To Die and Go to Vegan Heaven: Zen Kitchen Take 2

When I knew my parents were coming into town, Andrew and I knew right away that we had to take them to Zen Kitchen. After the fabulous first experience we had there back in August of last year, we knew that if anyone could convince friends and family that vegan fare can be more than just dahl or tofurky, it would be Zen Kitchen. Once again, thank you so much to all the folks at Zen for giving us another memorable experience in fine vegan dining.

In any gourmet restaurant, I always take such joy in the unique dynamic created between those who experience their love for food by eating it (the customer) and those who are show their love for food by creating it (the chef). Last time I wrote about them, one of biggest draws I noticed was Zen Kitchen's ability to combine "taste, textures, and timing" to perfection. Once again, they did not disappoint. We all truly appreciated the frequent attention the waitstaff and the chef herself gave to us and other diners. It showed that they really cared both about our experience, but also in the quality of their service and their food.

While we looked over our menus, our waitress started us off with a teaser of the amazing things to come: a raw endive leaf with an edamame hummus and sea veggies. I don't know how she does it, but Chef Caroline has the amazing gift of turning the simple into the wholly complex by pairing very usual tastes and textures in unique and unexpected ways. It was fresh, savory, salty, and perfumed all at the same time, and that was just the start.

As my dad would say, we spent most of the evening looking at the menu "avec des yeux plus gros que le ventre" (literally, with "eyes bigger than our stomachs"), and quickly started off by ordering the two tapas plates to share. The first was a sampling of rice paper veggie rolls with a sesame-sprinkled Thai peanut sauce, dengaku tofu skewers, house-made picked veggies (daikon and kimchi), and dehydrated kale and potato chips. The dish was as beautiful and colourful as it was delicious. My long love affair with asian and asian-inspired cuisine (especially Thai peanut sauce) made this a definite win for my palate. I also learned that dengaku is a type of Japanese miso cuisine that involves grilling a food twice, once on its own, and once coated it with a layer of sweet miso sauce. There was sweet, there was salty, sour, bitter and pungent. There were also textures that were crunchy, that were resilient, that melted in your mouth, that had bite, that were plying. Perfection.

The second tapas plate was sesame-crusted and flash-fried exotic mushrooms, served with a tamarind and sweet chile sauce. Did they win my heart over with house-made sweet and sour sauces? Did they make me profess their undying love to them with a delicious blend of at least four of five different mushroom of complementary textures and sizes? Yes. Double yes. And I do love you, Zen Kitchen.

These two plates were so good, I could have very well been satisfied to stop there and let my taste buds continue their happy dance until breakfast the next day. But we moved on to...

... my Gluten-free house-made ravioli filled with caramalized onions and smoked tempeh in a putanesca sauce, served with seasonal vegetables. See, I've actually been craving tortellini and/or ravioli since going vegan, because apparently no one ever thinks to make a cheeseless version. Of course, they knew this and chose to satisfy my every whim. In all honesty, my one critique was that it was a little light on the filling and heavy on the pasta dough, but warm and delicious none the less.

Andrew went for the Chef's Whim, as is often his habit in gourmet restaurants. It seems to be a habit that never fails him, as he was offered a beautifully arranged (yet poorly photographed) and perfectly spiced curry of Puy lentils and roasted vegetables, a Heaven-sent chickpea pakora, fragrant cumin basmati rice, and spiced mango-mint chutney. This was a dish worthy of Orientalist fantasy.

My mom opted for the Mushroom Risotto, served with exotic mushrooms, cannellini beans, and vegetables. I never really understood the whole "risotto" thing. To me, it's always just been creamy rice, but even Zen Kitchen had a way of making it the most fragrant yet comforting risotto I have ever tried.

And my dad's dish, Sope... oh the Sope, I thought was the crowning achievement of these entrees. Pictured above on the right was the most gorgeous platage of colours that arrived to our table that night. Sope, a leavened corn tortilla topped with refried beans and a mix of brightly hued veggies, was served with equally festive sides of flambeed mushrooms in a chipotle-tequila sauce, a house salsa and guacamole, sour cream, and spiced rice. The Sope would qualify as one of those foods that to the Chinese is more about illusion than it is about taste. While it was a thick corn tortilla, I could have swore is was a grilled potato pancake. Fantastic!

And how does one refuse dessert after all the wonders that have transpired? My dad and I chose to split our desserts, and my rise to culinary dessert bliss began with the most moist, dense, and plate-lickingly delicious spiced mexican chocolate cake I've ever had. It was served with a rich chocolate sauce and berry coulis, which was the perfect complement for it to bathe in while I oo-ed and mm-ed over its warm embrace. Once again, I am so rarely a chocolate person but this cake would have converted me to the god of chocolate in a heartbeat.

When I gave my half of paradise to my dad, he offered me his tres leches sponge cake. Now, I mean this as a total compliment, but I usually hate sponge cake. When I see dogs foam at the mouth because they have rabies, that's what I feel sponge cake tastes like. It's wholly a textural thing, and it's not mine at all... and yet. The cake was light, airy, and felt like eating the clouds you imagine Care Bears to dance upon. Its frosting was wonderfully creamy, topped with a caramel sauce and poached pears. All the tastes were so light and delicate, I imagine this to be a dessert fit to be shared with fairies.

I only had a bite of Andrew's lemon pie served on a nut crust and coconut whipped cream. However, despite my dislike for foamy cakes, foamy whipped cream has always been a passion of mine. I haven't really been able to indulge in that since my childhood days of July 4th Reddi-Wip out of an aerosol can. Again, Zen Kitchen's ability to take any omnivore's delight and turn it vegan is beyond comprehension.

Full and satisfied, I know Zen Kitchen dazzled my family with a new perspective on vegan cuisine. It achieved its highest purpose and gave us yet an unforgettable vegan food adventure.


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