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The house that Roots built

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Vegetarian-friendly Organic Roots serves fantastic salads but dubious pizza

When Organic Roots opened a couple of years ago, Edmonton’s population
of vegetarians, vegans and organic-food proponents were delighted. Although
there are certainly restaurants amenable to those averse to meat and milk
products (Padmandi, High Level Diner, Café Mosaics and Max’s
Light Cuisine, for instance), variety is always a good thing, especially
since in most other restaurants, we’re limited to those three pitiful
entrées listed under the “vegetarian” heading in the menu.
(And this frequently means that any beef in the meal got there entirely by
accident, or that the chef’s soup base has been so expertly spiced that
“you really won’t taste the chicken.”) Moreover, no
restaurant in town was devoted to sourcing only organic ingredients. Figuring
that a meal begins with appetizers, we head for the soup and salad corner. It
takes a while to hail a worker from the preparation area, but once we appear
on the radar, we order a bowl of borscht with a spelt breadstick and a knob
of herb butter ($4.25) and a large salad ($6.99) to share. The salad is
offered as a combination of three types, arranged in heaping vegetal thirds
on the plate. We go for the Greek, the Rainbow Coleslaw and the “Sea
Veggie.” The latter just might be my favourite salad ever: grated
carrots, some kind of seaweed and bean spouts all marinated in a tasty
vinaigrette. The sprouted beans lend a nutty, slightly bitter flavour to the
mix, as well as a curious crunchiness. Dashing my fork through a cube of goat
feta cheese and red pepper, I quickly decide I like the Greek salad too. This
version, consisting of three colours of peppers, cucumbers and smooth, firm
feta has a light dressing that allows the salad to succeed on the taste of
the vegetables. We both like the coleslaw too, composed as it is of finely
grated carrots, red cabbage and maybe apples. I guess apples because of the
sweet aftertaste, unlike most coleslaws that scream “vinegary
roughage” to me. My dining partner speaks his mind at this point.
“It’s not real coleslaw,” he declares. He used to live in
the South where, apparently, all the real coleslaw resides. “It is
pretty good, though.” According to this half-Croatian
“Texan,” however, the borscht is the real deal. The chunks of
beet and onion in a dark red stock don’t impress me much, however. Like
the salads, though, the soup’s appeal seems entirely derived from its
main ingredients. Vegan save for a dollop of organic sour cream, the
soup’s flavour lacks subtlety and any outstanding savour. The idea may
be to charm those with sensitive stomachs, but at this point, we’re
wondering where they hide the salt and pepper shakers. Meanwhile, I’m
sipping on a “Very Berry Lassi” ($4) from the juice bar.
Blueberries, bananas and apple juice blended with (soy) yogurt and honey
serve to spoil my appetite for the entrée to come. In hindsight, I
should have stopped here. The salads have been gorgeous and the lassi is a
perfect accompaniment. A bit of protein, some fruits, and it’s so
smooth and not too sweet. For the main course, I am tempted by the veggie
burger, the Organic Tahini Miso Rice Bowl (steamed vegetables on rice with
tofu and tahini miso dressing) and the pizza. Given that my company is
ordering the buffalo burger, he suggests that I try the latter. The buffalo
burger ($7.99) on a sesame-spelt bun comes with a serving of “root
vegetables” and arrives just as I’m scraping up the last of the
coleslaw. The vegetables are all tubers (beet, sweet potato and potatoes)
that have been roasted with fresh dill. They’re nicely cooked, crispy
on the outside and creamy on the inside, but the dill is hard to taste and
again, the side turns out to be somewhat bland. My fellow diner says the
burger itself is “nicely prepared”; having never eaten buffalo
before, he finds the meat “has a stronger flavour than ordinary
beef.” The pizza arrives. I chose the caramelized onion pizza on a
spelt thin-crust with vegan cheese ($8.99). Hemp seeds are sprinkled over the
edge of the crust—a nice touch, I think. The “cheese,”
however, is perplexing: it looks like someone has spiraled Cheez Whiz over
the surface of the pizza. Composed of creamed cashews and nutritional yeast,
this faux fromage doesn’t taste anything like what its appearance would
suggest. It’s a little sweet, a little gummy, and would probably work
on a different dish. For nearly nine dollars, I admit my expectations for a
small personal pizza are somewhat deflated. The caramelized onions are
delicious and generously distributed over the crust, but the green, yellow
and red peppers are raw. Really, they should be roasted; it’s hard to
appreciate the texture of the onions when I’m crunching on fresh
vegetables. There’s some raw spinach underneath too, which makes me
wonder who conceived this recipe. I’m well accustomed to weird culinary
combinations for health’s sake, and weird combinations that are normal
in a country halfway around the world, but this is neither. Dining companion
comments: “It resembles a pizza only in being round and kind of
flat.” We take our passports up to the till and drop about $40 for the
feast (including coffee and strudel for dessert). That’s not bad for a
dinner out, given that we’re both full, have easily exceeded our
recommended servings of fruits and vegetables for the day, and that
everything we ate was certified organic. Friends have commented to me before
that the cuisine at Organic Roots is somewhat hit-or-miss; after this
experience, I’m inclined to concur. The salad and juice bars serve up
wonders, but next time, I think I’ll skip the pizza. V

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