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What’s on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market’s new spot for fancy plant-based fare

By Liza Agrba| Photography by Ebti Nabag
What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare

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Name: Hawker Contact: 291 Augusta Ave., hawker.to, @hawker.to
Neighbourhood: Kensington Market Previously: TVX Owners: Jeff Merkel and Darshan Dorka Chefs: Jeff Merkel and Leah Steduto Accessibility: Not fully accessible

The food

Chef Merkel’s artfully composed small plates aren’t just a creative take on vegan food—they’re a mediation on his naturalist philosophy of life. “We’re in a nearly transhumanist state of evolution, but this food is not about manipulating things away from their natural state,” he says. “It’s about finding the resonant frequencies of nature and embracing them. I don’t want to take away from what’s already there.”

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Left to right: chef Leah Steduto, executive chef Jeff Merkel and co-owner Darshan Dorka

Organic landscapes and arboreal themes inspire Merkel’s plated creations. A dish called Creek Bed is a pool of deeply savoury sage-infused oat milk in a ring of butternut squash puréed with spruce tips and garnished with marigold petals; Bushfire is a bed of rosemary surrounding an eggplant curry and ignited tableside, releasing plumes of woody smoke.

Regardless of whether you embrace naturalism, Merkel’s clean, balanced flavours will delight. House ferments, infusions and syrups abound, like a floral lavender oil served alongside a heady biryani or a caramelly birch syrup used to glaze parsnips. Merkel may be committed to the fundamental laws of nature, but it’s easy to imagine these whimsical plates into a fantastical setting.

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Crunchy papadums laced with cumin seeds are topped with fermented cashew, garlic-roasted cherry tomatoes, pickled ginger, fenugreek and toasted coriander. The funky, cheesy cashew offsets the tomatoes’ sweetness for a balanced bite. $13. (The cashew ferment is also sold as a pantry item for $10).

 

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Seared radicchio is dotted with tangy fermented cashew, dressed with an intensely sweet-and-smoky red pepper oil and garnished with fresh marjoram. The dish, aptly named Colours, punches well above its weight for a relatively simple ingredient list. $14.

 

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Charred runner beans are piled on red pepper paste and finished with pine nut cream, toasted pine nuts and red pepper oil accented with aromatics. Creamy, vegetal, and deeply savoury, God’s Work is a master class in balance, proving once again that a spare ingredient list is no problem if you know how to play one flavour off another. $18.

 

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What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Here we have the Roots: an earthy crumble of pistachio and mushroom enhanced with spruce syrup and sumac, with a crunch from the addition of ube and taro chips. It’s laced with an aromatic perilla leaf pesto, where the addition of ginger, garlic and Thai basil emphasizes perilla’s licorice notes. It’s all dotted with cherry tomatoes marinated in confit garlic and a savoury cream made with tofu and a blend of pasilla and bird’s eye chilis. Watercress, shiso and fennel fronds join forces for an herbal final touch. $14.

 

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Arboreal ingredients are a favourite of Merkel’s. In Autumn, parsnips glazed in a potent caramel-like birch syrup are plated over a smoked tomato sauce deepened with pasilla chilies and confit garlic. It’s finished with chives and thin shavings of turnip. $13.

 

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Inspired by aguachile, Spring is a pile of shaved fennel in a coconut sauce spiked with mace, pasilla chilies and sweet, nutty fenugreek. Beet reduction, marigold and perilla leaf lend their vivid shades to this vernal vision. Crispy blue tortilla chips come on the side. $14.

 

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
The base of Starry Night is a deep well-spiced biryani, but wildly delicious dollops of smoked poblano paste on top take it to new heights. The most surprising element here is the lavender oil served alongside: it’s not an obvious match for biryani, but there’s some kind of special alchemy between the rice’s spices and the lavender’s floral notes. $15.

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What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Bushfire is a version of baingan bharta, an Indian eggplant curry, in which the eggplant is smoked with rosemary for a deeper bass note. A dusting of Mexican oregano cuts through the richness and lends a sharp herbal tone. A bed of rosemary, ignited tableside, releases plumes of aromatic smoke that echo the dish’s flavours, and it’s all served with tender spiced roti. $15.

 

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Creek Bed is a pool of savoury sage-infused oat milk surrounded by spruce-spiked butternut squash fringed with fennel fronds, shiso and watercress. $13.

 

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What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Winter is coconut ice cream, aromatized with thyme and spruce, on a crumble of almond, confit hazelnut and brown sugar. Next to it is an ethereal haze of spruce and birch syrup. $9.

 

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Starry Night, Part Two brings dollops of violet ube whip and pale rose-and-pandan whip garnished with fennel fronds and marigold petals. Ube’s mellow nuttiness plays beautifully with pandan’s vanilla-tinged grassiness. $9.
The drinks

Cocktails—with and without alcohol—are constructed with spices, syrups and fresh-pressed juices: try a vibrant turmeric, Earl Grey and lavender creation called Resonance or the Grand Marnier-and-vodka-spiked Atonement, with cold brew, black cardamom and rose petals. The wine list—which includes a few local options alongside old-world producers—focuses on natural, unfiltered bottles.

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
This is the Resonance, an earthy, almost musky combination of turmeric juice, Earl Grey tea and lavender syrup. Also available with tequila blanco for a boozy tipple. $17 with tequila, $12 without.

 

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
The Repentance pairs sage-infused oat milk with sweet fern syrup and beet juice. Spike it with whiskey for the cocktail version. $17 with whiskey, $12 without.
The space

An earthy, sylvan palette of dark wood and moss epitomizes the restaurant’s philosophical bent. The walls are intentionally free of art, decorated instead with canvas that looks (somewhat ironically) like animal hide. A notable exception is a large-scale moss-and-birch hanging, which was handmade by Merkel. Billowing beige cloth covers the ceiling, and Spanish moss hangs in decorative bundles between the tables. Outside, climbing ivy decorates a romantic, picturesque patio.

What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
Photo by Ebti Nabag
What's on the menu at Hawker, Kensington Market's new spot for fancy plant-based fare
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