Ottawa Eats: An Epicurean Delight, Zen Kitchen
I believe that there are only so many instances in ones life when one is able to partake in a truly gourmet meal. Good food, yes. Delicious food, often. But truly gourmet? I can count those times on one hand. Whether at the Courtyard in Ottawa's Byward Market in 2007, at Luke's Gastronomy in Kingston, Ontario in 2008, or at Lou Fassum in Plascassier, France, in 2009 (where a French restaurant, yes a French one, accomodated my vegan diet), those experiences were rare, but all a unique delight.
Tonight, I had my gastronomic experience of 2010 at none other than the Ottawan gem, Zen Kitchen. Walking into a gorgeous heritage house on Somerset Avenue, we were immediately struck by the place's vibrant energy. It was both peaceful and energetic aside, as warm as it is classy. In terms of their ethic, Zen Kitchen boasts that they are local, organic, and gourmet, but the added bonus? They're vegan. No more do vegans have to bemoan the idea that they are stuck with buffet-style restaurant experiences. Now, vegans too can know the delight that is truly a creative, artful, and sensual dining experience. And for all you non-vegans, Zen Kitchen is proof that veggies can be sexy.
Gourmet food is defined as "a cultural ideal associated with the culinary arts of fine food and drink, or haute cuisine, which is characterised by elaborate preparations and presentations of large meals of small, often quite rich courses" (source). Having dinner at Zen Kitchen tonight was just that, it encompassed the three Ts of every gourmet experience: taste, textures, and timing. While the first two seem obvious, the latter is just as important. The dishes came to us like a perfect symphony, with just the right amount of time between each course, with small but perfect amuse-bouches sparking the in-betweens. Timing enables guests to have just the right amount of conversation, with enough time between each dish to delight in what was just had while anticipating what lies ahead.
Now as both a environmentalist foodie and a locavore, I absolutely delighted in the local and organic slant of Zen Kitchen. We were originally attracted to the place when I found that not only was it local and organic, it also had raw options and went out of its way to talk about its environmental practices. Adding even more to the experience, we recognized the names of all the farms from which Zen Kitchen gets its produce, often because we know the farmers themselves through our weekly market visits. It was such fun to recognize the peppers from farmer X we just talked to yesterday, while knowing that the edamame must have come from farmer Y who is the only guy in the area who sells locally-grown edaname. Knowing your farmer and going to a locally-sourced restaurant makes your experience so much more real and rich, that it was almost as good as having everyone from your chef to your farmer just come and sit down for a meal with you.
But onto the food. While we made our selection, the meal opened with a delightfully spicy chipotle hummus:
(the bread will go to the canal duckies)
And was followed by our request for kale chips, which was artfully paired with the most flavorful and not-overly-salty kimchi I've ever had, fermented daikon (an easy favourite for me!), and flax crackers:
Paired with that was such a simple dish, but one that may easily have been my evening's favourite: two shisheido peppers from Waratah Downs Farm prepared in a balsamic reduction. I'm not exaggerating when I say that such a simple dish enveloped your palate like a toasty evening beside a fireplace. The flavors were smoky, warm, and sweet, yet letting the original taste of the pepper shine through. Also great was that I had been just about to pick up some of those very peppers from Waratah Downs yesterday morning, but didn't. I got to taste them anyway!
Next up, my appetizer, their perfectly-portioned Raw Land and Sea Salad, made up of root veggie spirals, cucumbers, sea veggies, in a yuzu-ginger dressing. For all those who might not know, yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit. Now, you all know how much I love my sea veggies, so I did my best not to eat this all in one big mouthful. It's almost impossible for me and seaweed to go wrong, so that's about all I think I need to say about that one!
On his side, Andrew had the Somerset Salad, a selection of gourmet greens, fresh seasonal fruit, candied pecans (yum!), in apple dijon dressing. The lotus crackers were his personal highlight, and when I tasted it, I was reminded again of how amazing strawberries taste with greens.
My main course was the Raw Special, veggie noodles of carrot and zucchini with a fresh tomato marinara, garlic scape pesto, nut cheese, more kale chips (can there ever be too many?), and flax crackers over a bed of greens. I loved that they spiralized the veggies into angel hair rather than a thicker noodle, that blended perfectly with the sauce, and gave me that satisfying feeling of eating "traditional" pasta with an abundance of sauce. It was light, refreshing, and perfect.
Andrew made the very good decision to "raw splurge" and had their Thai-style Lemongrass Curry with seasonal veggies, edamame, and kaffir-scented jasmine rice. Looking at all the amazing dishes on the menu to pick from had I not stuck with raw, in all honesty, my first thought was "you got the curry??" But it was a fantastic decision. The kaffir was the flavor I loved most about this dish. It was so subtle but brought the most amazing aroma and full-bodied bang to this dish, that made it skyrocket from by "just another curry" to absolutely memorable. I also really appreciated that they didn't cook the veggies to death as is done in most curries, the heirloom carrots were embued with curry flavor but still had bite, and the coconut lemongrass flavor of the curry sauce itself was enough to make this worthy of just being a soup on its own.
And finally, dessert. Oh, dessert. How I loved thee. Of course, we opted to share their Raw Chocolate Mint and Coconut Parfait, berry compote, fresh fruit, and cutest ground cherry included. Now if you didn't think chocolate mousse was enough to rock my socks, the mint coconut layer was heavenly. It was the fluffiest, most mousse-like raw dessert I've ever had. While I guessed that it probably had some form of emulsifier like irish moss in it, but Dave, one of the restaurant's owners, told us that they've been able to evolve the recipe into coconut perfection sans soy lecithin or sea life. He said the secret was chilling and working the coconut and repeated the process a few times. Whatever it is they did though, it was outstanding. This time, I did pretty much lick the glass clean.
And finally, deliciously rich vegan chocolate truffles with our bill. Now that beats a breath mint or a fortune cookie any day.
I know I don't always give restaurant reviews such pride of place on my blog but this was truly a memorable experience that deserved this many words. We were told by our waitress that they always have a raw option on their dinner menu even when they change it over the seasons, so we will undoubtedly be back. Zen Kitchen was an amazing experience, and it makes all the more rewarding an experience when we know that when they close their doors tonight, all their waste will have been sorted for composting and recycling, while their food itself was grown and cooked with love and with a minimal impact on our planet.
So thanks to Dave for a fantastic evening and for answering our many questions. Thanks to our waitress for answering just a many questions and ensuring that we were having a great time. And thanks to our amazing chef whom we only got to catch a glimpse of as she briefly came out to see a table near ours for a fabulous and creative meal.
Up tomorrow: my successful adventures with Irish Moss!