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Kosmic Kaua’i

If you don’t think you can love vegan food, just wait till dessert.


4504 Kukui St., Kapa‘a, Kaua‘i
(808) 822-7678
Lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner nightly 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Free parking, major credit cards

all photos: courtesy of the Vegan World Fusion Cuisine cookbook.

Even over the phone, Mark Reinfeld sounded sincere.

I’d called Reinfeld because I’d read about his new cookbook, Vegan World Fusion Cuisine: Healing Recipes and Timeless Wisdom from Our Hearts to Yours. The book, published on Kaua‘i, had won a slew of national awards, mainly from organizations such as PETA and magazines like Vegetarian Times. How like Kaua‘i, I thought, that most New Age of islands. Reinfeld sounded like he’d be an enjoyably wacky guest on a radio show I was doing.

The only trouble was he sounded entirely sane. He was the executive chef of a vegan restaurant called The Blossoming Lotus in Kapa‘a. Clearly passionate about his food, he was neither censorious nor defensive. He didn’t launch into a condemnation of what some people call SAD—the standard American diet. He just seemed to love what he was doing.

It can’t be easy being a vegan chef. Vegans are the strictest of vegetarians—no meat, no seafood, no animal products at all. That eliminates eggs, butter, cheese, even honey. In addition, most vegans, influenced by the whole-foods movement, won’t touch refined sugars and wheat flours. Making food palatable with those restrictions is a tall order.

I asked about Reinfeld’s restaurant. A small place? “No, it seats 90,” he said. “You should come eat here. We even have a wine list.” Still skeptical, I e-mailed a friend on Kaua‘i, writer Joan Conrow. Would it be worth it to fly over for a meal? She e-mailed back that The Blossoming Lotus was her favorite restaurant. And she’s no vegan. She sent along what she’d said about the restaurant for Frommer’s Hawai‘i:

The Blossoming Lotus, she wrote, “could very well be the best restaurant on the island, in terms of quality ingredients and distinctive taste. In the area of consciousness—ownership is shared by a workers’ collective, it’s the only restaurant in Hawai‘i to achieve national ‘Green Certification’ for its ecofriendly practices, including composting and using biodegradable takeout packaging, and the cuisine is organic vegan—it’s unsurpassed.”

Yeah, but was the food good?

It took me a few months, but I finally arrived at The Blossoming Lotus for dinner. It was, as Reinfeld promised, a real restaurant, in a modern, two-story building. The outside tables are grouped around a waterfall, while the interior area is spacious and airy, hung with art. There’s music seven nights a week and, as Reinfeld promised, a short, but better-than-average wine list, with a number of European and organic wines. Uncertain about the flavors I was about to encounter, I settled on a food-friendly, Spanish Rueda, a white wine with nice acidity and bright fruit.

I wanted to sample as much of the four-page menu as humanly possible and asked the kitchen for tasting portions.

I would have thought the appetizers might be the most dramatic section of the menu. Not so. I began with tofu spring rolls, a familiar dish, the best part of which was the organic, locally grown cucumbers, bean sprouts, carrots and microgreens. The spring rolls came with the usual peanut sauce, given a kick with lemongrass and red pepper, sprinkled with fresh mint, basil and a few edible flowers.

I was surprised to find corn bread. Reinfeld is given to poetic names for his food. Just as he’s raided the world’s cuisines for his flavors, he’s invoked terms from the world’s religions to name his dishes. You don’t just order corn bread at Blossoming Lotus, you order Kaya’s Kosmic Korn Bread.

Kaya is the term for the bodily forms of Buddha. And this is Kosmic Korn Bread, because it’s not just made of corn meal. It’s largely spelt flour—spelt being an ancient grain mentioned in the Bible—and millet, a similarly ancient grain that always reminds me of birdseed. It’s moistened with water, tofu and safflower oil, leavened with baking soda and sea salt.

It comes out surprisingly palatable, especially dipped in organic apple butter with a distinct touch of cinnamon.

Super Shakti Spanokopita contains “cheeze” made of tofu, tahini and nutritional yeast.

When we got to the entrées, things really got moving. You have to wonder how someone can create a mouth-filling, satisfying entrée while forgoing center-of-the-plate proteins and even cheese and eggs. Blossoming Lotus does this by layering flavor upon flavor and texture upon texture until you’re so absorbed by the gastronomic complexity that you forget all about meat.

Some of these dishes start with relatively familiar recipes. For instance, the Super Shakti Spanakopita. Spanokopita, a classic Greek dish, is already vegetarian—a phyllo pie with spinach and feta cheese. Reinfeld’s spanokopita has no feta—that wouldn’t be vegan. And it’s no longer a pie. It’s a stack—of tofu, phyllo, kalamata olives, braised organic local greens and a “cheeze” made of tofu, tahini and nutritional yeast.

That may not sound good, but it was actually quite satisfying, especially since it was topped with a heap of arugula, microgreens and pine nuts. The most dramatic touch was a sauce of highly aromatic, fresh sage, which added totally unexpected mint and pine flavors.

Like the spanokopita, the Señorita Bombia’s Enchilada is hardly a standard dish. It’s tempeh, a fermented soy product with a pleasant, dense, mushroomy texture, marinated with chili and cumin and baked. The other ingredients here are fairly usual—fresh salsa, beans, rice, a few shards of corn tortillas and cheese—though, in this case ,“cheeze” made from cashews cultured overnight in water.

The ingredients are flavorful enough that there’s a lot of Wow! in each bite, especially since the dish sits atop a slightly sweet, dark mole sauce, nicely balanced, remarkably rich on the tongue.

The most pleasant discovery was the Rockin’ Moroccan Tofu. It’s unapologetically tofu, rolled in vivid, North African spices, seared and thin-sliced. The Moroccans have a way of making their flavors stand out: They add lemons preserved in salt. This dish had a preserved lemon sauce with a faint touch of truffles. It was great, tofu or no.

There were two less successful dishes. Pasta made with kamut, an ancient relative of wheat, got a little gloppy with its tofu-based “cream” sauce. Fortunately, it was enlivened by caramelized onions, oyster mushrooms and some sweet and colorful baby chiogga beets.

Equally in need of work was the Live Lasagna. One wing of the whole food/vegan movement holds that you can’t heat food above 116 degrees without “killing” it, destroying all the enzymes and micronutrients. So “live lasagna” in this context means nearly raw vegetables stacked with a macadamia nut cheese. It would have been far easier to cut and chew if the veggies were grilled, but, then of course, it would be “dead.”

As far as I can ascertain, there’s little real science behind the live-food movement. But many, like Reinfeld, feel intuitively that the closer to nature you eat your food, the better for you it must be. In fact, this month Reinfeld is getting the Platinum Carrot Award—really, I could not make that up—from The Aspen Center for Integral Health.

Part of the award ceremony will be a multicourse dinner prepared by six noted chefs from the Mainland and Mexico. Reinfeld is making his Lotus Live Fudge.

Good choice. If there’s any proof that Blossoming Lotus can make vegan food the wave of the future, it’s the desserts. His fudge is “live” because it’s made from unprocessed organic Ecuadorian cacao, softened with coconut oil and sweetened with agave nectar, from the same cactus that gives us tequila.

In its sumptuous desserts, The Blossoming Lotus uses no dairy, eggs, wheat flour or refined sugar.

It’s not really fudge, because you couldn’t pick up a piece. It’s actually slices of soft chocolate pâté, topped with chopped macadamia nuts and served over an organic raspberry coulis. What you get on the tongue is chocolate of remarkable depth, length and finish—not too heavy, not too sweet, not cloying. The menu claims the fudge is “the entirety of heaven compressed and manifested as dessert.” That’s not far wrong.

By this point in the evening, I’d struck up a conversation with a young couple from Los Angeles, Brian and Ashley Transeau, who’d driven to The Blossoming Lotus from their Po‘ipu hotel at the recommendation of a massage therapist. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Brian is a composer of film scores (The Fast and the Furious, Monster, Stealth). But we weren’t talking music, we were talking food.

“How’s dessert?” asked Brian. At a loss for words, I simply passed over the plate of live fudge. He tasted it, and immediately ordered his own. “This restaurant is better than anything we have in Los Angeles,” said Brian. “And in L.A., it would cost twice as much.”

The fudge, although I cannot praise it too highly, was not the only great dessert. If you don’t like chocolate, there’s a carrot cake, with a ginger sauce that gives new depth of meaning to the word zing. If The Blossoming Lotus can pull off these desserts with no dairy, no eggs, no wheat flour and no refined sugar, it suggests to me that almost anything’s possible in this brave new world.

“I’d say 90 to 95 percent of the people who eat here aren’t vegan in their day-to-day lives,” said Reinfeld when I finally met him. “And the desserts seem to convince them that, yes, it’s possible they could eat like this.”

Reinfeld is thin, with a wide-eyed exuberance that makes him seem much younger than his 38 years. For him, The Blossoming Lotus is the result of a 15-year spiritual odyssey. Much to his parents’ dismay, he dropped out of law school after his first year at New York University and began to travel—Europe, India, Nepal, Israel, California. Along the way, he took a job in the kitchen of a natural food store in San Diego, with little direction but a mandate to experiment. The vegan recipes he developed there led him to consulting and private chef gigs.

His questing finally led him to Kapa‘a. There he met Gabriel Zingaro, manager of a Kapa‘a Internet café called The Portal. Zingaro, who now runs the front of the house with apparently inexhaustible energy, helped Reinfeld turn the Internet café into a juice bar/vegan takeout place called The Blossoming Lotus. Then fate stepped in—or, rather, a retired Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Bo Rinaldi. Two days after the first Blossoming Lotus opened, Rinaldi and his wife, Star, walked in the door. “It’s like it was meant to be,” says Reinfeld.

Rinaldi, who put together software teams during the dot-com boom, had a million dollars to make the lotus really blossom. He financed the move across the street into a larger restaurant, taking on Reinfeld, Zingaro and many of the other workers as partners.

He also financed the cookbook. Good-looking enough for any coffee table, the book contains, in addition to Reinfeld’s recipes, inspirational quotations, photos of sacred sites, a guide to principles of natural vegan food and assurances that The Blossoming Lotus will transform not only the culinary world, but the whole of creation.

VEGAN WORLD FUSION CUISINE: Healing Recipes and Timeless Wisdom from Our Hearts to Yours

By Mark Reinfeld, Bo Rinaldi and the chefs of the Blossoming Lotus

Thousand Petals Publishing, $24.95

What happened to the original Blossoming Lotus? It’s still there across the street in all its funky glory, still owned by the Blossoming Lotus team but renamed The Lotus Root. I stopped by for breakfast on my way out of town the next morning. There was a “Help Wanted” sign posted on the lanai outside: “Wanted: Experienced, responsible, friendly, hard-working, dedicated individuals to work our front counter and help spread joy and love throughout the universe.”

I was amused. But then, it was a sunny Sunday morning. I was drinking a chai made with coconut milk and organic dates and eating a double-chocolate, apricot-almond scone made with spelt flour. That this smiling cadre of Kaua‘i vegans could spread joy and love throughout the universe seemed, at least at the moment, entirely plausible.

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