While there is no shortage of restaurants in Vancouver serving vegetarian fare, somehow they all feel like relics from the city’s hippie past. There is something about vegetarian and vegan food that people immediately associate with yoga and didgeridoos, and a cuisine that is homestyle at best. The latest addition to the Riley Park neighbourhood, The Acorn, is looking to obliterate these common perceptions, serving up delectable and inspired dishes that even the staunchest carnivore can’t help but love. And from the crowds that gather on the corner of Main and 24th each evening, queuing up for a table at this intimate venue, it would appear that The Acorn has already succeeded on this front.
The brainchild of Shira Blustein and chef Brian Skinner (who cut his teeth working at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe), The Acorn has quickly become one of our favourite spots in the city. It is so refreshing to encounter a restaurant that is this experimental with flavours, pairing seemingly disparate ingredients with astonishing results. Its menu, which draws on the best local produce available, is eclectic, interesting and completely unlike anything else currently on offer in Vancouver’s rapidly expanding restaurant scene. While we are undoubtedly easy sells, having been fans of vegetarian cuisine for years, we dined at The Acorn with friends who typically don’t consider a meal complete without a piece of meat, and even they were seduced by the expertly prepared dishes presented.
While everything that we’ve sampled has been incredible, the kale salad (The Acorn’s take on the classic Caesar), a heaping bowl of fresh, delicious kale, sun-dried olives, capers and tempeh, is among our favourites. The polenta fries are a must-have – order a few rounds for the table as these deep-fried, but not greasy, treats are a real crowd pleaser. The mains are all exceptional and we love that The Acorn has a daily harvest – a dish that changes regularly based on what’s been sourced from local farms – and in our experience this is where the chef is at his most creative and experimental. The beer-battered Halloumi is also superb, and while the Zucchini Tagliatelle may seem too adventurous for those unfamiliar with raw food, it is truly a delight with a rich cashew rosé sauce that pairs nicely with the crispness of the vegetables. The plating is also remarkable; clearly as much care and attention is put into presentation as is devoted to the food production.
The Acorn is the sort of restaurant that as soon as your meal is complete you’re already hankering to return to try something else. We were so intrigued by the concept that we asked co-owner Shira Blustein if she would be willing to answer a few questions and she was kind enough to oblige:
Here and Elsewhere: This is your first foray into the restaurant world – what made you decide to open The Acorn? Have you always been passionate about food?
Shira Blustein: I’m someone who wears many hats, and switches them frequently, but food has always been my passion. I was fortunate to grow up in a home where delicious and nutritious meals were always prepared, and my Ma was eager to share recipes passed down through the generations. Making the choice to go vegetarian in Calgary in the early nineties was a tough one as the consciousness around food was different back then. It was touring in bands that really opened my eyes to the culinary possibilities out there. I can’t pinpoint the moment when I decided I wanted to open a restaurant – but I can trace my long-term frustration with Vancouver’s laissez-faire vegetarian dining scene. Last year when my close friend Brian Skinner (Co-Founder / Chef) returned from London and a hi-end vegetarian restaurant still didn’t exist in Vancouver, I knew we had to do it. It was out of need really… If we didn’t do it… who would??
H&E: While there are a number of vegetarian restaurants in Vancouver there really is nothing quite like The Acorn. What we love most is that the dishes rival the city’s top restaurants in terms of flavour and innovation, yet only use vegetarian ingredients. How did you come up with the concept?
SB: Our restaurant concept was always going to be a high-end vegetarian, but we didn’t know what that would look like initially. Brian spent the last 5 years honing his skills working at Michelin starred venues like Viajante, Sketch and staging at Noma so I was confident in his ability to push the boundaries of vegetarian food, but even I was amazed at his creativity and flair. Between Brian, our Sous Chef – Joel Panlilio (formerly of West), and the rest of our amazing kitchen team, they’re working with local and seasonal produce innovatively, designing dishes to be a sensory delight to the palate.
H&E: The menu is quite an electric offering fusing a variety of cuisines with a west coast sensibility – how did you craft the menu? Did you look to other cuisines from around the world for inspiration?
SB: Brian and I tossed around a lot of ideas for what we wanted to do with the menu. We knew the food had to be innovative for Vancouver and not just another venue for meat substitutes or depository for brown rice and tofu. Upon realizing that our target demographic wasn’t just vegetarians, but omnivores, we understood that the food had to be that much better since there are more than a few skeptics out there.
Vegetarians can always look to international cuisines when dining out. Take Indian or Thai food for example. Our goal was/is to work with local and seasonal ingredients as much as possible, which gives us that west coast flair. We didn’t want to emulate other restaurants where the single vegetarian option is an afterthought. So much care and attention to detail was put into designing the menu – which is ultimately Brian’s brainchild.
Since opening we’ve had meat and potato customers leave happy and full – and that was something we were looking to achieve. Not turning anyone vegetarian per se, but altering the way people think about vegetables.
H&E: We really love the space – it’s welcoming and inviting while still retaining a chicness about it. It also is in perfect harmony with the food being served, creating a quite cohesive overall concept. Can you talk a bit about the design process and what you were hoping to create with the space?
SB: I scoured Vancouver, looking not just for a location that would fit our basic needs, but one that could be a cornerstone of the neighborhood. Ending up with the old location of Cipriano’s, formerly one of Vancouver’s best-known Italian eateries, for The Acorn was a real score for us. And Main Street, my long time home, seems to draw like-minded individuals – ones who are truly receptive to what we’re doing with our restaurant.
Originally we weren’t going to hire a professional designer to help us, as it wasn’t in our budget, but somehow we found ourselves sitting down with Scott Cohen (Les Faux Bourgeois, Maenam, Nuba) to talk about creating a cozy space for The Acorn. It was a truly energetic process that was extremely rewarding. Scott eventually produced what we feel is a cohesive, timeless design that compliments the layout of the room. We kept the floors, accordion windows, and old Cipriano’s chairs, which we re-upholstered, and added depth to the white walls by creating shadows wherever possible. We referenced the naturally occurring angles of the room and softened the space with an ebony stained wood ceiling. The only art in the room are the mirrors designed by Henderson Dry Goods and the plants lining the walls. We also worked with Glasfurd & Walker to develop our brand design. The space, food, and design really all came together in a very magical way.
Little known fact about The Acorn – we can serve until 1am on weekdays and 2am on Fridays/Saturdays so we’re hoping The Acorn will also double as a neighbourhood spot for people to hang out and have a late night drink.
H&E: Thanks so much Shira for taking the time to answer our questions!