At Flock Rotisserie and Greens, you really can win friends with salad
The new masochistic fad diets have spawned a raft of places that take carb-deprivation to extremes. Thank heavens there’s Flock
Flock Rotisserie and Greens
330 Adelaide St. W., Plus three other locations, 647-483-5625
If ever there was a reliable authority on the fad diet du jour, it’s my Korean greengrocer in Roncesvalles. He was early to the kale craze, hit the money with kombucha (ongoing), and even briefly stocked up on triglyceride oil and low-mold coffee beans after some Silicon Valley entrepreneur persuaded athletes, Hollywood and evidently half of Toronto that it’s possible to lose a pound a day by drinking “butter coffee.”
Over the past year, I’ve noticed that dairy products have all but disappeared from his refrigerated case, replaced by lemonades (the Master Cleanse seems to be enjoying a fourth wind), coconut water and three brands of almond milk, plus an almond-derived yogurt substitute. The almond fad, partly to blame for California’s recent droughts, is driven by CrossFit addicts following paleo diets like the Whole30 Challenge, which prohibits refined sugars, soy products, grains, pulses, booze and dairy, and claims to reset your metabolism. You can usually spot Whole30 challengers by the sour expressions on their faces.
I’ve always kept a skeptical distance from diets, which today makes me as rare as a Mexican at a Trump rally. Then, last year, my doctor prescribed a less cavalier regimen. I’m slumping into middle age. I have a family history of diabetes and gout. Nothing good could come of my usual diet of pre-dinner cocktails, fried food, processed food, spicy food, late-night meals, heavy meals and any dessert that promises basic pleasure. So what’s left? Well, said my doctor, there’s always salad—not the most welcome prescription for a food critic.
Then again, there are worse fates than salad, I thought. As long as a salad makes a gesture toward healthfulness, it can contain pretty much anything. The best variations are built on contrasts—something crunchy, something soft, something raw, something cooked or pickled. Pushed, I started noticing dedicated salad restaurants had proliferated, most of them conveniently located to attract downtown office workers. Because of all those Whole30 zealots, salad is trendy. Salad, you could say, is the new taco. But, as is often the case, the simplest things are the easiest to screw up, and, in my months of searching, I discovered a good salad is hard to find.
The salad source with the most diehard downtown fan base, especially among A-types with personal trainers, is iQ Food. The chain, founded by a Bay Streeter named Alan Bekerman, now has three locations in and around the banks and a fourth in the lobby of the Yorkville Equinox gym. The menu consists largely of smoothies and salads, and includes detailed notes about how the goji berries, cacao nibs, organic tempeh and spelt flour are responsibly harvested. If you don’t appreciate that, you don’t care about the planet. (Isn’t that the implicit message?)
The smoothies are decent—I’ll stop in just for a blend of peaches, cashews, kale and spinach rendered surprisingly palatable by an infusion of agave syrup and coconut water. The salads, which they call “boxes,” are much less successful. They take nutritiousness to a puritanical extreme. Instead of blue cheese and iceberg, the iQ version of a cobb contains baby spinach and a few strands of shredded Ontario cheddar, which I could forgive if not for the rubbery cubes of chicken, which are criss-crossed with grill marks but so lacking in flavour they could very well have been boiled. The same bland bird appears in the Sparta box, along with unripe grape tomatoes and dry quinoa. Another trial, both for the taste buds and the digestive tract, is a version called the 5-Star, which must have been dreamed up during an off-the-grid yoga retreat. It’s a slaw of raw kale, cabbage and broccoli, and a mush of avocado and sweet potato, plus a “power seed mix” and a gloopy, day-glo dressing of puréed orange and coconut milk that manages to intensify the bitterness of the brassicas.
The two main competitors of iQ Food are Picnic, which has a location in the Exchange Tower concourse and another in Yorkville, and Salad Days, a takeout counter that has two spots within a block of each other—the second opened in the Hudson’s Bay Centre last year to handle the Cumberland Terrace location’s overflow, and a 30-person queue still forms every day at lunch. Picnic’s menu is slightly less moralizing than iQ’s, offering carbs in the form of pumpkin pepita muffins and Survival Cookies (also with healthy seeds). There are more than a dozen pre-packaged salads from which to choose, all flagged for gluten and other potentially prohibited ingredients, but none that’ll send you running back for more the next day. As is the case with many of these trendy salad places, Picnic is obsessed with baby greens, which tend to wilt within moments of leaving the fridge. At Salad Days, the staff build your salad to order, but they spoon your choices from overflowing buckets of options, and canned corn and underripe tomatoes sneak in no matter how much you protest.
I was about to give up when I discovered Flock Rotisserie and Greens. Cory Vitiello, the chef-owner of the Harbord Room, known as much for his kitchen skills as for appearing on most-eligible lists, has opened four locations in the past year, including two in the core and a third at Bloor and Church. The fourth replaced THR&Co., his short-lived slow-food restaurant down the block from the Harbord Room. The Flock concept is takeout rotisserie chicken, though I kept hearing from dedicated regulars that it’s really all about the salads. It’s not often that you hear conjoined the words “salad” and “incredible.”
The Adelaide location, the first, has rough concrete walls, pale maple counters and a suave French Rotisol (the same model of rotisserie they have at the recently revamped Café Boulud in the Four Seasons), which slowly, gracefully spins whole organic birds until their skin is crisp mahogany. Great hunks of sweet potato, benefiting from the drizzle of drippings, roast on a tray at the bottom of the machine. They’re sold as a side and make a filling lunch on their own. Most people rush back to their desks with their takeout, which is okay with me because it gives me a chance to snag one of the 16 metal bar stools at the window, where everyone seems to be meditating upon whether they’re more into legs or breasts (both are fine specimens).
You can construct your own custom salad, but I recommend opting for something from the rotating list. Although the range of ingredients (goji this and kale that) is similar to what’s at iQ Food, at Flock, they’re combined with a chef’s sense for unexpected textures and tastes, each forkful a little bit different. Not once did I feel I was sacrificing good food for good karma.
The Barbary is the most inventive, contrasting baby romaine with lentils, pickled turnip and rings of pickled onion with sweet wedges of dried apricot, and roasted and cayenne-dusted chickpeas with salty olives and a big handful of feta. It sounds a little crazy, but I loved it, especially with the house-roasted tomato and olive dressing.
My other favourite is the Frenchy, which is a jazzed-up rendition of a niçoise with Puy lentils, hulled half-rounds of cuke and, for once, perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes on a nest of arugula. It also includes bites of oven-roasted cauliflower—the sort of detail no other salad place seems bothered to try. The menu is priced in such a way that you’re encouraged to pair a small salad with some chicken, though the salads are themselves so vibrant and hearty I occasionally go strictly green.
At the Harbord location, Vitiello kept THR&Co.’s roomy, semi-circular leather booths and the marble bar toward the back, where you might be tempted to break your Challenge vows with a blood orange negroni (you’re allowed fruit, after all). There’s a hedge-lined patio, too, with bright-red umbrellas and picnic tables. The Harbord Flock was planned as a casual drop-by sort of place, but the daily lineup grew so long they had to rethink and implement a reservation system. You should get a table—it’ll be good for you.