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HELP! There's a VEGAN Coming For Dinner!


And Then There Was Zen...

Posted 3/15/2014

I love eating out. It’s a delight my English parents introduced me to at an early age, taking me to places like a tiny Chinese restaurant behind the market it Birmingham where every piece of pottery was chipped, or to a home-baked pie restaurant above a bakery in St. Anne’s. I have happy memories as a student of grabbing a falafel pita late at night, wolfing down burningly hot curries in Manchester, and feasting on the best veggie burgers EVER up a side street in Nottingham.

But at the same time, I also hate eating out. The trials and tribulations of finding good, tasty, non-meat, non-dairy food in restaurants sometimes makes me wish I’d just stayed home. Last week I was listened to a waitress explaining to me that when she said they had vegetarian items she hadn’t actually realised I WAS a vegetarian, and there were in fact no vegetarian dishes on the menu. At other times I’ve been told that a chicken soup is vegetarian because it has vegetables in it, or that a dish is vegetarian apart from the meat. Forgive me for rolling my eyes at this point. Sometimes, after I think I’ve been successful in ordering vegan food I’ve been surprised by the final dish, and not in a good way. A plate of tofu and vegetables, which I checked 3 times was JUST tofu and vegetables before ordering, was chock-a-block full of tiny deep fried fish, complete with heads and eyes. One of my favourite memories is of a vegetarian hot-sour soup which had a huge house fly floating in it. I showed it to the waiter who responded by shouting “Shit! Oh shit!”. After taking a moment to collect himself he tentatively asked “would you like another one?”. I assumed he was talking about the soup rather than the fly....

I’ve eaten at many vegetarian restaurants over the years (and there have been MANY years, believe me) and have always left disappointed. The food was often either buffet style (OK for a lunch, but for dinner I want to have a menu and my own table) or extremely “earthy”. You know the sort I mean - it leaves you feeling good about “saving the planet” but offers little in the way of taste or texture. Or, as my son Chris puts it “It’s so healthy it just makes you want to go for a jog”. It’s not just a problem I’ve had in England and Canada - a veggie restaurant in Tokyo served Alan and I with slimy bowls of unidentifiable squidgy blobs in grey goop, brightened up in colour and flavour only by the addition of sliced cherry tomatoes. To this day I have no idea what we ate, but know that we wouldn’t do it again!

Having said all that, I’m sure you can understand my hesitation before booking a table at Zen Kitchen in Ottawa on Tuesday night. I’d heard good things about it and figured it was probably time to see what the hype was about. It only serves vegan items so I wouldn’t have to worry about finding fish heads in my stir fry, but on the other hand it only serves vegan items so “bland” might be the word of the day. Wow, was I wrong! The evening started well with a beer for my non-vegan hubby (this is the trick to getting him to places he might not want to go...I simply say “You can have a beer and I’ll drive home”. It’s never failed me yet!) and a shared Zen Platter. Soft, chewy rice noodle rolls with a peanut dip, 3 types of pickles (which all had a unique flavour), crispy home-made potato chips, tofu with apple-butter and miso (Alan politely removed his from the bamboo skewer and ate it with his fork. I was so excited that I just shoved it in and chewed with a happy smile on my face) and dehydrated kale. I’ve previously mocked all things dehydrated, but this was delicious! Never before have Alan and I fought over the last piece of kale on a plate. That sort of thing is simply unheard of. The main courses were also wonderfully flavoured - Alan had seitan (moist, nicely textured, with a smokey topping) and I had the Mexican themed plate. We were both very happy. Afterwards, Alan somehow managed to fit in a chocolate cake with hot Mexican chocolate sauce, and I ordered the dessert sampler but found I was too full to eat it and brought it home with me. All in all it was a fabulous meal out. Lots of flavour, no dried fish, no grey goop, and no flies in my soup :)

After having such a positive experience at Zen I’m now willing to give other veggie restaurants a chance (or, in some cases, a second chance) to strut their stuff. Let me know if there’s somewhere you recommend, and keep an eye open for more reviews in the future.

Karen :)