Tag Archives: ZenKitchen

Kim celebrates the big 2-9 (for real!) at ZenKitchen

By Kim

ZenKitchen is one of the few restaurants that I like to save for special occasions. A very special occasion took place last weekend, my 29th birthday. Accordingly, Kyle took me to Zen Kitchen to celebrate.

I consider myself to be somewhat of a ‘foodie’. I like to sit down to a nice meal and discuss it. I like to talk about what makes it special. Caroline Ishii, the chef at ZenKitchen, really impressed me with this meal. Dave Loan impressed me with his drink creations.

When you go to ZenKitchen, the first thing I recommend is making a reservation, especially if you want to eat on a weekend. It’s a fairly small space and apparently it is very popular. After reading my review you will probably see why it is so popular. Also the reason why it’s saved for only special occasions for me is because it is pretty expensive. Keep that in mind when you decide to dine out, maybe trade two Green Earths and a Table for one night out at Zen?

Upon entering the restaurant we were asked by the hostess if she could take our coats. I think that is a bonus point right off the start. I really dislike bringing my coat to the table in the winter. It’s just too bulky. It’s also a good idea for the restaurant owners too, in order to preserve their furniture from the evil salt and dampness that may be lingering on the people of Ottawa’s outerwear.

When we sat down we were told of the special and given some time to think. This restaurant is not cheap, which is another reason why we save it for only a special occasion. While I was looking through the drink menu, I noticed a very cool breeze around my butt and legs. It felt like –75 degrees outside and being in an old building I figured it was just something to do with the construction. It was pretty uncomfortable though. I ended up finding the culprit after some searching: the electrical outlet. However, I forgot to mention it to the staff later on because I was so wrapped up in my meal and drinks. So, Dave and Caroline: If you are reading this, please insulate your electrical outlets! 🙂

Kim chee caesar
Kyle and I both ordered the Four Course Chef’s Tasting Menu for $48 per person. All that we were told was that it was Mediterranean themed. I almost didn’t go for it because when I think of Mediterranean food I think of olives, which I really can’t stand the taste or smell of. But I decided to take a chance and it turned out to be a really good chance to take! For drinks, we both ordered the Kimchee Caesars for $8 each. Not overpriced byOttawa standards. It was perfectly spicy and tasted like summertime. For those who know me well, I had an obsession with Bloody Mary’s this past summer. The Kimchee Caesar consisted of tomato juice, vodka, kimchee and a salt rim. Kimchee is something I would have never thought to put in a drink. Very creative and delicious. Thanks Dave!

Butternut squash risotto balls
The first course that came out was a butternut squash risotto ball with a panko crust and a chipotle sauce. It was fabulous. The butternut squash was so creamy and melted in my mouth. It almost had a sort of cheese-like flavour to it. I forgot to take a picture until I was halfway through it, so it doesn’t look as fancy in the picture as it did when Chef Caroline brought it out to us. The only thing about this meal that would improve it is a second or third risotto ball!

Quinoa beet salad.
Second course was surprising. It was a quinoa tabouli salad with beets and a horseradish aioli. I think this very special salad was created with Lebanese elements. Very creative and presented beautifully. It tasted even better than I would have thought. The quinoa had a very nice sweetness and some citrus notes to it. Throughout the quinoa part were little mustard seeds that popped in your mouth. I would try to duplicate it at home but I wouldn’t know where to start! Kyle is someone who really does not like beets, so this was worrying me while he ate it. I think since the beets were cut so small and each bite incorporated the other elements of the meal, he really enjoyed it. Also the beets lacked the earthiness that they usually have. They were juicy and sweet. Bonus.

Mushroom onion tempeh ravioli

Third course was the main meal. It was hand wrapped ravioli with caramelized onions, exotic wild mushrooms, and tempeh. I love fresh pasta, and it’s one of the things I miss most, being vegan. The pasta element was served very al dente, just how I like it. I love onions and I love mushrooms and I love pasta so I am a hard critic to please when it comes to these things. They have to be cooked to perfection, and they were. The onions were not mushy and were nice and sweet. Within the mushroom and onion medley were some other vegetables, cooked to perfection as well. I believe I tasted some sweet potato. The only element of the dish I couldn’t find was the tempeh. I think it was stuffed in the ravioli but there was so little of the stuffing that you couldn’t tell what it really was. However, I overlooked that aspect and consumed every drop of food on my plate. Yums.

Pyramid cake.
The fourth and final course was an orange and cardamom pyramid cake covered in chocolate ganash with raspberry coulis and candied orange peel. At first I was not very impressed. I really don’t like fruity flavours messing around with my chocolate. However, after the other three amazing courses, I trusted Caroline enough to giv ‘er a try. I am glad I did. Absolutely divine! The cake wasn’t overpoweringly orangey or cardamommy; it was nice and moist. The chocolate ganash was a compliment to the cake. I loved it.

Caipirinha night cap.

After dessert we wanted one more drink since it was such a special night. Kyle ordered some Laphroaig Quarter Cask Single Malt Scotch $7.5 and I ordered a Caipirinha $8. The Caipirinha consisted of Cachaça, lime, organic cane sugar. Cachaça is a Brazilian type of rum. I really enjoyed this one. It was refreshing and a good way to end the meal.

Except…the meal was not over. With the bill came two chocolate mint truffles. Melt in your mouth goodness.

Overall the meal was excellent. I am not one for surprises so it was very unlike me to order something and not know what it was going to be, but I am starting a new year so maybe this year I will just let go a little and try new things. I love how creative Chef Caroline and Dave are. Not once in my entire meal did I taste the typical Greek or Italian flavours one would normally assume of Mediterranean cuisine. Instead it was surprising, sweet, rustic, and citrusy. I loved every bite. I liked the ambiance of the restaurant, dimmed lighting, cute artwork (I think by a local artist? It has changed every time I have been there…a whole three times now!), and I didn’t even notice the music (good, because if I notice it it’s probably because it’s annoying me).

The most special part of the meal was when Chef Caroline brought us out our meals. It shows she takes special care with each and every one of her dishes. That’s wonderful, because I take special care eating everyone one of her dishes 😉

Christmas Eve dinner at ZenKitchen

By Pamela

I was feeling in the mood to be a bit fancy, so on Christmas Eve day I made a last-minute reservation online to go to ZenKitchen that evening with my partner.

As soon as we went in we were greeted by Dave, who exclaimed, “How nice to see you! I didn’t realize you were coming in tonight!” There’s nothing quite like a warm welcome to set a good tone for the evening. Later Chef Caroline came out and said almost the exact same thing, so that must make it true!

Tapas Plate appetizer.
We ordered our favorite appetizer, a tapas plate with Zen salad rolls with Thai peanut sauce, dengaku tofu skewers, house pickles, kale and handcut potato chips. I love love love the tofu skewers, and saved mine for last. It was, as usual, wonderful. Personally, if there were an entree of appetizer that consisted entirely of the apple tofu skewers I would order it in a heartbeat. (Caroline?) The Zen salad rolls are also tasty, but since I really hate mushrooms I end up pulling them out (as discretely as possible of course!) and making a bit of a mess. I also opted to have warm apple cider to drink, which was a nice toasty treat on a cold night. We were treated to two amuse bouche items, some locally baked bread with white bean and butternut squash dip, and a second one, the description of which I can’t recall (but see the bottom for a photo!)

Vegan ravioli-- but you'd never know it.
As is the norm at ZenKitchen, the server explained and offered the Four Course Chef’s Tasting Menu, but as someone who’s filled with a bit of anxiety over blind meal options I stuck to the menu. For my main course, I ordered the ravioli filled with pesto-cheese, with smoky tomato sauce and roasted vegetables. I’ve had it a few times now and it’s always delicious. It’s warm comfort food, and fairly filling. Yves had the Panko-crusted seitan medallions with a cranberry-teriyaki sauce, ancient grain pilaf, and Asian slaw. He was actually too full to finish it entirely, so I helped him out a bit.

Truly a chocolate lover's fantasy.
Because he was full Yves passed on dessert, but I had been salivating over the mere thought of the Spicy Mexican chocolate cake with warm chocolate sauce, creme anglaise, and berry coulis all afternoon, so I would not be deterred. I have to be honest, I can’t really tell you if the cake was extraordinary or not; it was so very smothered in the divine warm chocolate fudge sauce that it didn’t really matter. I’m inclined to say it was good, but frankly that sauce is so decadent it could make cardboard appealing. Suddenly and irrationally Yves became very hungry and I had to share some, but I still got my fill. It was, as always, phenomenal. Every time I have it I am inspired to create my own spicy chocolate desserts at home, and true to form within 48 hours I was baking Mexican chocolate cupcakes. But they don’t compare, and I anxiously await the next time I can partake in Chef Caroline’s unreasonably delicious concoction.

After playing with the really cool sink fixture in ZenKitchen’s bathroom I returned to the table to find more chocolate; ZenKitchen’s homemade chocolate truffles. A perfect end to a delightful meal.

A couple more photos of dinner:

The mystery amuse bouche.
Seitan: An excellent gateway food to give omnivores.

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