When most non-vegans think of vegan food we think spouts, copious amounts of tofu and generous portions of lettuce. We don’t often think tasty, fresh and “gosh, I didn’t even know it was vegan” nutrition; which is the cornerstone of vegan cuisine served at Zen Kitchen.
The Zen of Ottawa’s dining scene finds it’s home in what used to be a small house on Sommerset, in the heart of Chinatown. It’s comfortable room, with warm coloured walls and abundant natural light seats it’s clientele easily despite it’s small size. Our server, Chelsey, had an excellent grasp of the menu and it’s ingredients, and all the questions we peppered her with were easily answered.
I started with the white-tea ginger kombucha, which is a fermented, flavoured tea, served cold (top photo). The fermentation gives it it’s fine effervescence. I remember kombucha from the vending machines of Japan, it’s extraordinarily refreshing. The Zen Kitchen version, with the zip of ginger, clears the mouth and readies the palate for a menu void of meat, eggs and dairy.
The lunch menu is tight, with six options that include the Zen Burger (mushroom & walnut based), a Ruben sandwich (smoked tempeh & house fermented sauerkraut), Gourmet Salad (organic greens & spiced pepitas) and Mac & Cheese (with artisnal pasta & chipotle Mornay sauce) plus the two we tried, the Tortilla Wrap and the Sobe. Lunch mains are $14 and come with your choice of soup, salad or fries and you can make the those fries a poutine for an extra $3.
The apple-butter-miso dengaku tofu skewers, with Hall’s Apple Butter and white miso is featured on the Zen Kitchen dinner menu on the Main Sized Caesar Salad and the lunch menu’s Gourmet Salad. First pan fried, then skewered, sauced and finally grilled, it’s tofu done, very well. I’m not a big fan of tofu myself, it’s the texture that offends me, but this was firm, crisp on the outside and soft and warm on the inside, was a marvelous combination of savory, salty and sweet.
“We don’t do much tofu and we don’t try to imitate meat” volunteers co-owner & sommelier Dave Loan.
Zen Kitchen offers refreshingly little in the way of tofu and no meat substitutes, like tofurky. Which only serves to underscore the variety of ingredients on the menu; the use of nutrient rich foods, seeds, nuts and greens makes for food that is refined and lively.
My lunch, the Tortilla Wrap with garam masala curry and puy lentils, sauteed vegetables, house pickled onions, spiced chutney. Sauteed vegetables included avocado and sweet potato, which were outstanding and smooth against the curry and lentils. The fresh crispness of micro greens, fresh and raw, lent a slight crunch. It was not overly spiced and perfectly seasoned, and for me who’s who’s eating lighter… the perfect lunch.
Sopé – leavened house corn tortilla with sauteed vegetables and tofu scramble, Mornay sauce and house salsa, served with a side of rice is among the many Zen Kitchen gluten free options and my charming companion’s lunch, which she consumed with appreciation and some well chosen adjectives.
We were both thrilled to see Sopé on the menu, it’s hard to find Sopé outside of Mexico and the southwest United States, one of the stables of Mexican cuisine and wonderfully adapted to vegan cuisine at the hands of Chef Caroline Ishii. The tortilla itself is a marvel, it has height, like a little corn cake, and the tofu scramble was tasty and sharp. The mornay sauce made with the nutritional yeast, is a clever substitute for cheese against a tangy simple salsa and a creamy guacamole.
In one of the most intimate and connected conversations I’ve had with a chef, co-owner Chef Caroline Ishii shared a vision of her cuisine that is at once simple and articulate.
“It’s not just vegan food, it’s good tasting food… delicious food! It must be as good, or better, than the original.”
If Chef Caroline hadn’t driven that point home with entrees, she sure packs a punch with the sweets, which show a deep understanding of both technique and ingredients. Chef’s Dessert Sampler ($12) Peanut Butter Pie, Chocolate Beer Cake made with local Broadhead Beer served with an orange coulee, and Carrot Zucchini Cake with creamy citrus frosting and raspberry coulee. As well as the gluten-free Sundae with Brownie chunks, chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream, house whipped cream ($6) in the bottom photo.
Dessert left me speechless. Using coconut cream to substitute for dairy whipped cream (with the stabilizing agent of guar gum) is at once tasty and pleasing to both the mouth and the eye. The carrot zucchini cake was moist & spicy, not enough people use allspice in my opinion, so I was delighted to find it’s flavour here. I left inspired to try a few do Chef Caroline’s ideas at home!
Many list ‘love’ as their secret ingredient, Zen Kitchen adds not just love, but the conscious intent to deliver the very best in nutrition and taste. Among the most deeply satisfying meals I have had anywhere, Zen Kitchen delivers truly inspired cuisine.
“I have a need to nourish.” ~ Chef Caroline Ishii
634 Somerset Street West