Cruda Cafe is not the kind of place you'd expect to find in the St. Lawrence Market. It may be a great place to shop for fresh veggies, cheeses and breads, but if you're looking for lunch, the options aren't exactly healthy.
Enter Cruda Cafe, a vegan resto dedicated to using fresh, organic ingredients to create dishes that consist of living foods, either raw or cooked at low temperatures so that all nutrients remain intact. Suddenly the St. Lawrence Market, where local, fresh ingredients are readily available every day, makes sense as a location after all.
After wandering around the Market's maze of food vendors and cafes for a while, I finally find Cruda hidden in the back corner of the lower level, across from a fluorescent-lit food court with plastic tables, which on this beautiful day is expectedly vacant. The small cafe offers eco-friendly takeout containers, so we opt to get our lunch to go and head for the sunny picnic tables on the Market's main level.
While we mull over the many options, an affable employee offers me a raw coconut water to drink ($4.99). When I oblige, he quickly turns around, takes out a whole coconut and drills a hole into the top to place the straw. It doesn't get much fresher than this, and the juice is delicious and refreshing.
As we select the items we'd like to try, we witness the owner preparing our dishes from fresh ingredients right in front of us. Unfortunately there's no soup special today, but vegan chili ($4.50) turns out to be a very acceptable substitute. A generous portion of the chili, consisting of various veggies including mushrooms, carrots and tomatoes, as well as nuts and seeds, is topped with a giant dollop of fresh guacamole. Savoury and crunchy, the chili is a great start.
The Glow Salad ($8.50) comes with heaps of greens, beets, carrots and other vegetables, as well as nuts, seeds, edible flowers and big slices of avocado. The salad is crisp, fresh, and undeniably healthy. The vegetables taste great, but the house carrot-apple-ginger dressing falls a little flat.
The Enchiladas ($7.50), stuffed with veggies, chili, salsa and the same tangy guacamole, rolled up in a flourless corn wrap, are tasty enough, but slightly lacklustre in flavour.
The Gnocchi Carbonara ($10) is by far the best item we try, and probably one of the best vegan dishes I've tasted. Raw vegan gnocchi might seem like blasphemy to the true pasta lover, but this creative dish, call it what you may, is delicious.
A bed of zucchini noodles is topped with house-made dumplings of cashews and essential oil of rosemary, each one a burst of intense flavour. The dish is then smothered in a creamy, garlicky sauce and topped with fresh pea shoots. We definitely have no problem making this dish disappear.
Today there's also a crepe special ($5.50), and the owner tells us we are the first ones to try this new creation. The strawberry crepe, red and white, is intended for her special Canada Day menu. Imagine a healthy, naturally flavoured version of a strawberry fruit roll-up, filled with coconut cream and fresh strawberries. Not much else needs to be said.
When told that the vegan Nanaimo Bar ($4.50) is a signature Cruda Cafe dessert, usually sold out by lunchtime, we can't resist. The sweet, chocolately confection, with a layer of cashew cream, is a highly enjoyable take on the dairy-filled classic.
A visit to the St. Lawrence Market always makes for a great afternoon, and with Cruda Cafe's healthy lunch offerings, the trip is even more worthwhile.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 8:30am-5:30pm.
Photos by Taralyn Marshall