The Road Less Eaten
Sharing my experiences traveling and integrating my surroundings through local vegan cuisine.
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.
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.