Sustainable, homemade and gourmet is what it’s all about at ZenKitchen — a restaurant that gives vegan food a good, and tasty, name.
It’s a friendly place, but this is no bohemian café. Rather, it’s exquisite, diversely sourced cuisine that’s artfully made, with attention to detail, gorgeous plating and imaginative flavour and texture combinations that put a twist on traditional dishes like curry, sope and risotto.
All that and it’s green, too. Chefs make everything from scratch, using organic, GMO-free ingredients and no preservatives. They source as much as they can locally, with a view to minimizing environmental impact.
“When I did my studies at the Natural Gourmet [Institute for Health and Culinary Arts] in New York City, I wanted to create the most sustainable cuisine possible, which is vegan,” says chef and co-owner Caroline Ishii, who is gaining great acclaim for her inventive cuisine. “We use as much local produce as we can in Ottawa. We also use many local suppliers. For example, the tables were made by a designer in Chelsea, Quebec. It’s all part of supporting the local economy. You think you can’t make a difference, but you can.”
Dave Loan, co-owner and front-of-house manager at ZenKitchen, has asked that staff not bring disposable water bottles to work and, instead, take advantage of the filtered water available at the restaurant. The kitchen’s cooking oil, which must be disposed of regularly, is given to a local man who makes it into bio-diesel; fruit and veggie scraps are given to a local farmer for compost; and seltzer is made in-house to cut down on wasteful packaging.
It’s these little touches that make an impact at ZenKitchen, including peppy background music, friendly and unpretentious staff, and the bright colours.
It’s also a queer-friendly spot, with considerate, attentive servers. Even the art is local. In fact, the photos that were on exhibit during our visit were the work of our server. The restaurant, which has been open since July 2009, is a member of Savour Ottawa and Chinatown Remixed.
The menu is allergy-friendly, and more than half the items on the dinner menu are gluten-free — and the majority of desserts are, too. While we were there, Ishii left the kitchen to help a patron who has a garlic allergy. In the end, she happily agreed to change a sauce so the customer could order what he had his eye on.
Now, allow me to wax poetic about the food. We started out with a creamy edamame dip and roasted papadum, which was light but satisfying. Then came a sampler of appetizers: salted polenta fries with chipotle-tequila dipping sauce, a skewer of grilled miso-and-apple-butter tofu on kale slaw with a tamarind dip, a bowl of the most delicious mushroom tempura I’ve ever had, and a side of homemade pickles, including pickled beets, sweet daikon and a mild but tasty kimchi.
Recommendations? Try the sope, which is topped with the best vegan crème fraîche I’ve ever tasted. The Thai-inspired lemongrass curry on kafir-lime-scented jasmine rice, which has a challenging — but not murderous — level of heat to it, is also to die for. For dessert, the peanut butter and chocolate pie is your best choice.
It’s no wonder this restaurant has won the silver medal in Ottawa’s Gold Metal Plates competition two years in a row — beating out a number of foie gras–wielding mainstream chefs in the process.