Ah, how I wanted to like the Arbor, the five-doors-down spinoff of South Main favourite the Acorn. It opened in late November—which seems to me a tough time of year to launch, what with loyalty and buzz in short supply and the penniless new year just over the hill. So it had underdoggery in its favour.
Plus, I’ve always loved the Acorn, a welcome counter-argument to all the veg restaurants that exist only to not sell animal. Where so many meatless spots overplay their Moosewood roots, only supplying more ammunition to Anthony Bourdain for him to decry all plant cooking as green/brown sludgifying, the Acorn has style, pizzazz. I (favourably) reviewed the place four years ago, and my enthusiasm still continues, even after founding chef Brian Skinner left, replaced by current toque Robert Clarke (not the C/Fish Counter Robert Clark).
The Acorn opened back in 2012, and around that time co-owner Shira Blustein explained the choice of name: acorns, she told alt-music mag BeatRoute (she’s sung and played keyboards in local bands), are “cute little top-hatted dudes that grow into big towering gentlemen.” I was optimistic she and Clarke would deliver on two levels: a refresh of that (tired) former Crave on Main space, and a big towering gentleman of a follow-up to the original.
One thing they got bang on: the room is much prettier now, thanks to a gutting that has lightened the space with a nicely distressed plank ceiling, white walls, blond seating and better light fixtures. There’s a softness now, and a fitting focus on wood and the natural world.
But the menu. Where the Acorn was all about the details, the back-and-forth of particular vegetable tastes and textures in playful tension (I still remember the bite of those pickled shimeji mushrooms on top of the walnut pâté), the Arbor (“Real Food for Comfort”) is…blunt.
What is “comfort” food? We accept it as read, but all it really means is nostalgia built from carbs. We had two starters: broccoli popcorn and fried oysters. The first was simply that: broccoli florets panko’ed, deep-fried and sweet-glazed, served with cilantro and diced onion. They tasted hesitantly of tamarind. The second was meant to match, I imagine, the sensory trickery of the Acorn’s halloumi, which mashes together peas, mint, lemon and beer batter to evoke fish and chips. Here, fried oysters are (oyster) mushrooms panko’ed, deep-fried and dill-sauced, served with cilantro and diced onion. If they were tediously similar, it’s my own fault for ordering two plates from the “Fried” side of the menu (other options: artichoke, onion rings, fries), I suppose.
From “Fresh,” we chose pulled-jackfruit steamed buns. I was thinking steamed buns like char sui bao or xiaolongbao, but these were open sandwiches like those at Bao Down. These were our top pick, and a trio of them burst with flavour and some welcome tang. (The raw cucumber planks were disconcerting, though.) The last dish should have been a slam dunk. The Arburger patty had a good texture but was almost devoid of taste (perhaps dry-aging isn’t required for beans?), and was hardly redeemed by the dolorous application of lettuce and pickle, and a whisper of “Rob’s ketchup” (notable enough to be listed on the menu but otherwise forgettable). Because I’m a putz, I added “bacon” ($2)—which were dried-out lengths of, to my tongue, undressed, unmarinated, unfried ribbons of eggplant.
There are a few flatbreads, a spaghetti with “neatballs” made from the burger patty, a daily mac ’n’ cheese…Those arrived at the tables around us and seemed in the ballpark of what I’ve already described. Perhaps comfort is in the mouth of the beholder and bland works better for others than for me. But all I’ve described plus a jazzy vegan chocolate mousse was $50 for lunch (we drank water), which, given my holiday Visa statement, is no comfort at all.
The pulled-jackfruit steamed buns ($9) are excellent, the room is light, airy and inviting, and the menu’s puns—and there are plenty—are spot on, too.