Nachos and dessert steal the show at Heartwood

There's a lot of dishes on Heartwood's menu for customers with restricted diets, but the appetizers and the dessert outshine the main.

Heartwood's vegan and gluten-free chocolate peanut butter cheesecake is a delicious blend of salty and sweet (Photo: Marie Hanifen)

A rumour brought me to the Heartwood Bakery and Café yesterday afternoon. According to the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association, the restaurant on Quinpool Road is going completely gluten-free. As someone who suffers from celiac disease, this was exciting news, but like a lot of rumours, this one proved to only be half true.

Heartwood, which already boasts an impressive selection of gluten-free food, is increasing its options, but not becoming completely gluten-free. The restaurant has begun to source gluten-free bread from Schoolhouse Gluten Free Gourmet in Mahone Bay and hopes to continue increasing options in the restaurant in the future.  The restaurant is also entirely vegetarian, and almost all of the dishes on the menu have gluten-free and vegan options as well.

The inside of the small restaurant is a bright, clean space. Local artists are always featured on its walls and alternate frequently, bringing a new look to the space with almost every visit. The current exhibit, consisting of iron artwork depicting nature images such as trees and birds, was created by artist Joel Sullivan.

A mix of booths, tables and bar stools provides about 30 seats for customers. My mother is visiting the city for work, so we're grabbing a bite to eat together before meeting up with family. We pick a booth in the back of the restaurant and are greeted and served two glasses of water seconds after sitting down.

From the minute we look at the menu, my mother seems set on splitting a plate of nachos ($11). As a bit of a nacho fanatic, it doesn't take much convincing on my part. They're naturally gluten-free and we order the vegan version, which is served with mozzarella dairy-free cheese from Daiya rather than real cheese.

It takes only about 15 minutes until our plate arrives, piled high with blue tortilla chips, Daiya cheese, red and green peppers and sprinkled with fresh cilantro. Cleverly sliced curls of zucchini and beets top off the dish and give the plate a whimsical look.

Fresh vegetables are always piled high at Heartwood, even on a plate of nachos (Photo: Marie Hanifen)

The salsa that accompanies the nachos is a surprising shade of reddish-pink, similar to the flesh of a watermelon.

We don't waste time digging in. My first thought when I get a mouth full of salsa and chips is how fresh the salsa tastes. It's simple, but the simplicity makes the tomatoes sing, something I would attribute to the quality of the tomatoes used.

The nachos themselves have a fresh quality too, surprising for a dish that's usually associated with grease and heaviness. Although I love jalapenos, I don't miss them here. The assortment of vegetables, the dusting of cilantro and the restrained use of the Daiya cheese keeps the appetizer tasty but light. As an olive enthusiast I am slightly disappointed with the lack of kalamata olives, but I'm too busy enjoying myself to notice too much.

For my main course I order the gluten-free version of the black bean burrito ($11.50). Instead of coming wrapped in a tortilla, the burrito is deconstructed and served as a layer of brown rice, shredded romaine lettuce and carrots, black bean filling, garlicky white sauce, and topped off with more spiraled zucchini strips. The burrito also comes with tortilla chips and more pinkish salsa. My mother isn't hungry enough to order a main course, so she munches on the chips instead.

Heartwood's gluten-free take on a burrito provides lots of healthy forkfuls, but fails on flavour (Photo: Marie Hanifen)

My mother is put off by the burrito right away. She doesn't think the bean mixture looks appealing, but years on a vegan diet have left me open minded. I start by trying the sauce on its own, expecting something zesty with a bright pop of garlic and lemon, but I'm immediately disappointed by how bland it is. There's garlic and lemon in there, but the taste is faint. The sauce is almost flavourless, and the beans aren't much better. Although they're well cooked - not too soft and not dry and crumbly - they could definitely use a good shake of spice. I'm a big cumin fan, and this dish is begging for a healthy dash of some. Thankfully the beans aren't salty, a common problem with burritos, but some are a bit cold. I only eat about half before asking for the rest to be wrapped up.

Desert at a restaurant is a luxury for vegans, so I take advantage whenever possible. Six different kinds of cookies line the shelf, all of which are vegan and cost $2.50. One is also gluten-free. The cold case below features three "cheese" cakes which all cost $7.25. All are vegan and two are gluten-free. It's a tough decision between the two gluten-free slices, but we decide to split a slice of chocolate peanut butter cheese cake.

Despite not having much of a sweet tooth, I'm instantly in love with this cake. The saltiness of the peanut butter helps cut the sweetness of the chocolate, creating a unique taste sensation. It's smooth and creamy, with a crumbly, salty layer of chocolate crumbs at the bottom providing a nice counterbalance of texture. Unlike most cakes that I find too rich too eat much of, I polish the entire plate almost all on my own.

Aside from a bland main course, my experience at Heartwood is positive. Options for customers with a diverse range of dietary restrictions are hard to come by in the city, and for that reason alone it's worth the price. I'll be keeping an eye out for the increasing options at Heartwood and I'll be sure to stop by for a plate of nachos or slice of cake while I wait.


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