to match their lifestyle as athletes. “Our bodies felt better … so we just stuck with it,” he said.
But whenever they went out to a restaurant, they said they were frustrated that they only had a veggie burger to chose from.
“So I, being a chef for almost 30 years now, decided that we can make a great Italian restaurant … that doesn’t serve meat or fish,” he said.
Their offers, including mushroom rigatoni, lasagna, pizzas and calzone have captured customers attention, specifically those who aren’t entirely vegetarian, said Fusco.
“I would say about 90 per cent of our guests are not vegan or vegetarian. They just came in because somebody took them here … and they fell in love with the food,” said Aggie Fusco.
She said now that there’s more options available, people are more willing to try new dishes.
“People see the benefits of switching into the plant-based diet. There’s more out there … there’s definitely a huge interest,” she said.
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