Ottawa’s ZenKitchen: Food for Thought

So Monday was my birthday, and while it was filled with gifts and cookie-encrusted birthday cake, the official birthday dinner was put off until Tuesday.

Art-is-In Bread with Ethiopian lentil spread

ZenKitchen is closed on Mondays, you see, and every Ottawegan (Ottawa vegan) knows that when serious celebration is in order, ZenKitchen is where you go.

Pierogies stuffed with mushrooms and house sauerkraut, with cashew sour cream, tempeh bacon, grilled onions, apple cabbage slaw
Sopé: Leavened corn tortilla, refried beans, exotic mushrooms flambeed with a chipotle-tequila sauce, house salsa, fresh guacamole, sour cream, spicy rice *Gluten free
Panko-Crusted Seitan: topped with summer pesto and served over a bed of pasta alfredo with local exotic mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and seasonal vegetables
Peanut butter and chocolate tart *Gluten-free

The meal began with Art-Is-In bread, Ethiopian-inspired lentil spread and a glass of rich Okanagan red. Next came the ‘gift from the kitchen’ : medjool dates stuffed with a savoury ‘cream cheese’.

Picking the appetizer was a no-brainer for me:  Of all the things I’ve missed most since going vegan 20 years ago, my grandma’s sauerkraut pierogies have to be number one.

Given that birthday = guiltless decadence, our main course selections were also obvious: Neil and I opted to share one order of Sopé and one of Panko-crusted Seitan.

Now, I’ve been going to ZenKitchen for a long time, and have written more than one review. But it wasn’t until last night that I could really articulate what makes this restaurant so special.

ZenKitchen is “food for thought”. On the one hand, it is food for thoughtful consumers. Owners Caroline Ishii and Dave Loan have gone to great lengths to ensure that their ingredients are ethically and transparently sourced.

On the other hand, the food itself makes you think. It is clear that each subtle nuance of flavour has been introduced very deliberately, but always with the goal of creating a coherent, pleasing dish.

One thing about Caroline Ishii’s cooking is that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. I learned quickly that everything on the plate is there for a reason. When you take a bite of Sopé, you have to top it with the mushrooms and the salsa and the guacamole and the sour cream. If there’s a lemon wedge on your plate, use it. Last night’s lemon wedge, for example, added a lovely brightness to my Alfredo sauce. I was rather proud, thinking of how a less experienced ZenKitchen-goer might have dismissed the lemon as decoration and missed out on my awesome sauce experience.

Another thing you’ll notice when you’re at ZenKitchen is that the food is all anyone is talking about. Remarks like “So what is this, thyme?” “Where’s the hotness coming from?” and “So there’s seriously no dairy in this?” are typical, as are appeals to servers to answer questions and settle disputes. When Neil and I left last night, we found a trio in the parking lot still debating the cashew cream.

Given I’ve already yammered on quite a lot, I won’t do a detailed description of each of last night’s selections. Suffice it to say that they were all lovely, all interesting, and all cooked to absolute perfection – that’s one more thing to note about ZK: whether you happen to like a specific flavour combination or not, every dish is perfectly executed. No limp veggies. No under- or overcooked pasta. Ever.

So if you haven’t tried ZenKitchen yet, go. There’s a reason they’ve risen so quickly to become an Ottawa institution and were named Ottawa’s “Top Choice” restaurant by Lonely Planet.

When you find yourself still wondering, a week later, what was the spice in that chocolate sauce, you’ll know what I mean.

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