Montreal Vegan Throwndown: Aux Vivres vs. Crudessence
(4631 Boulevard St-Laurent) | Crudessence (105 Rachel West)
THE CRITERIA: flavour, vegan innovation, and price
THE CATEGORIES: Best burger, best wrap, best juice/smoothie, best service, best dessert
I know this is maybe not a fair comparison, since Aux Vivres is vegan and Crudessence is vegan, organic, and most importantly, raw, but both have surprisingly similar, meat- and dairy-free menus. The big difference is that Aux Vivres uses an oven, a grill, a steamer and a lot of tofu and beans, while Crudessence doesn't cook a thing, and sticks to fresh or dehydrated vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and their oils. So no flour, no beans, no lentils, no rice, and no steamed, boiled, sautÃ©ed, or roasted vegetables, but 'raw' means a whole lot more than salad. Yes, you can use sunflowers to make a patÃ©. Yes, zucchini can substitute for lasagna noodles. No, you don't need to cook sundried tomatoes to make a marinara sauce. So should you go vegan, go raw or stay home?
BEST BURGER: Crudessence, hands down.
The Om Burger is a tangy combination of sundried tomato, mushrooms, flax and other unidentified vegetables with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, sprouts, shredded sweet red onions, sugar-less ketchup, mustard and caper aioli you'd swear was egg-y mayonnaise. Take that, nayonnaise. The burger actually tastes a little like beef, because of the texture and the flavour of the sundried tomato patty. Served with a green salad of lettuce, carrots, beets, sprouts, a creamy, sesame vinaigrette, mild pickled beets, and the carrot and sesame creation of the day, this is a feast for the eyes and the stomach. Oh, it's served on chapatti. Well, more like thin, nutty bread...it's nowhere near as light and fluffy as the Aux Vivres chapatti, but besides the name there's nothing to complain about in the delicious burger.
Then there's the Aux Vivres burger...a square of tempeh on a little bun, plus a handful of potato wedges. This is pretty tiny. Sure the chipotle ketchup takes up room on the plate and is basically the highlight of the meal, but the little container of nayonnaised coleslaw does not pass muster(d?), and takes up room that could be given to something else. Anything else. Then when you actually have a bite of the dry burger...it tastes like...well, sadly, not much. Okay, vegetarians. What do carnivores like about their burgers? They're big and JUICY. Vegans shouldn't have to live with flavourless burgers, like non-vegetarians shouldn't have to live with flavourless pork.
BEST WRAP: Aux Vivres gets it right with the Chana Wrap. A beautiful chickpea and potato curry wrapped in freshly-made chapatti with a very sweet, generically named chutney (it's actually tamarind but apparently the cooks here have never been to Parc Ex where Indian chutney comes in multiple varieties. Mango? coriander?). Anyway, compared to the 'mango chutney' in Crudessence's 'Fleurs de Macadam' appetizer (really just sadly under-ripe mango), this chutney is so good it can call itself whatever it wants. There's something so satisfying about a warm, sweet wrap of comfort. Crudessence serves their wrap in sushi nori or rice paper instead of a flour-based shell, but now you can get the same wrap as actual sushi. Instead of soy sauce, dip the wrapped pieces in fat-Free Tibet dressing. Adorable...but just not as good as the Chana wrap, and the sunflower patÃ© in the sushi starts feeling heavy after a few pieces.
BEST JUICE: Crudessence. The fruit is organic, there's no sugar added, there are more milk options (home made coconut, almond, hemp, and macademia nut milks), and there are more exotic ingredients and choices (like maca in the macao - a chocolatey blend of raw cacao, maca, banana and brazil nut milk - or gingko biloba and ginseng with banana, pineapple and mango in the Energy Elixir. This is long-lasting energy. No sugar highs and lows). Even the "healthy" vegetable juices aren't bitter. I swear I really enjoyed the Gaia. There was enough sweetness from the carrot, parsley and celery, and not too much acid or heat from the lemon and cayenne.
BEST SERVICE: Crudessence. Both restaurants get really busy and you can end up waiting for water for a while, but at Crudessence the atmosphere is so relaxed that you don't really care. One person can run the whole floor by herself, and the woman I saw do it, did it with a natural glow and ease. Normally you feel stressed out for busy servers, but despite the cafÃ© bustle, there was a distinct lack of stress. Aux Vivres has a friendly atmosphere too, but it feels more like a business. At Crudessence there was an unique appreciation for the food the restaurant was serving, as well as the overall experience of the customers.
HONOURABLE MENTION: Rice bowls at Aux Vivres. Call me a sucker for cooked food, but the rice bowls at Aux Vivres are very good.
When I see a rice bowl in a restaurant, I think that it's incredible I'm paying more than $10 for something I could make at home pretty easily. Congratulations, you took a big bowl, put about 3 servings of brown rice on the bottom and topped it with steamed green things, two pieces of heavily marinated tofu, and served it with a high-fat, thus delicious, sauce, but to be fair, a sauce like the good-tasting peanut version at Aux Vivres, takes the right balance of salty and sweet, not too thick, not too thin. You can make good peanut sauce at home for less, though, or buy it...La Vieille Europe would be happy to point you to a good one in their shop...and encourage you buy some sausage while you're at it...and some cheese. Some meat-lovers are incorrigible.
So I have a bit of respect for Aux Vivres, despite my rice bowl hesitations. They keep it simple with only a really good sauce + vegetable combinations instead of offering a million mix and match options. That way you can't mess up your own dinner, and they can also actually focus on using unique ingredients, like the pickled daikon and carrots. You really don't expect that hit of sweetness from a radish that sits along the side of the bowl. At most Asian restaurants you'd call that garnish and probably leave it on the plate after you ate the pig or cow part of the dish. The peanut and miso-tahini sauces really hold the whole bowl together. Kudos, though, for putting the sauce on the side so you can add as much as you want. It can get annoying swimming through peanuts to find the few remaining grains of the three cups of rice you just ate.
BEST DESSERT: Crudessence. Maybe I'm just disappointed with Aux Vivres because the first time I went there I left the happiest person in world. I had their carrot cake - a towering piece of moist spice cake with enough cinnamon, nutmeg, dates and cane sugar to satisfy any sweet tooth. The icing is what knocked me over, though. It was thick and smooth (may they never change to vegan cream cheese), not like most grainy or seven-minute-fluff frostings, or heaven forbid, Betty Crocker.
But the second time I went back, after dreaming about the cake, the slice was dry because it had been sitting in a fridge waiting to be bought, and the icing suddenly was swimming in orange zest, and oh I hate orange zest...
So when I went back a 3rd time I felt like I was testing the waters of my relationship with the carrot cake. I could forgive it if it could give me what I wanted (gigantic layers of spice enrobed in dense sheets of orange-free icing. No compromises). All of a sudden, with no change in price, the carrot cake had shrunk in half, the icing was more like a peasants' whisper of white than a respectably royal sugar onslaught.
So I cried a little inside and tried the Choco-Banana Pie instead, unable to bear more disappointment. For a tiny slice of tarte, I don't think the pie is worth the high price tag (over $5), but it was very good. Somehow the chocolate and banana became perfectly smooth, like a chocolate cream pie...without the cream and apparently also completely soy-free.
Still, Crudessence wins with its avocado key lime pie ($5.25) and Blueberry gateau fauxmage ($6.75!). These are so rich that you could make a meal of them, despite the small size of the pieces. The fake cheesecake is made with a mixture of nut butters and topped with a refreshing blueberry glaze. It doesn't melt in your mouth like Aux Vivres' Choco-Banane, but you wouldn't want it to disappear so quickly.
Aux Vivres' Fauxmage just doesn't compare to Crudessence's. It's easy to look at all the yellow and get turned off, but Crudessence's cake appeals to a much wider audience. You don't eat there just because you're vegan. You eat there because it's a very good restaurant with very good food.
I think I'm just bitter about the carrot cake heartbreak and can't forgive Aux Vivres. I hereby issue a challenge to Crudessence to invent a raw carrot cake. Then I would be sure of their dessert victory...
OVERALL WINNER: Crudessence. With better quality and more unique ingredients, Crudessence can proudly hold its head high as the top Montreal Vegan restaurant, despite the slightly higher price tag. But if you don't want to go raw all the time, Aux Vivres will warm up your hungry stomach with giant bowls of rice, crispy chapatti and your choice of a smoothie, chutney, peanut sauce or icing sugar-induced high. Mmm...
Price: Appetizers $3.50-$9, EntrÃ©es $8-$14
Expect to pay $18-$30, including tea or a smoothie and dessert
Hours: Everyday, 11am-11pm, including Saturday and Sunday brunch
Price: Appetizers $6-$8, EntrÃ©es $10-$15
Expect to Pay: $20-$35, including tea or a smoothie and dessert, because I don't know how you could fit an appetizer, entrÃ©e, dessert and smoothie in you in one sitting. So many nuts...
Hours: Everyday, 10am-9pm, including all day breakfast