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634 Somerset Street West
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Four Stars from Ottawa Magazine (Sept, 2012)
ZenKitchen **** (Four stars = Excellent)
ZenKitchen is a trailblazer. Not just in Ottawa: a Zen-like restaurant would be considered exciting in any city. Here's a vegan restaurant that can stand proudly among this city's signature restaurants -- not sure there's another vegetarian restaurant in any city that can lay claim to that.
Chef (and co-owner) Carole Ishii has made a name for herself in food circles by twice winning a silver medal at the Gold Medal Plates culinary competition for her meatless, dariryless dishes so skilled and inventive that they edged out plates weighted with wagyu. (So to speak.)
Housed on the eastern edge of Chinatown, in a red brick on Somerset, the dining room is comfortable, smart and warm. Local art hangs on the tangerine walls, and local content is found in the kitchen and on the brew, cider and wine lists.
Co-owner David Loan is the man to pair his chef-partner's food with a VQA bottle from the Zen cave.
The food is bright, balanced, and inventive. If you're game for adventure, the tasting menu is the way to go.
Otherwise, start with a strikingly pretty salad of heirloom beets -- some roasted, some pickled, some dehydrated, all treated with an orange cardamom sauce. The ravioli with smoked tomato sauce, eggplant parmigiana with gremolata, or the lemongrass curry would be wise choices for nexts.
Chocolate always makes a fine choice for dessert.
Steps to entrance and washrooms. Mains $20-$22. Open Thursday to Sunday for lunch/brunch, Tuesday to Sunday for dinner. 634 Somerset St. W, 613-233-6404, www.zenkitchen.ca.
Ottawa Magazine, September, 2012
"Exquisite, diversely sourced cuisine that’s artfully made" - Capital Xtra!
Sustainable, homemade and gourmet is what it’s all about at ZenKitchen — a restaurant that gives vegan food a good, and tasty, name.
It’s a friendly place, but this is no bohemian café. Rather, it’s exquisite, diversely sourced cuisine that’s artfully made, with attention to detail, gorgeous plating and imaginative flavour and texture combinations that put a twist on traditional dishes like curry, sope and risotto.
Globe and Mail: Who knew vegan food could be so satisfying?
In Ottawa's Chinatown, a surprise awaits: a high-end vegan restaurant that draws the omnivore crowd. ZenKitchen brings gourmet international to the bean-sprout set. Chef Caroline Ishii, who chats with guests as she moves between tables, says what she really wants to do is make food that's good for the planet and good for people. Despite the healthy focus, there's a thread of decadence here. “It doesn't have to be foie gras to be tasty,” Ishii explains. Tasty, indeed, from the creamy coconut curry with lentils and seasonal vegetables to the tres leches cake made with rice milk, coconut cream and coconut milk. Who knew vegan food could be so satisfying?
Click here for the Globe's complete Concierge column
Washington Post laud's Ottawa's new cool, ZenKitchen.
Here's an excerpt:"The first night, after sightseeing around my hotel, I walked down Elgin Street to Somerset and dinner at ZenKitchen. A traditional French restaurant formerly occupied this old house on the edge of Chinatown; in 2009, it became Canada's first fine-dining vegan restaurant. A bookish, prosperous-looking crowd packs the place for such locally sourced specialties as panko-crusted seitan with Asian slaw and a killer raw chocolate-mint-coconut parfait. "People told us Ottawa wasn't ready for a vegan restaurant," New York-trained chef and co-owner Caroline Ishii told me as she surfed the cantaloupe-colored room, greeting diners. ZenKitchen is now one of the hottest tables in town."
Washington Post article
Westjet's inflight magazine loves ZenKitchen!
In decidedly meat-driven Ottawa, ZenKitchen flips the switch by serving up vegan fare that's inventive, creative and delicious.
Naked tofu and bland beans need not apply at ZenKitchen. This is a vegan rarity that serves up large portions of surprisingly inventive meatless and dairy-free fantastic fare.
Voted Ottawa’s New Restaurant of the Year by The Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association in February 2010, ZenKitchen is red brick on the outside and earthy shades of burnt burgundy and muted mustard on the inside.
Local art hangs on the walls, rotating through for several months at a time, giving artists a chance to sell their creations and giving repeat customers—and there are many—something new to look at in between delicious plates of some of the most creative food in the city. Let’s eat already!
The Sizeable Starter
Being vegetarian in Ottawa usually makes ordering from the menu a cinch—the salad, please, hold the bacon bits. So when you face an entire menu of veggie-friendly concoctions, you might feel slightly daunted.
Look for the Buddha-like owner, David Loan. Doubling as an attentive server and certified sommelier, he’ll be happy to calm your virgin vegan nerves by suggesting something from the excellent wine list. There are even some organic varieties in the mix, including Ontario’s vegan Frogpond Farm’s whites and reds, and even closer to Ottawa, local brews such as nearby Vankleek Hill’s yummy Beau’s Lugtread Lagered Ale.
When in doubt, go with something that has zen in the description, so my food adventure partner and I started with a tapas plate for two. For $16, the plate is loaded with the Zen summer salad rolls, with Thai peanut sauce, dengaku tofu skewers, house-made pickles and kale chips.
The salad rolls are so fresh they almost talk back and the kale chips are hip and good for you so just eat them and bask in your newly acquired healthy vegan-glow.
If the plentiful mentions of zen don’t tip you off that executive chef Caroline Ishii bases a lot of her kitchen’s cuisine on the Japanese cooking she learned from her mother, the dengaku tofu skewers certainly will.
Thanks to Ishii’s own tasty individual twists, a lot of the items are, or can be prepared, gluten-free, making the ZenKitchen a great spot for those with special dietary concerns, vegan or not.
The Succulent Main
Feeling brave after the safe “zen-in-the-title” order, my friend and I take a leap of faith and order up a plate of panko-crusted seitan medallions with a cranberry-teriyaki sauce, ancient grain pilaf and Asian slaw ($21). We also go for the sesame-crusted Le Coprin exotic mushrooms with seasonal vegetables, tamarind-star anise reduction and sweet chile sauce ($10).
The latter is admittedly an appetizer but the Buddha doesn’t judge and neither should you. But covering the Buddha’s eyes for a minute, I’d judge these two food-laden plates a 10.
Knowing I should probably ask the server what panko and seitan meant—as my editor might want to know (update: she did! Panko, it turns out, are Japanese breadcrumbs, while seitan is veggie meat made from wheat). But I’m too busy stuffing my face to come up for air and details. All I know is that everything tastes so very, very good.
Will I be able to fit in dessert? Oh ye of little faith.
The Sweet Finale
Being a person of the female persuasion, I consider myself a bit of an expert on chocolate. Believe me, I train. And I only have three words for the Mexican chocolate cake with warm chocolate sauce and fresh fruit for $8: Olé Olé Olé!
When chile meets chocolate in the kitchen of Zen, it is like the stars aligning and suddenly, all past hurts fade away.
For instance, I can now forget that someone with better shoulders wore the same prom dress as me several years ago.
She has probably never eaten at the ZenKitchen. I have.
And thus, I win.
ZenKitchen is open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations are recommended.
The next decade's trendsetters, by Anne Desbrisay
OTTAWA — Ottawa is not a pace-setter. Beg your pardon if that offends, but in terms of innovation in the restaurant landscape we tend to be forever a few steps behind the usual suspects — Toronto, Vancouver, New York. They’re bigger, they’re more ethnically diverse and they have a deeper culinary past.
Which is not to suggest we don’t have superb restaurants in this city. We do. We just don’t have buckets of them. And we don’t typically create the fashions that give birth to them. So it did seem forced to look deeply upon the decade of dining in Ottawa in search of new trends.
Of course “regional-seasonal-organic” is big here, as everywhere, and yes we are uniquely situated in this region, blessed with a bountiful backyard, easily accessed without spending hours in traffic jams! (In this, at least, there are others who lag far behind.)
And yes, I could talk about small plates dining, bar menus, bare-table dining, open-kitchen restaurants, and meat still mattering. But what I would like to do instead is to speak of three Ottawa restaurants, all born during the past 10 years, that I would suggest are worthy of looking at more closely. Not because they’re the best we’ve got — although all three are terrific — but because each is, for now, unique.
The Wellington Gastropub
1325 Wellington St.
Much was made of the name when it first opened. It stuck in people’s craws, its phonetics made the tummy squiggle, its definition defied the mind (what the heck is a gastropub anyway?). Blah, blah, blah. But anyone who is familiar with the restaurant scene across the pond knows that gastropubs are a strong and plenteous category in any U.K. restaurant index.
And anyone who knows Ottawa knows we are not short on English/Irish-style pubs. What we are short on is English/Irish-style pubs that cook well. What the Wellington Gastropub has done is combine a pub — good drinking options in a convivial atmosphere — with destination dining. You go as much for the food as the drink, and you can shuffle over in your slippers if you care to. And the place is packed. I predict (here we go … ) more of these. Because they make such good sense.
540 Rochester St.
I think it more likely there will be a gastropub on every neighbourhood corner a decade from now than a molecular gastronomy restaurant. It’s not that I think it’s a flash in the pan (or, say, a ripple in the thermostated water bath) but it requires money to outfit a space-age kitchen, and demands chefs who have the time to spend, an abiding fascination with, and talent for, the science and art of manipulating ingredients to produce flavours, textures and looks that fascinate, provoke and delight.
But here we have Atelier, unique not just in Ottawa, but — I’d suggest — in the country. A sign-less restaurant that delivers the double whammy of food prepared using unconventional methods and presented without a menu.
It takes courage to offer no options. Thirteen courses, served blind (I can hear Atelier chef Marc Lepine shouting that allergies and food “particulars” can be handled with sufficient notice), but the fact remains that Atelier is not for the finicky or the timid.
Hard to say if we’ll see more gastronauts the likes of Lepine, but I’d sure like to see more tasting-menu-only restaurants in this city, molecularly prepared or otherwise. Atelier just takes a worthy idea to extremes, and deserves our admiration.
634 Somerset St. W.
That Caroline Ishii’s new restaurant serves exclusively vegan food is largely forgotten as you work your way through dinner at ZenKitchen. And that’s what makes this new restaurant extraordinary. ZenKitchen has taken what you might consider peripheral dining to a prominent level. Yes, this is a vegetarian restaurant. No, there are no buffet lines, no weigh scales, and no banquet tables. And sure, it’s early days yet, but if its opening moves are to be trusted, I would happily slot ZenKitchen in Ottawa’s top 10 dining rooms a year from now.
So will ZenKitchen pave the way for other so-called fringe eateries to smarten up? If a vegan dining room can polish up its act, can’t we hope for the same from our city’s ethnic dining rooms? We are desperately due for inventive, sophisticated, ethnic dining in this city. Not just “quality” or “authentic” but ethnic food that is truly innovative.
Can such a thing happen in this city? To paraphrase one of this decade’s great newsmakers, “Yes it can.” Let the word go forth that within the next 10 years one of Ottawa’s finest restaurants will be Cantonese or Goan. Some might say that Ottawa doesn’t have the ethnic population to support such a thing. But what percentage of our population is vegan? If Ottawa has a yen for ZenKitchen, can molecular mutton vindaloo be far behind?
Anne DesBrisay is the author of Capital Dining, A Guide for Dining Out in Canada’s Capital. E-mail her at
Ottawa XPress: "Consciously Creative"
"Fortunately, Ottawa's veg community now has ZenKitchen - a fine dining vegan restaurant that leaves guests feeling pampered, from the amuse-bouche to the attentive staff to the thoughtful wine list."
Ottawa XPress review
Ottawa Citizen review by Anne DesBrisay, September 16, 2009.
Zen Kitchen does not have a mission statement pinned to its front door. It does not come with monastically uncomfortable tables, cafeteria-style rails or weigh scales by the cash register. It does not litter the walls with new-agey, pseudo-Buddhist, über-hippy references. What Zen Kitchen does do is help you forget you are in a vegan restaurant. Which is, as far as I'm concerned, high praise.
Owned by Caroline Ishii (chef) and David Loan (sommelier), Zen Kitchen opened in late June in the space vacated by Le Panaché. With help from Ottawa designer Heidi Helm, they've created a cheerfully dignified space. Gorgeous art hangs on red and mustard walls, chairs and benches are comfortable, upholstered in jaunty polkadots, lighting is soft and clean, fresh flowers and candles grace gleaming cherry tables.
The meals I've had at Zen speak loudly of a gifted chef who draws tastily on a larder of local plants, and who roams the globe - Mexico, Morocco, Japan, Thailand - for bright ideas. Ishii's dishes range from bold to delicate, multi-textured to softly herby, aromatic to spicy. This is thoroughly enjoyable dining that doesn't suffer from any lack of beast.
Though I do feel the need to add "for now." This time of year, eating a plant-based diet is dead easy and delicious. How the vegan Zen will taste in February is TBD. Though I look forward to finding out.
So vegans, for those who don't subscribe to Mother Jones, are vegetarians at their most "devout." Animal products or animal by-products are all no-no's. So, wonder at the dreamy creaminess of the mushroom sauce? Ground cashew "butter," thinned with silken tofu and spiked with roasted ancho peppers. Presto. Butter with nary an udder tickled!
Ishii's gnocchi shows the hand of an expert, pleasantly served with a late summer ratatouille. A roasted corn chowder with coriander is elevated with smoked oyster mushrooms and a chili oil drizzle, and by Art-is-in Bakery's fennel bread used to sop it up. Local chanterelle mushrooms in impeccable condition are lightly coated in a tempura-style batter fashioned with brown rice and gram flours, scattered with sesame seeds and served with a duo of marvellous sauces.
Plates are all decorative, though they rely as much on taste as design. Ishii's tapas presentation of salad rolls (with a divine peanut sauce), tofu skewers (fantastic), tumeric-stained daikon ribbons, a pile of kimchi and one of togarashi-peppered potato chips, is inspirational. Even the black bean with chopped chestnut "cake" (more a mound) covered with a ripe guacamole, surrounded with pickles and corn chips, is stylish.
Anne DesBrisay's review
Ottawa Magazine: Veg with Edge
...the feel-good consciousness of ZenKitchen doesn't supersede taste or presentation.
Ottawa Magazine Sept 09.jpg (1718K)
Ottawa Citizen: Vegans of the city, rejoice!
Vegans of the city, rejoice! ZenKitchen, a high-end vegetarian/vegan restaurant has just opened at 634 Somerset St. W. in Ottawa's Chinatown area, offering gourmet food and stylish atmosphere that goes well beyond the usual cafeteria-style fare at other vegetarian eateries. Owner Caroline Ishii is an accomplished vegetarian chef, who is teamed with her life partner Dave Loan in the venture. it's a small yet well-appointed space, and definitely worth checking out. Call 613-233-6404 or see www.zenkitchen.ca. (Ron Eade, The Ottawa Citizen, July 4, 2009, p J12)
apt613.ca ZenKitchen preview
"This weekend, Chinatown’s Zen Kitchen finally held its long-awaited opening. It is the first fine cuisine vegan restaurant in the city..."
The full story
Ottawa Citizen's Ron Eade visits ZenKitchen
"But, occasionally, someone comes along who redefines a category, who makes you sit back, behold, taste their food and say simply, “wow!” And I’m most delighted to suggest that Zen Kitchen, which officially opens its doors tonight at 634 Somerset St. W. in Ottawa’s Chinatown neighbourhood, has all the makings of a place I expect will raise the bar on vegetarian cuisine beyond the cafeteria-style dining to date in the nation’s capital."
Sunday Night Jazz
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