Where food takes on 'deeper meanings'

Update: March, 24/2015 - 17:01
Happening place: Zenith Cafe serves great food and drinks, and offers many other things to do and talk about. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

An unlikely cafe with an unusual menu and an unexpected story is building a community of people seeking to harmonise body and mind en route to inner peace. Hari Chathrattil has the story.

"Meant to be." These three words tend to recur if you are in conversation with Marzena Kierepka, who runs a cafe that is not just a cafe and a yoga studio that is not just a yoga studio. In fact, the whole of the establishment is bigger than the sum of its parts. Whatever it is, or, in other words, everything that it is, was 85you guessed it, "meant to be".

With such an open-ended approach, it is not surprising that the glue that holds Zenith Yoga Studio and Cafe together is a seeking of, what one customer, Pham Minh Chau, an IBM business professional. "deeper meanings".

Picture of health: The Pesto Pizza

Minh and her friend, fashion designer Ha Truong, said they like the "real spirit of yoga" that the studio offers, and are inspired the cafe's menu. Minh took out her phone and showed off a set of tofu wraps with avocado and mushrooms that she'd made herself.

I first heard of the place as I bemoaned the lack of a health-focused restaurant in Ha Noi that would serve drinks like kombucha. A friend immediately said, "You should try the Zenith Cafe, then."

Intrigued, I set out to find the place. After a few false starts, I discovered the place was not difficult to find at all, tucked away in a side-alley off Au Co Street, very close to the street's junction with Xuan Dieu.

A short, young mango tree stood in the corner, bearing a lot of promise with its flowers. "Have to ask mom for her mango-flower chutney recipe," I thought, as we walked in. The decor was quietly functional.

Riot of colour: Exotic food using local ingredients.

A few minutes after we'd ordered a glass of kombucha and a Green Monster smoothie (banana, spinach, organic green tea, lemon, vanilla beans, chia seeds and poppy seeds), a procession of women with distended bellies (mostly expats) and babies, mostly expats, passed through. Yoga for pregnant women? For babies? Not yoga85 music classes for babies, Marzena explained.

She recommended that we try the Zenith's Tasty Taster Plate (VND220,000) - Tofu Wrapped Mushroom Bites, a few Avocado Fresh Nems (fresh spring rolls, not fried), a bit of Conscious Couscous Salad, a few dips including pesto (no cheese), a peanut sauce and a few strips of homemade pita bread.

The combination of avocado, mango, spinach, bean sprouts, herbs, carrot and cucumber was light and refreshing, and it combined well with the pesto sauce. Beets made the couscous an attractive deep pink, also giving it a slight, welcome sweet tinge. The tofu-wrapped bites, one of only two fried items on the menu, were very good, but I felt that the falafel was a bit dry, especially compared with the yummy ones I'd had at a stall of the Palestinian embassy at a charity fair a few months earlier. When I remarked on this, Marzena smilingly pointed out that the falafel she served was not deep fried, but baked.

Hungry, we decided to go to order two main courses, ignoring a combo bargain. Like the starters, the Baked Falafel Pita and the Pesto Pizza (VND110,000 each), tlooked very appetizing because of all the good, colourful ingredients. The pizza had basil pesto sauce, marinated garlic mushrooms, sun-dried herbed tomatoes, kalamata olives, pine nuts, goat's cheese mousse. The falafel pita came with an unusual, yet familiar stuffing, courtesy some local herbs.

"That is the aim," Marzena said. "We try to use, as much as possible, fresh, locally available ingredients.".

As we ate, she told us how Zenith Cafe came into being.

Tale to tell

Her story was as interesting as the cafe's menu and its non-culinary happenings.

Born in Poland, Marzena went to England to study English, and eventually became a tour guide for a travel company there. When she was assigned to Viet Nam, she was disappointed, because she'd been hoping to be sent to Egypt.

Zenith I &Cafe

Add: 247b Au Co, Tay Ho, Ha Noi

Zenith II&Cafe - 16 Duong Thanh, Hoan Kiem, Ha Noi

Tel: 0904 356 561

Comment: Good food at reasonable prices, starting from $4.5; friendly and fast service, which includes take away and delivery.

The day she arrived in Viet Nam (2005) proved to be a turning point in her life. She was received by her colleague Pankaj Pradhan, who hails from Nepal. They warmed up to each other over a few cold mugs of bia hoi, and a few years later, got married. "Meant to be," Marzena said, adding with mock ruefulness, "Cannot get rid of him now."

Earlier, she'd toured India as a backpacker twice, once just to take her yoga practice further, and armed herself with a teaching certification from the famous Iyengar school. She was fortunate to have had impromptu lessons from the great master himself, she recalled.

In Viet Nam, she had no "real" place to practice yoga, with most of the establishments (five star hotels and gyms) treating it as a fitness thingy, and when she expressed her frustration for the ninth time, her husband said: "Why don't you open up your own place then?"

Marzena waved her hand and came out with her second "Meant to be."

It was when I remarked on the uniqueness of her menu that she said she knew nothing about cooking. That was a bit hard to swallow at first, but she said it just so happened that just as she thought about serving fresh, healthy, vegan to vegetarian food, she ran into a chef from New Zealand who was traveling through Viet Nam. A meeting of minds took place, and the chef stayed on for several months to work on the menu. This time, I was ready85 and sure enough, out came the third "Meant to be."

She wants her cafe and studio to be a rendezvous for like-minded people interested in exploring everything to do with the meaning of life, Marzena said.

On cue, I chimed in: "Then that's what its meant to be." — VNS