Story by Janine MacLean
Vacay.ca Food Columnist
OTTAWA — Are you a hardcore carnivore? So am I.
On a recent trip to Ottawa, I was slightly taken aback when I was told I had a dinner reservation at ZenKitchen: an entirely vegan, won’t-even-give-you-milk-for-your-coffee restaurant located just on the outskirts of Ottawa’s Chinatown district. Don’t get me wrong, I give credit to vegan chefs where credit is due. It’s not easy to create a delicious vegan menu. I don’t like vegetables and grains being manipulated to look and taste like meat, because, let’s face it, most attempts to do so fail.
Staunch meat supporter that I am, I was nonetheless curious about ZenKitchen. I had seen “The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline and Dave,” but hadn’t realized they were a Canadian couple (when I saw the show on The Oprah Network, I assumed they were American). When I mentioned this to Dave Loan, ZenKitchen’s co- owner, manager and sommelier (he runs the restaurant with his partner, executive chef Caroline Ishii) he pointed out that the show first premiered on the W Network.
I was determined to give ZenKitchen’s menu a fighting chance — not just because of its star power, but because Loan and Ishii seemed like genuinely nice people, and nice people who work hard always deserve a fighting chance.
I think it’s safe to say that my preconceptions concerning vegan restaurants were blown out the window. As Loan sauntered over to our table to introduce himself and pour us a glass of Pra Soave, I asked if I might have a chat with the chef. “Unfortunately she isn’t in this evening. She and several other chefs are running Marc Lepine’s restaurant while he competes in the Canadian Culinary Championship.”
Apparently, Lepine was torn between closing down Atelier, considered the top restaurant in Ottawa, during one of the busiest weekends of the year so he could compete or staying in Ottawa and handing over the gold medal to someone else. His chef peers around Ottawa, including Ishii, stepped up to run his restaurant so he could go to the competition, where he won gold.
Meanwhile, ZenKitchen’s staff made up for Ishii’s absence. As we continued to chat our waiter, Gabrielle, brought us multigrain bread with lentil spread and an amuse bouche of endive with mushroom-tempeh mousse and black sesame. Soon after, our first course arrived: vegan Caesar salad with crunchy polenta crouton, pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut and mushroom, served over a cashew “sour cream,” tempeh “bacon,” grilled onion and kale and apple slaw, and quick-fried mushrooms, crunchy and delicious.
As I looked around the room with its warm, earthy colour palette and cozy corner bar, I saw a crowd of restaurant goers who looked like they could tear into a rare steak just as easily as the seitan they were chowing on. After such a flavourful first course I could see why omnivores from any background might want to eat here. Loan confirmed my observation.
“The majority of our guests are not vegan, or even vegetarian. They come here because they know they’re going to get a great meal, whether it has meat in it or not.” Loan, who had come back to refill our wine glasses, also earns respect as a sommelier for his pick of the Hidden Bench Terroir Cache. A meritage blend, this wine smells delightfully of leather and tasted like blackberries … and heaven. With such a smooth wine, we were ready for our next course, but not before Loan brought us a sampler plate of ZenKitchen’s homemade pickles.
Between bites of pickled daikon and lightly spiced kimchi, I asked Loan how they created the concept for ZenKitchen. He spoke of Ishii moving to Ottawa from Toronto, where she had grown up. He mentioned that her mother has been an influence on her food style. “(She) raised Caroline with a lot of the traditions that Japanese children grow up with.”
This included a great appreciation of vegetables, rice and the maintaining of a balance of flavour, a fact that becomes apparent when you read her menu descriptions.
“She was pretty much a ski bum working for various government agencies when she first came to Ottawa,” Loan says of his partner. When they met and discovered a shared passion for food, Ishii began to think more seriously about becoming a chef.
“She didn’t want to learn about classical French cuisine.” Instead, she opted for more healthful ways of cooking professionally at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York. From there, she studied under top natural food chefs in New York, San Francisco and Japan before eventually settling in Ottawa. She and Loan started catering, and then moved onto pop-up restaurants until finally they decided to open ZenKitchen in 2009.
Our third course came out, our plates packed to the brim (but prettily) with lemongrass curry over aromatic basmati rice, panko-crusted seitan (made from wheat protein) stuffed with silken tofu “cheese” and topped with a flavourful tomato ragu and ravioli stuffed with pesto “cheese” and served in a mushroom-ancho chili sauce. At this point I was starting to feel full. Who knew vegan food could be so hearty — not to mention (dare I say it) … delicious?
As we drained the last gorgeous drop of Terroir Cache, Loan brought our table champagne flutes filled with what looked like a sparkling dessert wine. As it turns out, this final alcoholic delight was the Ancestral sparkling wine from the Hinterland Winery in Prince Edward County. For those unfamiliar with the term, ancestral is the old way of making champagne, where the wine’s secondary fermentation process takes place inside the bottle. As you might imagine, there are not many people making sparkling wine this way anymore.
The ancestral was another winner, aromatic with the bright flavour of strawberry and slightly sweet, it went down well with our vegan dessert trio: spicy Mexican chocolate cake smothered in a chocolatey sauce, chocolate peanut butter pie with a crunchy pastry, sweet and salty all at once, and the lemon “cheesecake” — smooth and velvety, but not too sweet.
After such a great meal with amazing service, I can still tell you that I’m not entirely sold on vegan cuisine. But I am sold on ZenKitchen.
In the end, I didn’t even mind adding soy milk to my coffee. And I seriously can’t believe they made tempeh taste that much like bacon.
MORE ABOUT ZENKITCHEN
Prices: The tasting menu is $48, with wine pairing optional for an additional $23. The a la carte menu is reasonably priced, with main courses ranging from $19-$22.
Location: 634 Somerset Street West, Ottawa
Reservations: Call 613-233-6404 or check the reservations table on the restaurant’s website.
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