I’m prepared to make the following generalization: when omnivores eat dishes that are vegan renditions of non-vegan fare, we tend to be less forgiving of the aspects that are not convincingly replicated from the original. This hasn’t stopped Zen Kitchen chef Caroline Iishi from tackling everything from caesar salad and lasagna bolognese to Reuben sandwiches and cheesecake at her gourmet vegan restaurant in the heart of Chinatown. I will not be the first (or the last) meat-eater to be seduced by a meal here.
When I saw sope (pronounced “SOH-peh”) on the lunch menu at Zen Kitchen I was delighted to be able to avoid the comparison trap. The scarcity of authentic Mexican cuisine outside of Mexico made this my first encounter with the traditional snack featuring a fat corn tortilla topped with beef or chicken as well as cheese and cream. In Zen’s kitchen, most of those ingredients are verboten. Instead, the topping is made up of soft spiced “scrambled” tofu with sliced zucchini and just a drizzle of a savoury stand-in for cheese. On the plate, alongside some spiced rice, there’s a trio of adornments: a creamy white “Mornay sauce” made perhaps with cashews, a dollop of fresh guacamole, and a simple tomato-onion salsa.
The base of the dish, however, hits the sweet spot for eaters of all stripes. I mean who doesn’t love a little something fried? It is described on the menu as a “leavened house corn tortilla,” but I would characterize it as a cross between sweet fluffy corn bread and an Italian arancini, those irresistible crispy fried rice balls. Like the rice, it was flecked with whole sweet corn kernels adding a layer of fresh flavour to the crunchy corn patty.
I’d take those contrasting textures and delicate Mexican flavours over typical salads or sandwiches any day. Not just on days when I’m taking a break from meat.
Zen Kitchen, 634 Somerset St. W., 613-233-6404, www.zenkitchen.ca
Lunch served on Thursdays and Fridays 11:30 a.m.-2pm; Brunch Sundays 10 a.m – 2 p.m.