Zen Kitchen does not have a mission statement pinned to its front door. It does not come with monastically uncomfortable tables, cafeteria-style rails or weigh scales by the cash register. It does not litter the walls with new-agey, pseudo-Buddhist, uber-hippy references. What Zen Kitchen does do is help you forget you are in a vegan restaurant. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, high praise.
Owned by Caroline Ishii (chef) and David Loan (sommelier), Zen Kitchen opened in late June in the space vacated by Le Panaché. With help from Ottawa designer Heidi Helm, they’ve created a cheerfully dignified space. Gorgeous art hangs on red and mustard walls, chairs and benches are comfortable, upholstered in jaunty polkadots, lighting is soft and clean, fresh flowers and candles grace gleaming cherry tables.
The meals I’ve had at Zen speak loudly of a gifted chef who draws tastily on a larder of local plants, and who roams the globe – Mexico, Morocco, Japan, Thailand – for bright ideas. Ishii’s dishes range from bold to delicate, multi-textured to softly herby, aromatic to spicy. This is thoroughly enjoyable dining that doesn’t suffer from any lack of beast.
Though I do feel the need to add “for now.” This time of year, eating a plant-based diet is dead easy and delicious. How the vegan Zen will taste in February is TBD. Though I look forward to finding out.
So vegans, for those who don’t subscribe to Mother Jones, are vegetarians at their most “devout.” Animal products or animal by-products are all no-no’s. So, wonder at the dreamy creaminess of the mushroom sauce? Ground cashew “butter,” thinned with silken tofu and spiked with roasted ancho peppers. Presto. Butter with nary an udder tickled!
Ishii’s gnocchi shows the hand of an expert, pleasantly served with a late summer ratatouille. A roasted corn chowder with coriander is elevated with smoked oyster mushrooms and a chili oil drizzle, and by Art-is-in Bakery’s fennel bread used to sop it up. Local chanterelle mushrooms in impeccable condition are lightly coated in a tempura-style batter fashioned with brown rice and gram flours, scattered with sesame seeds and served with a duo of marvellous sauces.
Plates are all decorative, though they rely as much on taste as design. Ishii’s tapas presentation of salad rolls (with a divine peanut sauce), tofu skewers (fantastic), tumeric-stained daikon ribbons, a pile of kimchi and one of togarashi-peppered potato chips, is inspirational. Even the black bean with chopped chestnut “cake” (more a mound) covered with a ripe guacamole, surrounded with pickles and corn chips, is stylish.
Of the main dishes from a short list, I like the Thai curry best, the sauce intricate and aromatic, clinging to farmer’s market vegetables topped with roasted pine nuts. If you’re into seitan, you’ll like these panko-crusted medallions of vegetable protein, and the lemon-scented Israeli couscous dotted with capers has an intensely buttery flavour without, of course, butter contaminating any of it. The one miss for me were the udon noodles. Were it not for the fantastic lobster mushrooms – orange, crustacean tail-shaped, and tasting remarkably of the sea – this dish, with its gummy tempura-ed maki roll, would be pretty so-whatish.
There are beverages beyond carrot juice, and Zen’s wine list leads with strong local content, kindly priced.
Dairy-free desserts are a challenge. I preferred the Mexican chocolate cake with cherry compote to the lemon tart, with its crust that tastes of beach sand. The chocolate truffles that come with the bill are, however, divine.
At one dinner a TV crew was filming (part of The Restaurant Adventures of David and Caroline, for the Women’s Network this fall) and a producer asked how we enjoyed our meal. I felt it would be beyond cheek for the smugly anonymous restaurant critic to give a thumbs up, on camera.
If I had agreed to talk, what would I have said? Probably that Zen is a great addition to Ottawa’s dining out scene, and a restaurant I’m more excited about than any other I’ve come across this year. One that just so happens to serve vegan food.