Saturday, October 08, 2011

Vegan Eats in Halifax: Heartwood

I recently spent some time in the Halifax, Nova Scotia area -- old stomping grounds for me from my first few years out of high school. It involved my first year at university followed by another year of spending too much time spinning vinyl at a college radio station and getting sneaked into bars for gigs by the radio station's program director and some of the other volunteers there at the time. I was still figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up (and go figure that I still haven't quite figured that out). My time in Halifax preceded my initial interest in vegetarianism and my ensuing transition to veganism. However, I was aware even then of the existence of one vegetarian restaurant at that time, Satisfaction Feast (a Sri Chimnoy restaurant, methinks), which as it turns out, closed its doors permanently just days before what was to be my first visit to the city in over 10 years and my very first as a vegan.

Thankfully, though, Halifax does indeed have its share of fairly vegan-friendly restaurants (although none of them, as far as I know, are actually vegan). One of those is a place called Heartwood located on Quinpool Rd within a short walk of downtown Halifax. It's described as "vegetarian" and "organic" and when I mentioned the place to my host, he piped up that he'd had the most amazing tofu scramble breakfast there and that he'd love to go again. All it took was one look at their fabulous menu for me to decide that I was all in. I'd not only love to go there once, but determined after a few glances at the menu and then letting the indecision over the options set in that I would undoubtedly want to visit the restaurant a few times during my stay.

I live in a tiny city which up until a few months ago, had nothing even resembling a vegetarian restaurant, never mind a vegan restaurant. A juice bar and self-described bistro opened up earlier this summer, offering salad and a daily soup option, dehydrated kale chips, a few raw dessert balls and a rotating mostly-raw dinner option based on whatever local ingredients the chef has on hand. I've checked the place out a few times and have enjoyed it, but have been frustrated at the lack of options and the never knowing from one day to the next what dish or dishes would be available. The few times I do eat out locally, I usually gravitate towards vegan options at a handful of decidedly non-vegan ethnic restaurants. Heartwood offered up a wide variety of sandwiches, bowls, a veggie burger, a burrito, a tofu dish, some salads and a bunch of vegan dessert choices.

The day after my arrival in the Halifax area, my host Mike and I hit a few farmers markets and lucked out, after munching on a couple of large but somewhat disappointingly bland potato samosas, to stumble upon a table set up by the operator of The Kind Cookie, featuring vegan and gluten-free baked goods. We each gobbled down a whoopie pie after some tentative initial bites and discussion of the butter-cream-iness of their filling and of how different they were from the super-sweet versions of homemade whoopie pies we'd each enjoyed as kids. We agreed, however, that they were quite tasty. We scooped up a small bag's worth of peanut butter and oatmeal-raisin cookies and ended up taking a stroll outside the Halifax market to enjoy the sun and gaze at the harbour, only to find ourselves dipping into said bag to discover that the cookies -- teff flour based -- were quite possibly some of the best cookies we'd each had. They were awesome and I wish I'd had a camera on hand to photograph them. If you're ever in the Halifax area, do visit the Halifax Seaport Farmer's Market and try them out. I digress, though...

After a day spent enjoying the farmers markets, the ferry across the Halifax harbour for a stroll in nearby Dartmouth, a return ferry and then stints at JWD -- a favourite used bookstore from back in my college days -- to pick up vegan (for my host) and vegan-friendly ethnic (for me) cookbooks and at the Strange Adventures comic book store to gawk at boardgames, we decided to hop in the car and head over to Heartwood to get a late lunch. Although they serve an all-day brunch on Saturdays, we decided to forgo the Organic Tofu Scramble with its Herbed Organic Potatoes and Sourdough Toast. No, we gave in to the temptation of splitting Heartwood's Classic Vegan Pizza, ordering their Guacamole and Hummous Platter first. The waitress brought us water and delicious cups of strong coffee with a tiny dispenser of soy milk to indulge in while waiting. The platter arrived shortly thereafter, large and luscious with sliced red bell pepper, cucumber and zucchini slices, organic corn chips and garlicky foccacia to dip into generous bowls of yummy hummus and rich guacamole.

We were still picking away at the crisp vegetables and dredging them through the dips when our pizza arrived. With its thin spelt crust coated in splotches of red sauce, the thing was fully-loaded with roasted red bell pepper, spinach, marinated portabello mushrooms, artichokes, (what I think was tamari) marinated tofu and was covered with dollops of the most incredibly tangy tofu-garlic sauce. I suspect there was some sort of cashew and lemon thing going on with that sauce. I should have asked. We decided then and there that it was quite possibly the best pizza either of us had ever had. I've been a pizza-addict for many, many years and due to the lack of vegan options in my city and my general dissatisfaction with vegan frozen pizzas in terms of taste, topping amount and price, I've made my own pizza -- with homemade pizza crust or with large pita bread -- for years. This pizza was simply awesome. It was incredibly rich and my greatest regret is that I did not have a camera on-hand to photograph it before we devoured it. It's definitely too much for one person to handle in one sitting, we agreed. When next I return to Halifax, it will be a priority for me. I would travel to Halifax again, just to enjoy this pizza. By the time we were done and the waitress tried to entice us with dessert options, we realized fairly quickly that anything over and above that pizza would have been uncomfortably excessive. We paid the bill and left, still discussing the awesomeness of the pizza, even as we agreed that we were both more than full and sort of in need of naps to compensate.

I didn't get a chance to return to Heartwood for a meal, but did take advantage of a jaunt into Halifax later that week to swing by to taste-test their supposedly infamous Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake. The photos in this post were all taken on that day, incidentally, which was a Wednesday afternoon just after 3 pm. (When my host Mike and I had popped in on the previous Saturday afternoon, the restaurant had been full. When I walked in on Wednesday, a couple of the booths were occupied and several customers came and left with takeout orders. There did end up being a lull, which left me happily snapping away for a while, thus the photos.) The cheesecake was priced at $7.25 a slice. I ordered some, along with the coffee I'd loved so much on the previous visit. My first few bites of the cheesecake were disappointing. It was creamy-rich, but the chocolate-y taste reminded me of that sort of half-hearted result you get with carob or with cheap frosting. It was really sweet, but not fulfilling. The coffee, however, complemented that well, and as I picked away at the slice and got closer to its heel, the peanut butter kicked in and was just super. I sat there munching and sipping away, watching passersby on Quinpool while old 1920s jazz played quietly, really loving being there. And hell, it looked lovely before I tore into it.

Would I get it again? Likely not. I've since been told by Haligonian vegans that The Wooden Monkey (another vegan-friendly but non-vegan restaurant) is the place to go for mind-blowing vegan cheesecake in Halifax. I will, however, definitely revisit Heartwood when I hit Halifax again, if only to allow myself to taste that incredible vegan pizza again and to actually branch out a bit and try a few other entrees on their menu. I did end up visiting The Wooden Monkey later that evening, but it was cheesecake-free and that story's best left for another post.

Heartwood Bakery and Cafe on Urbanspoon


B.A.D. said...

Carob is a mighty thing, but when you expect chocolate I find it always falls short.

The wooden monkey does a great rich, using sugar, not 100% WW gluten free health conscious dessert.

Satisfaction Feast also did amazing desserts, but sadly they have closed :(

M said...

I expected a deeper richness, I guess. Mind you, as I got closer to the end of the slice and there was more peanut butter, it did end up providing that. It just wasn't worth the $7.25 + tax and tip to me. I don't have that kind of cash to throw around. :-)

Anonymous said...

Your blog is so cool! I've been looking for a restaurant in Halifax to go eat out at soon.