Dharma Kitchen offers tranquil dining experience

Sometimes your stomach is happy to take on clanging Korean hot pots or a Thai dish so fiery it's like having someone clash cymbals against your tongue. Other times it softly cries out for the whisper of woodwinds; scrambled eggs, in other words. Your ears are the same. Yelling across a table in a high-decibel eatery has its moments. Other nights, you crave the peace, quiet, and solace for jangled nerves that they serve up at Dharma Kitchen.

Opened late summer and set on the sunny side of West Broadway, this place is as tranquil as an Asian monastery with its red walls, gauzy curtains masking the urban scene, wind chimes, and clusters of blue and yellow lamps like elongated beads creating a cozy but not cluttered setting. Chairs are painted bright blue like objects from a kindergartner's art project. At night, the pale wood tables are lit by tea lights. This is a spot that doesn't demand anything of you except that you come in and let them make you comfortable.

World music plays softly over the sound system, and large serene wooden Buddhas on the counter and walls (from the Spirit House shop next door) reflect the menu's promise of "the food of mindfulness", mindfulness being the state that Buddhist monks try to achieve, manager Frank Ferris explains, elaborating that it's "doing everything with consideration for others". Here, it means thinking about what's good for our bodies?-specifically fresh ingredients that are organic whenever possible, and no animal products.

The all-vegan offerings are simple: five salads and three veggie burgers, with the more tantalizing-sounding dishes-the basmati rice bowls and tofu dishes-on the right-hand side of the menu. In line with Dharma's philosophy, the culinary direction is mainly Asian: a Buddha Bowl of tofu, bean sprouts, and tomatoes served with Thai peanut sauce; a Free Tibet Bowl with grilled tempeh, spinach, buckwheat sprouts, and pickled ginger. You get Mediterranean influences, too, with the Dharma Bowl combining grilled artichoke hearts and the whole panoply of ratatouille vegetables.

Fruit smoothies with names like Rise and Shine, and Blue Lagoon cocktails spiked with cayenne, echinacea, or vitamin C are made fresh and, an aesthetic touch, served in goblets. (Nigella Lawson would call these "temple drinks".)

Plates are designed to look attractive (which used to be rare in vegan or vegetarian dishes but now increasingly happens). On the rim of the red-curry tofu dish were long buckwheat sprouts as "stems" with carrot slices notched to look like flowers. And it's not only pretty; the flavours have real impact, the red onion, green and yellow peppers, and mushrooms aren't overcooked, and the satiny coconut milk-based sauce has a real kick of heat to it.

Like worshippers in an ancient ritual, broccoli flowers circled a mound of greens and shredded seaweed in the Green Goddess bowl. Dig deeper to the basmati rice given pungency with tahini, and shreds of pickled ginger like flashes of edible lightning. Toasted sunflower seeds contribute crunch. I loved this dish with its complex and intense flavours, and all those contrasting textures.

Tofu with basil sauce and herbs, or with lemongrass, or with black-bean or Thai peanut sauce sounds equally promising. If anything would swing people over to vegetarianism, it's this kind of fare. Practical considerations here mean individual clean plates so you can share dishes without having your dinner look like a dog's breakfast.

I was less enthusiastic about the veggie burger. No complaints about the patty itself (which is not the usual meat facsimile, but a tempeh steak that's special-ordered from Yves Veggie Cuisine, then marinaded in-house). But-and this was a few weeks back, when the local examples were at their reddest and ripest-the tomato here was bland and unripe. If your emphasis is on vegetables, why not really showcase them? My recommendation: go for the bowls; bypass the burgers.

It's a work in progress. Dharma Kitchen plans on being much more than a restaurant. Right now, Friday is open-mike night for local musicians and anyone who wants to join in. Down the road are meditation circles, and hopes of getting Buddhist monks in for the occasional chanting circle. Even without these, it's a pleasant and tasty escape from urban North American stress. An inexpensive one too. Dishes are $9.95 or under; smoothies and (nonalcoholic) cocktails, $3.95 to $5.95.

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