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Titans Fall: ZenKitchen and Domus Close

Kyle Mortimer-Proulx's Brigade from Zen Kitchen Kyle Mortimer-Proulx's Brigade from Zen Kitchen
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Traditional media takes sides. It largely has to to ensure brevity-is-wit pieces are published according to the aggressive timelines required by modern journalism. You gotta be first to break the story. You gotta get that quote. You gotta polarize your audience to ensure viewers tune in; customers buy issues; and readers click links.

There are good guys. There are bad guys. Issues are black and white with few shades of gray. The words chosen tend to be inflammatory.

Increasingly, content consumers are grazing, getting their news from a multiplicity of sources. Loyalty to one newspaper subscription, for instance, is waning. Ever wonder how news spread when newspapers weren’t printed? Consider the original social network, word of mouth.

Today, our addiction to social media networks means newsworthy events tend to get delivered to us through our feeds. Ironically, it’s pieces from traditional brands, more than likely push-content producers like newspapers or national broadcasters, that garner the most traction.

When I learned owner Dave Loan had shuttered ZenKitchen (634 Somerset Street W.) last Friday, Canada’s tax collector having frozen the restaurant’s bank account, it was a forgone conclusion journalists would pursue the story. A certain newly-retired journalist set a precedent when landlords took back possession of their properties from former chef/entrepreneur Derek Benitz. That journalist pursued and published details of Benitz’ personal finances to explain the closure of two of Ottawa’s finer dining establishments.

When another restauranteur told me to dial Domus Café’s (85 Murray Street) phone number to try to make a reservation the following Monday, I knew another flurry of pieces would be released. Chef/owner John Taylor had ceased Domus’ operations; he having overseen the café since 1995.

Interviews, some more candid than others, followed. Asked if I would participate, I pointed out we at foodiePrints don’t actively traffic in infamy, manufactured or otherwise. Here, we celebrate food and our city’s young food scene.

To that end, both restaurants were landmarks.

ZenKitchen was an anomaly many did not think would last its first year of business. The high-end vegan restaurant was launched in 2009 by a political-analyst-turned-restauranteur and marketing-expert-turned-chef. Then husband and wife, Loan and Chef Caroline Ishii had field-tested their unique concept with what were Ottawa’s first pop-up food events before throwing off the shackles of their salaried-and-cubicled lives. But, neither really expected the long hours or tiny margins that is food service. ZenKitchen’s opening was chronicled in a 13-episode reality show that was aired on the W-Network and picked up by the Asian Food Channel, The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline and Dave. Ishii would go on to win back-to-back silver medals at the prestigious Gold Medal Plates culinary competition and fundraiser for the Canadian Olympic Foundation in 2010 and 2011. Also in 2011, Ishii and Loan celebrated the restaurant’s inclusion in the Lonely Planet’s Guide of Canada.

Following a death in the family, Ishii left ZenKitchen in 2013, appointing Kyle Mortimer-Proulx chef. Proulx, an alumnus of Perspectives at the Brookstreet Hotel under chefs Michael Blackie and Clifford Lyness, has led the kitchen for 2-years. He changed its direction from Japanese-inspired to more more Euro-centric farm-to-table fine-dining. He even innovated vegan cheeses made from cashews and a quinoa culture. This year, his labours earned him an invitation to compete in Gold Medal Plates.

Cheese Board - $14

Cheese Board – $14

[w/”variety of cashew cheeses, crostini, pickles, and preserves]

Celeriac Three-Ways - $24

Celeriac Three-Ways – $24

[w/braised celeriac “fillet”; creamy puree; shaved fennel slaw; white bean fritter; grilled broccoli; charred lemon oil; confit cipollini onion; almond gremolata]

Domus was a longstanding paragon of fine food. Its kitchen was a rite of passage for many cooks who would later operate their own restaurants: Matt Carmichael (Chef/Owner of El Camino), Simon Fraser (Chef/Co-owner of Fraser Cafe), Michael Farber (Chef/Owner of Farb’s Kitchen), Jon Svavas (Chef/Owner of soon-to-open Fauna), and Patricia Larkin (Chef of Black Cat Bistro). When Taylor took over, almost 18 years ago, Richard Nigro, who would later open Juniper Kitchen, was “day” Chef. Domus, the kitchen-store-come-restaurant was already 20 years young.

Taylor’s principled approach to preparing dishes from local ingredients is legendary, something celebrated by the city’s producers. Though, like many other chefs in the city, he readily points to the late Kurt Waldele, formerly the Executive Chef of the National Arts Centre (NAC), as he who first pioneered the discipline.

For ZenKitchen, its closing was the result of a decline in patronage: partially as a result of the jarringly cold winter that has eaten away at restaurants’ savings city-wide. And, partially as a result of fewer reservations this past fall. Restaurants are cash-flow operations. Loan largely operated at a loss to ensure both staff and suppliers were paid. As a result, he didn’t have sufficient funds to remit owed sales taxes (HST) to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

For Domus, its closing was the result of a long decline that is plaguing the ByWard Market. Fickle diners are opting for value-oriented fare; dishes that are not necessarily made-from-scratch. Appetites have shifted away from classical dishes, especially if served on finer plate-ware with multiple utensils, everything laid out on linen. Suburbanites prefer to stay out of the downtown core, citing difficulty parking during weekends, parking fees during weekdays, and sheer cost of gasoline. Rising inner city property values, leading to higher occupancy costs, likely compounded these challenges.

Ottawa is hard on its restaurants. Ours is largely a locals’ food scene. We habituate around our favourite few restaurants. No-shows and last-minute-cancellations are somewhat rampant. Patrons cancel reservations at the first signs of unfavourable weather from rain to snow. We are all extremely critical of price point and service.

Regarding service, the very thought of a restaurant charging a customer who caused his/her own drink to spill results in heated discussion. Regarding price point, main plates on Proulx’s dinner menu at ZenKitchen were market-driven, but rarely broke the $24 mark. Yet, many an online review site comment deemed the restaurant unaffordable. Compare with $40 plates at other high-end establishments.

Finally, there is some very negative sentiment regarding the community-driven efforts to rescue ZenKitchen. The media seems to have painted quite the picture of meek Loan fighting mighty CRA. Business owners wonder why the city doesn’t crowd-source funds to help bail them out of financial difficulties. It has to do with good will. Like many modern independent restaurants, Ishii and Loan intended ZenKitchen to be part of the community. Art on its walls came from local artists, painters, and photographers. ZenKitchen actively hosted local bands, singers, and musicians, even jazz ensemble performances featuring a certain local newspaper’s jazz-writer-turned-restaurant-critic. Loan actively hosted neighbourhood events like Chinatown-Remixed in the parking lot. Ishii and Proulx actively contributed to charitable fundraisers. Ishii specifically chose neglected causes to support that are difficult to talk about like Harmony House women’s shelter.

My plea to you: please allow local businesses discretion to close with dignity. Without argument, we are suffering a difficult economy. Owners don’t want to disclose their debts. New entrepreneurs don’t need their feeds inundated with sensationalized reporting of fellow food businesses closing. While there are cautionary tales to be told, do they have to be told on every channel with every detail?

Aside: Proulx’s brigade at ZenKitchen earned our respect at New Year. Exhausted from busy new year’s eve dinner and new year’s day brunch services, they went next door to Monopolatte (640 Somerset Street W.) to demonstrate they could cook cuisine beyond high-end vegan. Returning to ZenKitchen’s roots, they held an evening pop-up multi-course with a very elementary field kitchen.

Ramen-style Soup

Ramen-style Soup

Potted Mackerel

Potted Mackerel

[Left: w/fennel and celery broth, cider-braised squash, kale kimchi, miso spinach, bruleed quails egg
Right: w/caper butter, dill salted finger potato chips, house pickles, mustard, apples]

Butter-Braised Veal Sweetbreads

Butter-Braised Veal Sweetbreads

Sous-vide Anderson Farms Beef Striploin

Sous-vide Anderson Farms Beef Striploin

[Left: w/winter greens, 65C egg, shaved mushrooms, croutons, pickled cranberry vinaigrette
Right: w/smoked-buttermilk poached parsnips, juniper poached Jerusalem artichokes, tarragon jus]

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Sticky Toffee Pudding

[w/Cochrane’s egg nog cream, mocha crumble, brandied cherries, hazelnut coffee foam]

Should ZenKitchen not re-open, we will grieve its loss and wish each and everyone good luck on their bright futures elsewhere in the industry! Cheers and thanks for many years of good food!

Mild-mannered IT professional by day and food blogger by night, I founded foodiePrints with a single intention, to share my love of all things food. My first post shared a recipe. Many followed. Eventually, I learned Ottawa prepares and serves great food. Thereafter, I started meeting restaurateurs, chefs, cooks, farmers, and other local producers, all good people. Ideas for food-related content swirled in my head. foodiePrints grew into a place to put them. From exploring foreign and domestic cuisines to shopping for exotic ingredients and cobbling together my takes on dishes in my meager kitchen, there are stories to tell. Welcome to foodiePrints. Here, you will find stories about food and drink, cooking, and eating in Canada’s capital. Be it food-related or just food-for-thought, I hope you find something tasty here.