Veggies with a difference at this West Coast restaurant
The Acorn is wowing everyone from skeptical omnivores to the staff at CNN. Find out what makes the owner and chef tick—and what’s made the little restaurant a big success.
Walk down Vancouver’s Main Street any night of the week, and one of the busiest spots you’ll glimpse will be the ground floor of a boxy, blood-red building at 24th Avenue. Go inside, and you’ll be greeted by aromas and a menu that will make you agree to any wait time to get a table. You’re in The Acorn, the restaurant that’s turning heads at CNN, T: The New York TimesStyle Magazine, and around the world. The seasonal menu is filled with one-word dish names—usually a nod to a star ingredient (“carrot,” “allium,” “lemon”) or its provenance (“forest,” “harvest”). But don’t let that fool you into thinking this is spartan fare. Read the fine print. That “carrot” is herb roasted and served with black rice, puffed grains, caramelized broccoli, and cucumber cashew crème fraîche. It all looks so enticing, it may take you a while to realize that something is missing.
“I think the challenge has always been, from the day that we opened … convincing the world there is value in well-prepared vegetarian food,” says Blustein. “I think people think food is valued by the meat choices that are often served.” Luptak doesn’t feel he’s compensating for a lack of meat; instead, he sees an opportunity to explore more ingredients than most chefs. “Being a vegetarian restaurant and vegetable forward, we’re not working with some of those expensive meats. So what we get to play with is really amazing produce that a lot of other restaurants choose not to use because it’s more expensive, or they just don’t go after it because maybe meat’s more the main focus,” he says, noting that strong relationships with farmers and foragers form the backbone of The Acorn’s work. Blustein sees the meat-trumps-all mentality changing as people become more aware of sustainability issues. She’s not here to evangelize—she prefers to celebrate what vegetables have to offer—but she is hopeful. “It doesn’t need to be like a big, political pendulum swing,” she says. “You know, we went from this nose-to-tail movement that was really über-meaty, and then it seemed to shift over to this vegetable-only side, and now hopefully everything comes together and there’s balance.”
Why field diners’ questions and deal with the mistrust of veggies-as-mains, all while trying to keep the dining experience pleasant and free of politics? For Blustein, it’s worth it: she’s been vegetarian for many years, and it’s what she believes in. “I screamed in a hardcore punk … band in the ’90s,” she says. She credits punk rock with leading her to vegetarianism and teaching her about “not accepting the world as it’s just fed to you.” There are no overt signs of Blustein’s punk origins in The Acorn’s understated, dark wood interior—no incendiary quotes on the walls (no artwork at all, actually; instead, diners receive limited edition postcards of local artists’ work). But traces remain. “I think somehow there was a performative element I really enjoyed with playing music that I thought I could cross over into working and owning a restaurant,” she says. “You just sort of transfer that energy in a different way for guests. Much less screaming.” Travelling with bands also exposed her to eateries across the globe. “There was just a whole world of food and options and choices out there, and then I would come back to Calgary, where I grew up, or I’d come back to Vancouver, and I just started to feel very frustrated that the restaurant I wanted to eat at didn’t exist,” she says. That’s when the idea of opening that restaurant crystallized: it would have the atmosphere, service, and bar program to rival any meat-centric restaurant, Blustein decided. Vancouverites took notice, and so did people as far away as New York.
“We want people who are walking by—and this happens—to look inside, see a busy room, look at the menu, wait half an hour for a table, sit down, and then be like, ‘Oh, right. There’s no meat on this menu.’ We really want it to be so inclusive of everybody,” says Shira Blustein, owner of The Acorn. You won’t see the words “vegan” or “vegetarian” anywhere in The Acorn, even though both types of food are all that’s on offer. Blustein says some people are intimidated to try a vegetable-forward restaurant. So she doesn’t trumpet the fact … and it works. “I’m proud of having meat eaters leave here happy and saying they’ll come back,” she says. It’s no wonder omnivores vow they’ll return: that cucumber cashew crème fraîche, for example, is so light and vegetal, it’s as if someone distilled the air in a forest during the height of summer and saved it for a colder, darker season. The Acorn turns your taste buds into funhouse mirrors: you can’t quite believe what vegetables can do—how they can bend and balloon into something so good. And you’re enchanted.
Head chef Brian Luptak treats vegetables as a rich palette to play with, not a lesser food group to be disguised. He studied graphic design before switching to culinary school. It shows. “I believe the best part of what I do, and what many cooks all around the world do, is that basically every day we come to work, it’s like a giant art project, you know?” says Luptak. “You get to create—especially here, with all the ingredients we get.” When Luptak tackles something as basic as “ants on a log” (that after-school snack of celery, peanut butter, and raisins), it transforms into foraged Japanese knotweed (an invasive, bamboolike plant that’s hollow on the inside) split in half, filled with smoked squash purée, and topped with pickled Japanese knotweed rings, fiddleheads, and ramps. With that inventiveness, it’s no wonder The Acorn has been busy since it opened in 2012. But there have still been hurdles.
The Acorn team did a five-night, five-course vegan pop-up in Manhattan this time last year—and sold out every night. “It made us realize that what we’re doing here in Vancouver does stand up to what’s happening in New York, and in fact it’s different, because what we try to do at The Acorn is celebrate vegetables, and not try to make vegetables taste like meat,” says Blustein. There’s no tempeh masquerading as steak, or tofu imitating chicken wings. It’s not that Blustein is against playfully putting one food in the role of another. But she’s saving that for a new restaurant: The Arbor. It’s a few doors down from The Acorn and focuses on vegetable-forward casual dining and comfort food, including a from-scratch veggie burger, artichoke nuggets, and broccoli popcorn. The Arbor’s tree-centric name is partly inspired by the “the big oak tree” Blustein says The Acorn has become—and it hints at the growth that’s to come. “I can’t stop. I don’t want to stop,” she says. But when she needs to press pause, she takes her dog and heads for the woods. “It’s close enough, and you can just be in the forest, taking in that air.”