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ZenKitchen brings vegan cuisine mainstream

Silver medal at Gold Medal Plates just the latest accomplishment

By Pamela

Since opening in June 2009, ZenKitchen has quickly established itself as not just one of the hottest vegan spots around, but one of the hottest tables in all of Ottawa.

It’s not only the delicious food that is noteworthy, but also the way that Chef Caroline Ishii has contributed to bringing vegan cuisine to a mainstream audience. On any given day its tables are filled primarily by omnivores. While I wish everyone was vegan, every vegan meal that’s eaten is one less meal that involves the use and abuse of animals, and ZenKitchen has certainly done its part to reduce the number of animals being consumed in Ottawa.

ZenKitchen has received a lot of press and accolades for its innovation, including a 12-part television series called The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline and Dave that aired on the W Network last winter.  But it hasn’t gone to their heads.

True Ottawa veg superheroes, Caroline Ishii and Dave Loan.

“All the attention from the media is great: it helps bring in new customers, and that means more people accepting animal-free cuisine as part of their everyday diet,” says Chef Caroline Ishii. “Dave (her life and business partner) and I see ourselves as a small, family-run restaurant. We struggle – every day – with the need to keep our food quality consistent, to develop new menu items, to pay our bills. We’re really surprised when someone says that we’re food celebrities or whatever. We see ourselves as a couple of naive restaurateurs doing our best to offer tasty food, to keep to our environmental, vegan and health values, and to make ends meet.”

They recently received another boost when Caroline was invited to participate in the annual “Gold Medal Plates” competition in Ottawa on Nov. 16.  Gold Medal Plates is a celebration of Canadian Excellence in cuisine, wine, the arts and athletic achievement, that occurs in eight Canadian cities.  It features superb wines and the premier chefs in each city, paired with Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes, in a competition to crown a gold, silver and bronze medal culinary team in each city, and subsequently nation-wide.

Remarkably, Caroline was one of the first female chefs ever to be invited to participate in the competition.  She was also the first vegan cuisine chef. She was one of ten local chefs invited last spring.

“Ottawa has had a number of excellent women chefs. However, women chefs haven’t always had the “star” profile that male chefs have achieved. I hardly think of myself in that category, so no one was more shocked when I was invited to the Gold Medal Plates competition,” Chef Caroline says.  “I am incredibly proud and honoured to be one of the first women chefs invited to the Ottawa competition and the first vegetarian/vegan chef invited in the history of the competition in Canada. I’ve learned that commercial kitchens are pretty much a man’s domain, and it isn’t easy bringing a feminine perspective to either the food or the way a kitchen is run. But I think it’s that very femininity and passion that makes my food stand out.”

And not only did she participate, she won them over, taking the event’s silver medal, in an event that typically favours heavy usage of cream and animal bodies.

The silver medal dish.

The dish? Start with a little kale, sautéed and seasoned with a plum-kombu vinaigrette. On top of that sits a polenta cake, crispy outside and creamy inside. The polenta is topped with a thin disk of red pepper aspic. Add a teaspoon of fermented nut cheese, bruléed with a torch, and then place a “cigar” of more nut cheese wrapped in fried and smoked yuba (the skin that forms when cooking soya milk). A chile-mushroom sauce is swirled from the base of the polenta across the plate, and sautéed exotic mushrooms from Le Coprin are added to it. Three dots of spicy passila chile sauce finish the plate.

The ingredients – nut cheese, yuba, vegan aspic – all offered something new to most of the judges, and there was a range of textures, from crispy to chewy to creamy, tastes and colours. The chile sauce and aspic were bright red elements against the yellow polenta and brown mushrooms.

This may not be something to try at home!

“All together, the dish was very complex, but very interesting , I think. I was inspired by a zen garden when I created the plate,” Chef Ishii explains. “I created a dish I was proud to serve – beautiful, interesting and delicious – which is all I could do.”

Swish!

It’s easy to hope that this could represent a change in thinking amongst Ottawa diners.  “Throughout the evening, people kept telling us that they had heard our table was a “must” to visit. And a number of cooks from the NAC and other teams stopped by to try the yuba cigar and were really interested by it,” says Chef Ishii. “The judging wasn’t about which ingredients were used, but the totality of the dish itself – presentation, flavour and texture.  And that’s what we see every day at ZenKitchen – omnivorous diners who come to our restaurant because they like the food, not because of what we do or don’t serve.  I believe it expresses a sophistication and progressiveness in Ottawa’s food scene – the willingness to see beyond the ingredients and believe that good food is good food.”

So what’s next for Ottawa’s hottest meal ticket, which also happens to be vegan? They’re offering take-out now, and doing a bit more catering. “We’re also trying to develop some new products for take-out and retail. Eventually, we’d like to move into a slightly bigger space, but that might be a long time coming and would be dependent on investors,” Chef Ishii says.

For now, they’re simply focusing on the restaurant and ensuring the food and service are at the level they want. There are also some special events being planned: two seatings at New Year’s Eve, a Winemaker’s Dinner with Ravine Winery’s Shauna White on February 9, and of course Valentine’s Day!

And who knows, maybe ZenKitchen will be invited back to Gold Medal Plates next year!

ZenKitchen
http://www.zenkitchen.ca
634 Somerset Street W
613-233-6404

 

Have you been to Cafe My House?

Back in May, the NCVA was excited and intrigued to find the word “vegan” appear on the sign of a cafe in Ottawa’s South end. It was for Cafe My House, and thanks in part to the NCVA’s promotion, word has spread like wildfire about this little cafe, where the menu is about 75 per cent vegan and where even raw foodists and gluten-intolerant people can find a good meal.  And did we mention it’s mostly vegan?

NCVA volunteer Tanya Hanham wrote the following review for Capital Veg News:

Cafe My House's "Healthy Me" vegan brunch platter. Side of potatoes is optional.

I had heard rumblings about a new vegan-friendly restaurant on Bank Street and I had to try it myself. Check it out, even the sign prominently declares its animal friendly nature. Needless to say, I was excited.

Cafe My House is reincarnated from its previous (more) east end location and is a family owned business that appears to focus on healthy food. While there are a couple of meat options, there are approximately twenty choices on the menu that are vegan and that does not include sides, drinks or extensive smoothie list. Impressive, to say the least.

Breakfast boasts vegan versions of the usual options like pancakes, french toast and (tofu) scramble while also including the intriguing Moroccan Quinoa Pilaf. Vegan breakfast sans oatmeal is hard to come by in Ottawa restaurants so Cafe My House is a welcome sight for hungry brunching vegans. I didn’t eat breakfast during my visit but that just means I have an excuse to go back.

Lunch looks promising too. They have a few different soups, salads and sandwiches as well as tasty sounding starters they call “House Bites.” I’ll probably try the quesadilla or the mango-zucchini roll next time I stop by for lunch.

Finally the main courses. I had a lot of trouble deciding what I wanted and who wouldn’t with choices like Creamy Sesame Soba Noodles, Earthy Vegetable Curry and Tofu Mushroom Steak. In the end, after a recommendation from the friendly server, I chose Vegetarian BiBim-Bop. What now? This was a tasty Korean rice dish topped with a variety of delicious sautéed vegetables and nori all covered with a spicy chili sauce. I ended up asking for extra chili sauce because I like things with a lot of heat and flavour and the extra kick made for an excellent dish.

What about dessert? Of course I couldn’t pass up the vegan dessert of the day, a black bean hazelnut brownie. The brownie was fudgy and dense and not too sweet, pairing nicely with the light warm fudge sauce poured liberally over top for a lovely presentation. Decadent.

But don’t take my word for it. Make your way down to 1729 Bank Street, just south of Heron, and try out Ottawa’s newest vegan friendly restaurant for yourself. I dare say you won’t be disappointed.

For contact info and restaurant hours, click here:

Cafe my house

NEW: 10% discount for NCVA members at Auntie Loos

NCVA membership just got sweeter, when Ottawa’s beloved Auntie Loo announced that she wanted to show NCVA members some love with a 10 per cent discount. The discount applies to anything purchased at her store front (507 Bronson Avenue) or ordered, except for wedding cakes.

Auntie Loo is a great example of a home-grown, vegan business. She even recently won “Best Bakery” recognition in Capital XPress, as voted by readers.  Here’s a story we published about her in our most recent newsletter, Capital Veg News:

Ottawa's own Auntie Loo!

Made locally, with love, at Auntie Loos

By Pamela Eadie

There’s nothing quite like fresh, made with love baked goods. And nobody knows that better than Amanda Lunan, more commonly known as Ottawa’s “Auntie Loo.”

While her baked goods have been available at Ottawa area natural food stores for several years now, Auntie Loo opened her storefront one year ago, much to the delight of vegans and cupcake enthusiasts. It was the culmination of many years of hard work and perseverance.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was in a band and working at a coffee shop. I would make these cakes for my friends, and someone told me I could make a lot of money selling them,” Auntie Loo explains.

“But I figured nobody would want my crappy cake.”

Was she ever wrong. The same friend talked her into selling her creations at a Ladyfest Craft sale in 2004. She was a hit. Inspired, she completed a small business diploma program at Algonquin College, and joined the Youth Entrepreneurship Program, which gives young people a salary while they get their business started.

She baked her heart out while renting space at a bakery that was closed overnight. Fellow vegan baking aficionado, Brad Campeau of B.Goods cookies, mentored her. She built a loyal following through LadyFest and other events, and by having her goods in health food stores.

But then the Youth Entrepreneurship Program ran out, and she was at a crossroads. “It was do or die,” she says. With help from the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, she was able to find and rent her own retail location, on Bronson Avenue.

She’s also expanded her wedding cake business, with help from her “right hand man” Kate Veinot. Auntie Loos currently has two part time employees, and two volunteer pastry students from Algonquin College.

Her repertoire of treats is constantly changing with the seasons, but the one constant is that they’re always vegan. There are also soy-free and gluten-free options. Treats include a wide variety of cupcakes, squares, pastries, brownies, and cakes. She caters special events and welcomes special orders.

“I never expected a response from the community like this. It’s been awesome,” Auntie Loo says. “People like to come in and see where the food is coming from. It’s important to me to be really transparent.” Auntie Loos uses organic products whenever possible, and works with and purchases from small local businesses.

Most of her clients are not vegan, but, “when they’re buying a cupcake from me, they’re not buying one that has animal products. Most people who come in don’t care. They just like that it tastes good.”

Her love of animals has inspired her along the way. “I really love animals. The reason I went vegetarian was because a cow truck passed me on the highway when I was five years old. That’s when I realized how meat was made,” she says. She’s been vegan for more than 10 years.

These days, she’s at the forefront of Ottawa’s burgeoning vegan community. “It’s my contribution,” she says. “I just think it’s important that people make informed choices.”

http://www.auntieloostreats.ca
507 Bronson Avenue
613-238-ALOO