The Road Less Eaten
Sharing my experiences traveling and integrating my surroundings through local vegan cuisine.
ZEND CONSCIOUS LOUNGE
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Food style: 100% Organic Plant-Based Cuisine and Botanical (non-alcoholic) Bar
Veg Scale: 100% vegan and gluten free!!!
Part of town: Yaletown
Yes, you read that right. This incredible venture from Steve Curtis, the creator of the proprietary botanical elixir known as Zend, is more than just a restaurant and is intended as a community gathering space for conscious shared experience. 100% of the profits go to support the partner-driven philanthropic initiative ZAG Heartbeats. The food is delicious on its own, but knowing the philosophy behind it all makes the experience all the more rich and rewarding. I deeply hope that this business model takes hold and becomes the norm in order to foster more sustainable communities around the globe.
Right upon entering you can tell something is different about this space. Words of intention are organically displayed along the walls, a card game of conscious conversation is stationed at every table and the staff greets you as a member of their community not simply a customer.
We wanted to ward off the wet cold from outside so started off with a couple drinks. Their signature elixir Amour (GF) is cold, but includes a serving of the Zend proprietary blend. It was recommended to us to have any of the Zend drinks after the meal rather than before as they serve as a mild appetite suppressant, but Chris was so intrigued that he dove right in from the start! Immediately upon contact it tingles and numbs the palate, but in a relaxing not alarming way… as we were prepared for it. The botanicals have a tart quality, but are smoothed over by the cinnamon sweet vanilla almond milk and cut by a hint of citrus from the orange zest.
Their Bliss Hot Chocolate (GF) was my choice for a comforting drink to warm my bones. Mild and not overly sweet it was a little too milky for me, as I prefer a darker, richer sipping cacao, but was still perfect for the rainy day. A denser chocolate drink would have sent me fully into Bliss Town.
Moving on to more solid sustenance we ordered the 5-Spice Pear & Sweet Potato Pancakes (GF). Though Chris is not generally a fan of sweet potatoes, these buckwheat cakes topped with coconut whip and a coconut nectar drizzle smelled like dessert and offered Chris a new perspective on his previous yam revulsion. Three dense cakes approximately 4” in diameter arrived topped with stewed spiced pears and sprinkled with cinnamon. Not overly sweet to begin with as the buckwheat was a stronger flavor influence than the yams, due to their multidimensional toppings they didn’t need much syrup. Their grainy texture and crispy edges only added to the earthy appeal and made for a filling first dish.
Next up was the Green Plate (GF) a savory smorgasbord of made-from-scratch quiche, house made sausage, roasted Roma tomatoes, avocado and toast with spread. The quiche was very rich and creamy, almost reminiscent of pumpkin pie filling in consistency, with a distinctly non-egg flavor. Carrots, celery, and seasonal veggies played hide and seek among the cashew-based filling. There was no distinct crust but rather just somewhat spongy, browned edges which was just as well as the filling was so dense on its own. Interesting in construction, it could have used some more diverse flavor and spice, perhaps some cumin for depth or dill to lighten it up. The sweet roasted tomatoes and avocado on the side were a nice accompaniment that added a fresh quality. Though called a sausage on the menu, its chickpea/black bean/flax meal/beet base was neither smoky in flavor nor meaty in texture and did not allude to its namesake. Chunks of apple and green onion added robustness to the texture. Generally not one for faux meats regardless, I found it delicious in its own right. The flax caraway toast was accompanied by homemade jam and coconut cream that I could have eaten for days. Not overly sweet, the jam blended perfectly with the cream to create the sweet end of this eclectic plate.
Rounding out our experience was the Chocolate Torte (GF). Knowing that Canadian avocados just aren’t as rich and buttery as the ones I’m used to in Southern California, this mousse unfortunately suffers though the texture is on point. Topped with cacao nibs, hemp seeds, and goji berries the chocolate they used is delicious, but sadly the bland taste of the avocado breaks through. However, the coconut cacao crust is so rich and creamy that it would be delicious as a bar on its own, perhaps with just a little more date thrown in for better hold and consistency.
Regardless of little tweaks here and there that I would make recipe-wise, the heart and intention of this place is palpable and will bring me back every chance I get. The more we can support holistic business models like this, the healthier both our local and global communities will be. Much in the same way that if we support our bodies with wholesome, natural, unprocessed foods as nature intended, our lives will flourish to their greatest potential. Leaving you with tummies and hearts full of good vibes.
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada
Food style: whole foods, simple ingredients
Veg Scale: 100% vegan and gluten free
Part of town: Pandosy Village
Originally located in the Kensington neighborhood of Calgary, Alberta, owner Kristi Reich moved to this new location one year ago. With the intention of bringing tasty plant-based cuisine to the masses she still maintains a small, open kitchen from which to serve up her wholesome meals in order to preserve their original home cooked authenticity. Each meal is made to order, the intention being allergy and food sensitivity awareness. Kristi would rather you add what you want to your meal rather than having to ask for things to be removed, and the menu is built with that in mind. Using no gluten, refined sugar or soy, all the optional ingredients are listed a la carte for you to select as you please.
The open kitchen and small space afford the feeling of being welcomed into someone’s home for a meal. The games filling the bookcases begging to be played at the community tables only add to that atmosphere. As you take a seat at your table, a glass jar packed to the brim with colorful slips of paper awaits you, inviting your intrigue. Each strip has on it a playful task or deeper philosophical question proposing that you rediscover the play in and appreciation for life. Hidden in there are some of life’s bigger questions, but my selection simply suggested that I “do something childish today.” Check.
Unique and varying glass bottles that Kristi discovered at various yard sales are filled with reverse osmosis water amd provided to whet your palate as you "pour" over the menu. Designed with the intention of mindfulness and gratitude for the bounty that will be prepared for your consumption, the menu items are all listed as anecdotal affirmations. Strikingly similar in nature to Café Gratitude’s menu style, the two restaurants are in no way related with this one being far more inviting and personal in its layout and approach.
Chris, his cousin Virginia who lives in the area, and I opted to go family style. We started under the I Am Raw portion of the menu ordering the I Am Curious, a “kreamy” tahini glazed pad thai. This dish came deconstructed, each colorful element separated within a large bowl. Comprised of coconut and carrot shavings, sundried tomatoes, broccoli, sprouts, spinach, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, kelp noodles, slivers of red bell pepper, halved black zebra plum tomatoes, and cucumber and zucchini spiral noodles all doused in a creamy tahini dressing, this made for a bright, fresh and flavorful start to our meal. I even got to try Gooseberries for the first time, which tasted to me like the forbidden lovechild of a lustful kiwi and a naïve kumquat.
Our palates sufficiently whetted, we moved on to the I Am Warm portion of the menu. Chris ordered the I Am Loveable, which is not ironic at all as he is so very much so. Cue sappy music and puppies running through fields. This oven-baked quesadilla came loaded with veggies and homemade cheez along with a heaping helping of their chunky guacamole. This tortilla puts all other gluten free tortillas to shame! Not soggy, gooey, dry or crumbly, it held together despite its heavy veggie load and tasted delicious! All of the baked goods at Gratitude Café come from a gluten free bakery in Calgary called Earth’s Oven, which unfortunately for me does not ship outside their local region. This is a problem as their food is clearly made of magic things that I feel compelled to consume on a regular basis. Stuffed to the brim with perfectly cooked vegetables and chickpeas dancing among a creamy nut cheez that tasted like it could have been blended with chickpeas as well, the quesadilla came partnered with crisp marinated jicama “fries”, thinly spiraled cucumber and deliciously creamy yet heartily chunky guac made with tomatoes and slices of carrot, basil and onion. A very satisfying dish all around, I was tempted to order a second helping just to take home for later!
Luckily it was brought out at the same time as the I Am Sharing, which we all did. A gluten free, thin crust build-your-own pizza, the menu offers that you top it with “everything you like.” However this is not merely a suggestion, it’s a requirement! The waitress even brought back our order card after she first collected it, insisting that, as it’s unlimited, we simply had to select more toppings! Another brilliant creation of Earth’s Oven, this pizza crust somehow managed to remain intact under the bombardment of ingredients that we eventually heaped upon it! Basil, spinach, mushrooms, pecans, chickpeas, olives, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, sprouts… I’m sure I’m forgetting a couple… topped with a dollop of guac all piled on top of a zesty shmearing of tomato sauce and finished off with a rich balsamic reduction drizzled across the top. If I could have, I would have set up shop and lived inside this pizza, making a home for myself and my family, redecorating from time to time and potentially renting it out to the odd AirBnBer on a whim. However, I wanted it inside me more, so I ate it instead. I regret this decision not at all. It is easily the best vegan pizza, nay, one of the best pizzas in general that I have ever had. Not to toot any horns, but Virginia and I did a bang up job on the toppings. The kaleidoscope of flavors, colors and textures so fully satiated me that for the first time I did not find myself missing any cheese, dairy or otherwise.
Far be it from me to not get the full experience during my first visit to a new restaurant, so I encouraged us to enter the I Am Sweet section. I Am Genuine is the apt name for a genuinely delicious finish to a most fulfilling meal. Each day the special changes and today’s raw dessert offering was a Nutty Chocolate Tahini Macaroon. I was expecting something of the round, golf ball sized variety, but instead was met with a long, thin slice of something devilishly decadent looking. A crumbly, sweet crust of pecans supported a second layer of creamy, yet softly grainy chocolate tahini capped off by a denser layer of chocolate ganache interspersed with bits of toasted pecans. Further enhanced by a garnish of more gooseberries, my tongue was dancing with delight at every bite!
Best expressed by Virginia’s exclamation that this was now her “favorite local spot,” though she said “favourite” being that she’s Canadian, our opinion of this cozy little café is quite evident. With a conscious menu that offers food allergy sufferers copious amounts of flavorful ingredients to combine differently at every visit, Gratitude Café provides an endless array of powerfully delicious and nutritious variations on every dish that will keep you coming back again and again just to challenge yourself to build a more delicious creation than you did on your last visit… which may easily have been earlier that same day… I won’t judge you.
Los Angeles, California, USA
Food style: Eco-conscious, local, organic vegan bistro and bar
Veg Scale: 100% vegan
Part of town: Santa Monica municipal area, near the courthouse
Located on Olympic Blvd. between Ocean Avenue and Main Street, this brand new gem recently opened in my neighborhood and is a most welcome new kid on the block! As you read in my previous entry about Zest Kitchen & Bar in SLC, I absolutely fell in love with the food and the ambiance there and now eLOVate brings many of those exact same elements to my front doorstep!
The LOV stands for Local, Organic, and Vegan and is pure LOVE ☺ Their menu is diverse featuring everything from fresh-squeezed organic juices and cocktails to crabless cakes, jackfruit tacos and daikon scallops. There are so many incredible options on this menu that I actually had a tough time choosing. Lucky for me I was being taken out for my belated birthday nibbles so we all shared family style!
First up was their Classic Poutine (GF). As I’m now dating a Canadian, I’ve been on the search for the perfect vegan poutine since February of this year and… I’ve found it! In America no less! This dish is definitely for the mushroom lover like myself so if you’re not a fan of the fungi then you may disagree. I found the wild mushroom gravy to be the highlight, an incredibly savory and complex blanket engulfing the delicate French fries underneath and topped with the satisfyingly creamy texture and bite of the almond cheese curds. No processed cheese substitute here, just delicious, all natural ingredients making for a decadently guilt-free indulgence! The fries were happily swimming in their gravy pool, the perfect balance of soggy and crispy, slightly seasoned and not too oily or dense. I could have eaten this twice and we almost did! I traveled all over Canada trying to find this dish done right and it was down the street from me the whole time!
To wash it down we ordered a Juice Flight (GF). You can pick the 4 juices for your flight (which costs the same as one full-sized juice), but we opted for our waiter’s recommendations. I LOVE that they offer a flight! It’s the first time I’ve seen such an option at any of the juice bars or vegan restaurants I’ve been to and I see myself taking advantage of it more than once! The Chillax (strawberry, apple, parsley, cinnamon) was my favorite. Not overly sweet, the ingredients balanced perfectly and the cinnamon gave it a unique, comfy finish. The Chloro-Farm II (kale, cilantro, mint, lemon, lime, parsley, spinach, cucumber, spirulina) tastes just as green as it sounds, but would be delicious over ice right after a long, hot hike. The Blaze (pineapple, cucumber, celery, cilantro) would be perfect first thing in the morning; the cucumber and celery balance the sweetness of the pineapple making it a nice option for a mimosa. One of the classic cleanse blends, the Alive on Five (carrot, apple, beet, lemon, ginger) was smooth but a little too sweet for me to want to order a full size.
Next up was dessert times two; this was a birthday meal after all! Again we took the recommendation of our wonderful waiter and got the Pecan Carrot Cake (GF) along with the Coconut Magic Bar (GF). Neither disappointed.
I don’t normally go for carrot cake as I usually find it to be too dry and cakey and the icing too overly sweet. This blew that expectation right out of the water! Soft chunks of soaked pecans mingled with impossibly thin carrot shavings making up a rich, moist and dense cake with layers of creamy vanilla frosting and sprinkles of shaved almond slivers. Served a la mode with their house-churned Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, all the flavors interacted to create a most excellent dessert experience. The unique way they churn their ice cream in-house aerates it so that it has a lighter mouthfeel than average yet is still wonderfully creamy. No element was too sweet or sugary and the assorted textures danced together in perfectly palatable rhythm.
The Coconut Magic Bar is very aptly named and begs to be eaten slowly, though this will be a magic trick in and of itself without a proper mindfulness practice. Somewhat related to a traditional Blondie Bar, this is it’s sexier, more worldly cousin with a much more sophisticated sense of humor and better wardrobe… ok, my metaphor is stretching here, but the flavor and texture of this creation would shame any Blondie Bar I’ve ever tried! A thin sheet of toasted coconut and dates creates the home for a plentiful smattering of rich dark chocolate drops. Served warm and melty, we asked for the Double Chocolate Ice Cream to be served with it in place of the standard Vanilla Bean it normally comes partnered up with. This was one of those rare successful arranged marriages. The melting chocolate chips nestling within the crispy caramel bed of toasted coconut was a sweet vessel on which the newly wedded couple became better acquainted… in my mouth. Wow, my metaphors are really reaching on this one, aren’t they? I guess I’ll have to go back to do some more research and honor you with a more appropriate entry. Le sigh.
Along with our dessert we received a nice little surprise in the form of a birthday drink! The Red Rain is a subtly sweet blend of beets, lemon, celery, cucumber, pineapple, and ginger with an infusion of Rain Vodka. It’s balanced so well and the vodka is of such a quality that I honestly couldn’t even taste the alcohol! The juice mixture was reminiscent of the Alive on Five, but somehow less sweet. I absolutely love that they fresh squeeze all their own mixes in house. You can really taste the difference and for someone like me who doesn’t drink very much, it’s a nice treat.
Due to the distinctly ridiculous metaphors I’ve included in this blog entry thus breaking my commitment to bring you quality reviews of conscious cuisine around the world, I promise to walk down the street to this oasis to research their offerings again and again until I craft a tapestry of tongue tactics (read: words) that is worthy of your distinguished palate. It has nothing to do with their huge menu that offers countless options that I desperately want to indulge in. Not one bit. This is for you.
Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Food style: swanky, vegan comfort food/small menu with seasonal, local offerings
Veg Scale: all vegan, GF labels
Craving some NYC restaurant-quality in the middle of the heartland? Look no further than this unassuming half-block in the middle of Omaha. I was in for a surprise as I didn’t realize that this delicious destination was owned and operated by none other than the vegan cooking goddess herself, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, best-selling author of vegan classics such as Veganomicon (aka The Vegan Cooking Bible), Vegan With A Vengeance, Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World and her newest Isa Does It, among others. You NYers will be pleased to hear, if you don’t know already, that she will be opening a 2nd location for this gastronomic wonderland in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) in early 2016. Cheers, Isa!
Sharing a building with a local hole-in-the-wall pub, the exterior belies the cozy and whimsical atmosphere within. Walls adorned with various sized vintage mirrors, hand painted decals and modern lighting fixtures invite the feeling of sitting in the home of a good friend about to enjoy a home-cooked meal, if your friend was Alice and you, The Cheshire Cat J Perfect portions arrive in white china bowls and plates large enough to curl up in for a post indulgence nap. Tables snuggle up quite closely with each other inspiring food voyeurism and friendly banter amid bites.
Chris wet his whistle with a little Ginger Shandy action pre-meal. With my gluten sensitivity preventing me from enjoying a beer now and again, I still chanced a sip and was pleased to be hit with the subtle tartness of the grapefruit juice perfectly balancing the bitter hops. With a nice cloudy appearance it afforded a thicker mouth feel on the tongue making for the perfect summer drink.
We chose a classic soup and salad combo for our shared openers. The Soup of the Day was a Corn and Roasted Red Pepper Chowder (GF), which acted as the perfect swimming pool for the Noochy (nutritional yeast) Croutons that came with the Kale Caesar (GF when made without the croutons). The soup had a wonderful creamy, bisque-like texture that wasn’t too thick or heavy and was dotted with bits of roasted corn kernels and red bell peppers. An added zip from the peppers perfectly balanced the sweetness of the corn, all further accentuated by a light drizzle of seasoned oil across the top.
The Kale Caesar (GF option) was a dino delight with the large, thin leaves layered atop one another delicately doused with a zesty tahini caper dressing. The salty goodness of the capers added a brackish authenticity to the Caesar dressing sans anchovies. Adding a little protein crunch to the mix were the quinoa and pumpkin seeds that politely interacted with bits of avocado bringing the whole dish together in a big, creamy hug. I plucked the croutons out and delivered them to Chris’ half of the soup, much to his culinary satisfaction, and all was well in the Land of Appetizers.
Next up on our journey were our respective entrees: Chris dove into the Gnocchi while I consumed the Mac & Shews (GF). Having already had a sip of the Shandy, I figured a bite of the Gnocchi wouldn’t make much of a difference to my level of gluten reaction that evening. Caramelized strips of fennel, plump cherry tomatoes, soft edamame and tangy arugula danced amid the homemade gnocchi swimming in a light, savory broth. Gnocchi can easily become gummy and heavy, but these doughy bits of goodness were soft and pillowy, easy to chew and took on the subtle flavors of the rest of the dish. Each piece of the puzzle was lightly seasoned, every flavor complementing the other as bite by bite the combo grows on you until you yourself feel as though you are happily swimming alongside the very dough balls you are consuming! This all I gained from one bite so I can only imagine enjoying the entire dish! Perched atop this Italian dome was a dollop of truffled almond ricotta, completing the sheer sensuality of this dish. If you know me, and hopefully by now you do, you know that there isn’t much in this world that you could truffle that I wouldn’t like. Except maybe a tire. Something tells me that wouldn’t work out well. But I digress.
The truffled ricotta would have been an incredible addition to the cashew cheddar sauce in the Mac & Shews (GF) I enjoyed. I love a multi-cheez mix with a crispy breadcrumb topping for my most decadent mac & cheez escapades, though this version came in decidedly close, its palate more complex than simply rich. The gluten free noodles were not thick or stiff and soaked up the smokiness of the sauce. The cheddar could have been a little thicker and creamier for my taste and was comparable in texture to the classic Kraft blue box (without the processed animal byproducts). The pecan-crusted tofu was the perfect replacement for a breadcrumb crust, soft on the inside and very crisp on the outside, while the braised kale added an element of green goodness. The BBQ cauliflower stood out enough to be its own side dish, its sweet brown singed edges caramelizing in perfect harmony with the smokiness of the sauce. All the textures and flavors – smoky and sweet, soft and crunchy – combined for a complex palate and mouth feel that kept my tongue guessing and my taste buds dancing for the entirety of the evening. That is until… dessert… where all things savory are promptly forgotten.
That being said, I’m not one for too-sweet sweets so I opted for the Chocolate Peanut Butter Tart (GF) as I was assured it was a rich dark chocolate and not milky at all. A wide but thin slice of pie greeted me and was much harder to put my fork into than I would have expected. Described as a chocolate ganache with a peanut butter mousse, I was expecting a softer experience, but instead was met with the consistency of a vegan Crunch Bar in pie formation. Do not let this mislead you into thinking I did not thoroughly enjoy this crunchy pastry. The candied peanuts encased in the bitter dark cacao added texture while the lightness of the peanut butter mousse topping was a welcome contrast to the hardness of the tart itself. The shortbread crust reminded me of some sort of cookie from my childhood, a little sweet, but not overly so. It had clearly come directly out of the fridge or freezer, which makes me interested to try it again once it has thawed a bit longer.
Interesting flavor combinations, seasonal influences and a touch of love that is evident in every dish’s home cooked roots ensure that you will leave with a satisfied tummy and heart. Though I would have loved to have more variety as far as gluten free options, overall I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Isa’s table and hope to someday return the favor.
ZEST KITCHEN & BAR: Part 3, Dessert
Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Food style: Farm-to-fork restaurant & fresh juice cocktail bar
Veg Scale: 100% gluten free (except for some beers) vegetarian, everything can be made vegan
Part of town: Downtown near Temple Square
Last week I filled you up with a hearty helping from the dinner menu. Now join me as I take you from the adult portion of the menu to the dark (chocolate) side. This is Part 3 of 3. I went there three times in two days. ‘Nuff said.
My favorite part of the dessert menu at this place is that the only sweeteners they use are maple and agave (except for the chocolate torte which uses chocolate chips that have some sugar in there, but I digress).
On our first visit to Zest, Chris and I couldn’t reach a consensus on dessert and so we each ordered our own, much to your benefit J Easily swayed by the concept of “limited time only,” I ordered that night’s special, the Tiramisu. The texture and density of this dish took me back to my childhood when my mom used to make my sister, Puppett and I a very non-vegan, non-gluten-free Graham Cracker Mousse Cake on special occasions. I remember when my sister made it for the first time on her own; it was good, but there’s always something extra in there when a dish is made by Mom. Sorry, P.
The tiramisu was built with layers of cashew cream mousse with a cream-cheese-like consistency stacked between chewy layers of cacao crumble. The crumble was comprised of a salty, savory mixture of dates and nuts smashed together that balanced the sweeter, more solid layer of mousse. Creamy and dense, the mousse was not too heavy, but was definitely not on the fluffy side. Although traditionally very strong on the coffee flavor, Zest’s take on this Italian classic doesn’t overdo it. Whether or not you’re a fan of that caffeinated kick, you’ll be safe ordering this treat as I did not find it overpowering.
Chris went for their other nightly special: the White Chocolate Blueberry Tart. Filled with a sweet, lemony, white chocolate custard the crust was firm but not stiff. Made mostly of chickpea flour, my favorite for baking, it was easy to cut and the blandness balanced the sweetness of its innards. While a little too sweet for my taste overall, the custard filling delivered a nice tang from the lemon and was a perfect partner for the tart blueberries that were sprinkled on top.
A super sweet surprise came to us from Casey at the end of our meal. Having had such a tough time deciding between their Tiramisu special and the Chocolate Beet Cake with Avocado Mousse that appears regularly on their menu (I was craving chocolate, but just couldn’t pass up the limited time only option) Casey took pity on me and sent the chocolate cake home with us for later. I had it for breakfast. Don’t judge me. The cake was like a dense brownie and held very true to the bitterness of its dark chocolate roots. Slathered atop this cacao creation was a rich chocolate avocado mousse that was closer in flavor and texture to a creamy ganache and would have been just as decadent served on its own with some berries. To perfect this delicacy I would have added a second layer of mousse, making it more of a chocolate layer cake, but one that I would happily live in for many years to come.
Our final venture to this culinary haven removed the middleman of a meal as we went straight for dessert. Chris and I both split the Salted Caramel Chocolate Hazelnut Torte and the current night’s special: Raw Chocolate.
As I stated earlier in this post, the torte is the only item on the menu that contains sugar as they melt down vegan chocolate chips for the filling. While I would have preferred sans sugar, this dessert still delighted me in every way. The crust is similar to that of the White Chocolate Blueberry Tart that Chris enjoyed on our first foray and is a stout deliverer of its sweeter contents. The chocolate is lightened somewhat by the addition of roasted hazelnuts which add a complexity to the filling that is only further accentuated by the drizzle of caramel over top. Vegan caramel can be very hit or miss and they knocked this one out of the park!
I neglected to inquire if they made the Raw Chocolate in house, but I would not have been surprised as it was as rich and dark as raw chocolate can be. Dried cranberries were both inside and sprinkled on top along with fresh, ripe blueberries and a lemon citrus drizzle. This was a nice, much lighter option for dessert and something that I would have readily enjoyed with a glass of deep red wine.
In summation, if you’re having a particularly strong craving for rich, dark chocolate I highly recommend the Raw Chocolate or the Chocolate Beet Cake (if they add the extra layer of mousse inside especially). The Hazelnut Torte is a little on the lighter side and might work better if you’re more of a milk chocolate fan. Hate chocolate altogether? Get out. Now. But grab some Tiramisu to go, as it will have your belly smiling for the rest of the evening.
And there you have it: three weeks of vegan eats in Salt Lake City. While Zest is not the only option in SLC, it is definitely the most alluring and will keep you (and me) coming back for more for years to come.
ZEST KITCHEN & BAR: Part 2, Dinner
Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Food style: Farm-to-fork restaurant & fresh juice cocktail bar
Veg Scale: 100% gluten free (except for some beers) vegetarian, everything can be made vegan
Part of town: Downtown near Temple Square
I hope you enjoyed my exploration of Zest’s brunch menu in my last entry. Now I bring you Part 2 of 3. Chris and I went there three times in two days. ‘Nuff said.
Our exploration of Zest’s dinner menu began by sharing a couple of their aptly named Share Plates. Baked Mushrooms (GF) stuffed with Cashew Cheese (GF) arrived alongside shaved Brussels Sprouts with slivered almonds in a spicy masala almond sauce (GF). Yes.
The mushrooms were heavy with flavor, being baked to savory perfection and then topped with the house made herbed cashew cream. The rich flavors of the mushrooms and the cheese combined in an explosion of deep, earthy flavors delivered with a chewy and creamy texture. The mushrooms were a little too moist for me and I would have preferred they be slightly dehydrated post-baking to ensure a more compact and less drippy mouth feel. Chris, however, was not in the same Goldilocks camp as I and found these fungi to be juuuust right.
The Brussels sprouts was far more delicate a dish than I was expecting as I’ve only ever seen them cooked whole or cut in half rather than shaved in this manner. This preparation afforded an enticingly softer yet crispy-around-the-edges texture while enabling them to soak up more of their rich sauce thus delivering a stand out dish. The spice of the masala combined harmoniously with the sweetness of the almonds making for a sauce that I would happily put on everything. I could have continued eating this for days. Seriously, it still haunts me.
Chris was craving soup so we opted for the daily special, a Mediterranean Melanzane (GF), which literally translated is “Mediterranean Eggplant”. Combining this versatile aubergine with an assortment of other hearty veggies simmered to perfection, this chowder was light and not overly seasoned. A little too watery for me as I tend to like creamier, thicker soups, Chris fully enjoyed this dish and found it comforting. Filling enough for a small meal, I would definitely order something else alongside it if you are experiencing more of an appetite.
Next we moved into splitting another aptly named dish, the Hearty Meal (GF). The kitchen was kind enough to split the dish for us so one black bean-chia patty w/BBQ sauce and one mushroom-walnut patty w/roasted red pepper sauce arrived open-faced on separate plates. They were each topped with sautéed mushrooms, red onions, and avocado perched atop fresh baby spinach on a gluten-free multi-grain bun all snuggled up nicely alongside a petite salad. Comprised of baby spinach, arugula (AKA rocket), shaved carrots and purple cabbage, the salad was tossed with a very light and refreshing vinaigrette and was a nice leafy green interlude between flavors.
Both patties were hearty and filling and held together very well en route to my mouth, but my favorite was definitely the black bean-chia. It felt more uniquely satisfying and less like a standard veggie burger than the mushroom-walnut. The sauces were chosen well and complemented their respective patties. The sweet tanginess of the BBQ added a robust kick to the mild flavor of the black beans while the roasted red pepper coulis added a layer of smoky dimension to the nutty mushroom burger. The onions, mushrooms and avocado slices somehow worked with both patties, tying them together nicely as a meal despite their contrasting palates. The bun was dense enough to transport the deliciousness, but in no way masked or overpowered the patties, a tendency that has generally steered me away from ordering sandwiches, wraps or burgers in the first place. I’m sure this was due in large part to the burgers being served on only the bottom portion of the bun, a technique I wish more places would adopt – despite what the carb-loving part of my heart would vehemently attest, we really don’t need that much bread!
The dessert-loving part of my heart, however, is right on point and was delighted to explore that portion of the menu on multiple visits! With a daily rotating special in addition to the sweet seasonal staples, the ever-evolving options kept me coming back for more. Tantalized yet? Check out next week’s entry for a sweet treat, or two, or three or…
ZEST KITCHEN & BAR: Part 1, Brunch
Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Food style: Farm-to-fork restaurant & fresh juice cocktail bar
Veg Scale: 100% gluten free (except for some beers) vegetarian, everything can be made vegan
Part of town: Downtown near Temple Square
This is Part 1 of 3. I went there three times in two days. ‘Nuff said.
Right around the corner from the impressive architecture of Temple Square is the even more impressive food-itecture of Zest. Locally sourced ingredients are cooked from scratch to fill out this globally inspired, seasonal menu. Coconut oil is used for cooking, the only sweeteners are agave and maple and the water served is purified through reverse osmosis. Everything from fresh smoothies to small tapas-style share plates, raw zucchini manicotti to warm comfort foods like grilled cheese and homemade black bean and chia seed patties, will tempt your taste buds no matter what you were originally craving. What makes this space even more unique is the organic cocktail lounge complete with live deejays, dancing and fresh-squeezed juice mixes, not the typical find in a plant-based restaurant.
Casey Staker started this journey three years ago when he noticed the growing veggie scene in SLC was lacking healthier, whole-foods-based options along with a social venue in which to congregate around conscious libations. He recognized the connection between “plate, planet & people” and wanted to create a restaurant that supported “local farmers, business and organizations with fair trade practices.” His approach to sustainable business methods, including moving towards being a Zero Waste facility with Momentum Recycling, and wholesome, organic ingredients shows not only in the incredible dishes we tried, but also in the passion and friendliness of the staff and family-run feel of the place.
Upon entering, Chris and I were met by the host Adrian, who passed us over to our conveniently named server, Adriane. We were sure she was one of the owners based on her exuberant tour of the menu and her familial interactions with the other staff, but this in fact was not the case. Towards the end of our meal she brought over “Dad,” as she affectionately referred to Casey and we shared a lovely and lengthy exchange around food, simple ingredients and local sourcing. If you want your heart to feel as warm and satiated as your post-Zest belly, be sure to spend some time with Casey during your visit.
Arriving 10 minutes before the end of their weekend brunch, which falls 11am-3pm Friday & Saturday only, Chris and I wisely chose to partake in this special menu. Adriane highly recommended the item I was already eyeing, the Savory Chickpea Pancakes (GF), but suggested I get a side of their real maple syrup to drizzle on top. Following her suggestion was the best thing I could have done as it took an already satisfying dish and launched it into the culinary stratosphere! This could have easily been multiple meals: 3 fluffy yet dense, plate-sized flapjacks came piled with sautéed mushrooms, avocado and Pico de Gallo capped with a healthy dollop of their incredible house made smoked cashew cream. The toppings were a wonderful addition to the pancakes themselves, which were made of mostly chickpea flour with a little potato starch and a healthy seasoning of cumin and cayenne: simple ingredients creating a complex and alluring palate. The velvety feel of the avocado and cashew cream balanced the doughy, sponginess of the pancakes themselves. Their internationally savory flavor was magnified threefold and complemented perfectly by the naturally sweet maple. I honestly couldn’t imagine having it any other way.
Chris nabbed the vegan version of their Southwestern Skillet (GF), which included fluffy quinoa, black beans, your choice of vegetarian (no rennet or casein) cheddar or Daiya cheese, Pico de Gallo, zesty onions and avocado. Arriving in the cast iron skillet in which it was cooked, this dish was not overly salted, allowing its unique flavor, characterized by strong hints of cumin, to burst forward. The avocado and melted Daiya combined all the ingredients into a deliciously gooey, creamy mess that had edges baked to crisp perfection. Without being overly “meaty,” this dish is especially omnivore-friendly, as had he not known beforehand, Chris would have assumed there was ground beef in the casserole! Adriane’s next spot-on recommendation was to add a little splash of Tapatio to accentuate the southwestern flavors. Again, bang on. Had I been wearing a cap at the time, it would have been tipped.
We accessorized our main dishes by sharing a Vegan Cheese Sampling (GF) consisting of two Miyoko's varieties: Double Cream Sundried Tomato Garlic and Aged English Smoked Farmhouse, and Zest’s house made smoked cashew cream. These came assorted with GF herbed crackers and crostini, blueberries, orange slices and toasted sunflower seeds. Miyoko’s never disappoints and this experience was no different. Smoky and creamy, the Aged Farmhouse immediately transports you to the rolling hills of the English countryside. The gluten free crackers were crisp and salty, but denser than the usual rice cracker, the perfect conveyor of flavor when slathered with any of the tasty triad accompanying them on the plate. The house made option was lighter and creamier with almost a whipped cheese texture and came in a close second for both Chris and I, especially when paired with the tart blueberries.
We washed down our munchies with the locally brewed Mamachari kombucha. Chris ordered the Lime Mint while I sipped on the Ginger Lemon. To get the full experience of all three available flavors we shared the Chia Fizz, which combined the Tropical kombucha (papaya, pineapple, passion fruit and hibiscus) with raw organic chia seeds for a super hydrating drink with a punch of protein. All three flavors of “booch” were surprisingly smooth. Not nearly as carbonated or vinegary as most other brands, they drink almost more like a juice than a fermented tea beverage. I highly recommend this brand for those trying kombucha for the first time.
Not just the food but also the incredibly warm and genuine staff kept calling us back. Next week will continue the exploration of the adult portion of the menu before going on to the dark (chocolate) side. Dinner at Zest awaits!
Las Vegas, NV, USA
Food style: Globally inspired street food
Veg Scale: 100% vegan, GF labels
Part of town: “Old Downtown” East Fremont District
After a disappointing visit to the Wynn’s $50/person buffet – Steve Wynn became vegan with a focus on raw cuisine about 5 years ago and thus added vegan options at all of his restaurants – I was determined to discover the real vegan scene in Vegas. After all, Paul Graham created an entire blog (now moderated by Mindy) that is now the guidebook “Eating Vegan in Vegas” so I knew it was out there. Finding vegan and gluten free options on The Strip at places like Hussong’s Cantina (home of the original margarita) and their sister restaurant Slice of Vegas Pizza, both located in The Shoppes at Mandalay Place, was uplifting but comprised mostly of processed faux meats and cheeses and not the plant-based cuisine I was hoping for.
Enter the vegan oasis known as the Fremont East Entertainment District, part of the original downtown Vegas (Fremont Street) from back in the days when The Rat Pack frequented historic landmarks like The Golden Nugget. Across from Container Park, a hip new open-air shopping center built out from old shipping containers and large modern art installations, sits the 3-month-old gem known as VegeNation. Outfitted with large, cozy wooden chairs, walls supporting lush greenery and vegan Recycled Propaganda art, and troughs of vegetation hanging from the ceiling, their fresh vibe conveys a local activist quality that will make both the native and the visiting vegan alike feel at home. The enclosed outdoor patio offered an opportunity to enjoy the fresh air, but after walking over 5 miles in 105 degree Fahrenheit, Chris and I opted for the cool relief of the A/C indoors.
We began by cooling our palettes with the rich refreshment of Chocolate Thunder (GF), one of their fresh smoothie options. Comprised of cacao, peanut butter, banana, chia seeds and kale, we chose to toss in some hemp protein for good measure. Thinner in consistency than most smoothies, the richness of the chocolate combining effortlessly with the other ingredients made for a surprisingly filling beverage. To be honest, they were so delicious that splitting one wasn’t enough and we ordered a second. It took me back to fond memories of the first delicious protein shakes I made at the beginning of my vegan journey.
Chris and I then split The Greek salad (GF), a fresh mixture of romaine lettuce, raw kale, cherry tomatoes, crisp cucumber, crumbled blue corn chips (for the GF version), slivers of red and green bell peppers, zesty red onion and cashew feta made by the local company Virgin Cheese. The waitress suggested that we sub their Goddess Dressing (GF), a creamy avocado blend, for the standard vinaigrette, which she felt was more vinegary than necessary. Her suggestion was channeled by the vegan goddess herself as it added a satisfyingly creamy feel to every bite that would have otherwise been missed. The only thing absent for me was some kalamata olives, but the incredible flavor and texture of the feta blew any complaints out of my mind! Hand made by Las Vegas local, Jodi Page, Virgin Cheeses are based with raw cashews soaked in fluoride-free water and virgin coconut oil blended with different fruits and herbs to make their small batch artisan flavors. I had the pleasure of meeting Jodi in person, as she happened to be visiting the restaurant to share her latest creation, vegan Brie, with the owner and chef, Donald. I highly recommend checking out her incredible variety of offerings and ordering some for yourself if you can’t make it out to Las Vegas.
Next up was a heaping portion of their Pho-King-Delicious soup (GF). Despite what many may think, it is pronounced “fah” rather than “faux”. So yes, if you’re blushing, you’re saying it correctly. Keep in mind that all pictures of the food Chris and I enjoyed at Vegenation are split portions! This dish could easily have been split three or four ways, though after tasting it you won’t want to share! Swimming in a savory mushroom broth that has a nice kick to it were crisp bean sprouts, Miracle Noodles, baby bok choy, shiitake mushrooms with perfectly cooked stems attached, carrot slivers and delicately seasoned tofu cubes. The spice was a nice sinus cleanser, sending me to the bathroom to flush my nose as it was running like a tap. Momentarily indisposed, I was thus able to enjoy the handwritten notes and pictures sketched out on the chalkboard walls lining the single-stall restroom.
The soup was super filling and the broth and seasoning made it very satiating. So much so that I didn’t even crave my usual dessert. That being said, their post-meal offerings including many gluten free options like Chocolate Tacos (GF), Carrot Cake (GF) and Brownie A La Mode (GF), are enough to bring me back again on their own! These desert desserts are no mirage and I’m sure I’ll be returning soon enough, albeit in digs more like the eco-resort Element near Red Rock Canyon so I can hike off those inevitable guilty indulgences.
13th STREET COFFEE HOUSE
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
Food style: coffee house cafe
Veg Scale: mostly vegetarian, tons of vegan and gluten free items labeled
Part of town: Cathedral area
Found among the quiet and quirky row of shops and cafes along 13th street, this aptly named coffee shop and café is a must visit while in town! Situated in a converted old house, the setting is just as cozy and inviting for the busy office worker on a quick lunch break as it is for a café dweller planning to spend the day typing away on a laptop – read: free wifi! The outdoor patio invites passersby up the front stairs bordered by blooming potted flowers and into the front foyer lined to the right with a community bulletin bursting with flyers advertising yoga classes, urban garden assistance and local music concerts among other eclectic offerings. Along the same wall is a narrow staircase leading up to the restrooms. To the left, indoor seating begins, wrapping around to the counter where you place your order with one of the friendly young staff. The menu is colorfully written across the blackboard-painted far wall and is mainly vegetarian. The vegan and gluten-free options are numerous and clearly labeled. They are the only fully licensed coffeehouse in Regina and offer a varied selection of seasonal and worldly drink specials along with a menu brimming with locally sourced produce.
Unfortunately we were in a rush to get to the airport so didn’t get to enjoy as much of the local ambiance as we would have liked, but we were able to order a few delicious options to go. I went for the Power Salad (GF), a delightfully filling mountain of marinated tofu, savory seasoned chickpeas, fresh red bell peppers, red ripened tomatoes, and juicy cubes of cucumber atop a thin bed of “power greens” and capped off by crisp bean sprouts, sweet shredded carrots and tangy purple cabbage sprinkled with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. I’ve noticed the consistency of tofu in Canada is far denser and more textural than the standard American fare; a palatable detail I very much appreciate. I would compare it to the “high protein” style I’ve found at some health food stores in the States and at Trader Joe’s. I had my pick from 6 house-made dressings, all vegan and gluten free, so I chose the creamy and satisfying Caesar (GF). A savory blend of exotic spices that I couldn’t quite put my finger on turned the chickpeas into the stand out star of this salad. Let it be known, this is no ordinary salad. I’ve never had my hankering for crisp, fresh veggies so satisfied and my hunger so fully satiated by a salad as I did by this gorgeous green gargantuan. I was not over-stuffed nor was I left craving anything. This salad was, dare I say it, perfect. Hats, were I wearing one, off to these guys J
Chris opted for the Marrakesh Stew (GF), a creamy coconut curry originating from the city of the same name in Morocco. Comprised of melt-in-your-mouth potatoes, carrots, zucchini, raisins, green bell peppers, chickpeas and sweet potatoes all swimming atop a base of fluffy quinoa (or brown rice, your choice) this dish was a comforting option more fit for a rainy day. The curry was not overly “coconutty” nor overly creamy and could have done with some more spice and stronger flavor, but the vegetables were perfectly simmered just to the point before being overcooked and it was very filling. I don’t know that I’d order it again especially as they have a number of other curry offerings on the menu that piqued my interest.
We finished off our meal with one of their Superfood Bars; a decadent mixture of seeds and dried fruits held together by an abundance of chunky peanut butter with a thin floor of rich dark chocolate underneath. The best way I can think of to describe this sweet treat would be to invite you to imagine the lovechild of a Justin’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup and a homemade trail mix bar. Every mouthful an explosion of new flavor combinations, half a bar would have been more than enough for us to split after our meal! It should, however, have been kept in the fridge as it immediately began melting the moment it was handed over – the better to lick your fingers with, my dear!
Overall I found this spot to be my favorite in Regina thus far. In fact, I want to come back to town just so I can experience an afternoon of writing and reading at this café and explore the surrounding area! Join me for a salad, tea and “thrifting” excursion, wont you?
SUMMERHILL PYRAMID WINERY
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada
Food style: organic, biodynamic winery with farm-to-table bistro
Veg Scale: 100% vegan wines!!!
Part of town: East Kelowna
What a lot of people don’t know is that a lot of wine, and many types of alcohol in general, are not actually vegan. In winemaking specifically, animal byproducts such as fish bladders, gelatin, egg whites, milk and milk byproducts are used in the process. To find out whether or not your favorite adult beverages are vegan-friendly check out the awesome website BARNIVORE. An extensive online database searchable by brand, this fantastic resource clearly labels each varietal along with providing backup resources that explain the reasoning behind whether or not each libation is considered herbivore friendly. They also have an app, Vegaholic, that doesn’t even need wifi!
Known as “The Nappa of the North,” The Okanagan Valley is responsible for 90% of the wine produced in British Columbia and is fast becoming one of the most awarded and recognized wine-growing regions in the world. Due to its highly diverse terrain boasting countless microclimates and vineyard soil types along with the winds blowing down the hills into the 85-mile long Okanagan Lake, it is the perfect setting for organic farming and winemaking.
Knowing the history of this area, I knew I wanted to try some wines while Chris and I were visiting, but it was important to me to make a conscious choice on where exactly to sample the local offerings in a mindful manner. With a page on their website directed exclusively towards vegans, I knew Summerhill was the place for me! Aside from all of their wine being vegan-friendly, they run an organic, biodynamic vineyard complete with food forests and edible landscaping that schedules its planting and harvesting seasons with the lunar cycle! This methodology is right in alignment with my belief that all things - including us, what we eat, and where and how we grow it - are all energy interacting with and impacting one another. It is vitally important that we are in harmony with our surroundings, honoring our environment by balancing what we take with what we give back. This is the only way to sustain any system and as the stewards of the earth, it is our responsibility to seek and honor that balance in all ways. By placing our focus and energy simply on taking from the earth, we diminish its resources and potency, slowly dwindling down to dust what has supported us for countless generations. Biodynamic farming is the future of food production, focusing on rebalancing what has been greatly depleted by outdated systems like factory farming and monocultures.
Known for growing and bottling countless gold-medal-winning varietals of sparkling wine (different only from Champagne in that the grapes do not come from the Champagne region in France), Summerhill is one of the “most visited wineries in the region.” With their sweeping vistas overlooking the lake, it’s no wonder a wedding party was gearing up as we arrived. A more scenic setting for your wine-loving nuptials you could not ask for. Unfortunately their bistro menu does not support the vegan diet, though their gelato offerings in the front foyer do. On our visit this included two sorbet flavors that Chris and I happily enjoyed in order to rebalance our core temperatures from the steaming outdoor heat. The cherries from this part of BC are famous and so fittingly one of the flavors was just that while the other was a refreshing mango. Both were sweet and bursting with flavor while the cherry had a much smoother, creamier mouth feel. I don’t recommend indulging in these treats too close to a tasting however, as this will effect your palate.
As you first enter the grounds you will notice their trademark building: The Pyramid, an integral part of their winemaking process. Oriented to True North, it is their “marriage room” where the cuvée and dosage combine over 30 days. As explained by our friendly tour guide Andrew, this process is enhanced by the negative ions directed through the structure, which naturally accentuate properties of any kind, in this case those of the grapes. All Southeastern European wineries specializing in sparkling wines have a sacred geometric structure as their marriage room for just that reason. Summerhill’s Pyramid is unique in that it is the only one of these buildings able to be above ground due to the climate. The hot summers are balanced out by the cold winters preventing severe fluctuation within the Pyramid’s interior temperature. The acknowledgement of the effects of sacred alignment in this so seemingly modern yet timelessly ancient process is very exciting to me. A more in depth exploration of the science and spirituality behind this structure and its purpose is best expounded upon by proprietor Stephen Cipes but I highly recommend a visit as the best explanation you could have is your own personal experience. And you will taste the difference I assure you J
Chris and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the bright, shining soul that is Mr. Cipes on our visit as our paths crossed by chance at the end of our tour in the private tasting room. A warm, open man he greeted us with a true hug and a bottle of sparkling rosé in hand. I could have shared space with him for hours. It is clear he has a passion for and understanding of the true nature of life and how to best enjoy it and building this winery is a testament to that.
Four tastes are included in the $10 tour fee, $5 of which is refunded when you purchase a bottle. By no means a connoisseur, I’m usually more of a red wine drinker, but I found much to enjoy in their white and sparkling varietals. Producers of 14-17% of Canada’s ice wine, they had three bottles available to try and sample them we did. One of these is only made in two wineries in the world, Summerhill being one of them! I ended up taking home a Brut and a Merlot. As I normally don’t like Merlot, I was surprised but agreed with Andrew as its flavor profile more closely resembled that of a Pinot Noir and I found their Pinot to be too light for my taste. We grabbed a number of other bottles as presents, as well. Their Jazz Rosé even comes in a refillable glass bottle shaped like a trumpet, the perfect gift! We were having such a great time chatting with Andrew, learning more about the wines and organic winemaking in general and getting his unique perspective from a culinary background that when it came time for us to head out, I had honestly lost track of how many tastes we enjoyed!
Our brief but impactful meeting with Mr. Cipes along with the expert knowledge provided by Andrew and the countless tastings we did afterward allowed us to feel not only confident in our purchases but excited to share these special creations with the friends and family for whom we chose them. I have the distinct feeling that this will not be the last time Chris and I share a varietal at this special place in the OK Valley.
I am an actor/writer/content creator based in Los Angeles. I travel extensively both as the host of the new vegan food travel show The Road Less Eaten and on my own. This blog will chronicle my journey around the globe as I hunt down all the vegan options in every part of the world, no matter how big the city nor small the town.
Copyright © Ally Iseman 2016. I own my awkward. Thanks for enabling me.