A change in ownership and new renovations reveal a new---but just as vegan-friendly, organic and seasonal---Heartwood. by Melissa Buote
Hippies and hipsters. Mention the Heartwood to some, and preconceived notions or perhaps simple alliteration sets their eyes a-roll. Or, if it isn't images of patchouli and beards dancing in their heads, it's a hazy memory, an "isn't that a buffet?"
For more than a decade, the Heartwood was known for its cafeteria-style buffet. The food was underwhelming and the price tag, in comparison, overwhelmed. To put it simply, it lived up to the low expectations that people can have of vegan restaurants.
While the buffet has been gone for awhile now, the restaurant has recently undergone a change in ownership and additional renovations. Counter space is minimized, leaving an open space that is comfortable and airy. Wide booths and bench seating take up most of the dining room, with bar-seating pressed up against the bright window.
The thing that hasn't changed---the heart of Heartwood---is the vegan-friendly menu, the commitment to organic and seasonal ingredients and the healthful approach to dining. I've eaten at the restaurant a number of times with my friend Laura, who is adept at ordering off-menu and making the most of the wide range of vegan options that are available to her: a rarity in Halifax.
I join Laura, and our friends Rachelle and Gianna, for lunch on a Monday afternoon. Most of the tables in the restaurant are full, but the atmosphere is chill, there is no pressure for a quick turnaround.
We order the spicy peanut rice bowl ($14), the bean burrito ($11.50), the Wild Card salad ($13) and the day's special---lentil patties with a salad ($12). We consider adding Pumphouse ale, which is now on draught, but decide to stick with water.
The rice bowl is enormous---an earthy pile of organic brown rice, steamed greens and broccoli, covered in thick peanut sauce, a sprinkle of seeds and a tangled forest of pea shoots. Our server runs back a moment later with a small bowl of roasted sweet potato and tofu that the chef forgot to toss into the mix. I happily dump it on top and dig in. The sauce has a slight undercurrent of spice: it's wonderful with the big spears of still-crisp broccoli and tender sweet potato. The bowl is incredibly hearty, I'm full before I'm half-way through so share with Laura.
Her plate is a pretty one: two small lentil cakes topped with a dollop of silky guacamole and shored by a pool of mild salsa, are served alongside a huge, sprout-heavy salad. The patties are small, but have a substantial mix of brown rice, lentils and fresh herbs. With the snappy salad, it's a light lunch.
The other two plates are dominated by organic corn chips. The burrito---a whole wheat tortilla holding a spicy bean mix---is very homey, very good. It's given a whisper of extra heat from mild salsa, so Rachelle orders a side of guacamole ($2) for additional flavour and texture.
The corn chips on Gianna's Wild Card plate sit between a little mountain of hummus and a pile of greens. A tiny bowl of the soup of the day, a caramelized onion, beet green and chard soup, is also on the plate. It doesn't taste bad, but I wouldn't call it good, either. The onion seems to have only added colour, not flavour---the slightly bitter beet greens heavily dominate and there's no great depth of flavour. I'm disappointed, as some of the best soup I've had in town has been at the Heartwood.
Not everything is great, but that's rarely the case at any restaurant. Vegan or not, the Heartwood is now built on thoughtfully conceived and well-executed food. While there are no guarantees, you can consider it safe to set your expectations on high.