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Kimchi dumplings at Kanu Cafe in Edmonton, Alberta on Feb. 27, 2019.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Kanu Cafe

Location: 10803 Jasper Ave., Edmonton

Phone: 780-760-5268

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Website: kanucafe.ca

Price: $9-$27

Cuisine: Contemporary vegan

Atmosphere: Casual setting, fairly generic in design.

Drinks on offer: Cocktails, beer and limited wine selection

Best bets: Butternut-squash nachos, kelp cacio e pepe, kimchi dumplings, beet sliders, coconut-cream pie

Vegetarian friendly? Yes.

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Additional information: Not open for dinner on Sundays.

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Cheese plate at Kanu Cafe in Edmonton, Alberta on Feb. 27, 2019.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

It’s a wonderful time to be vegan. Even the most basic of grocery stores readily stock plant-based proteins and nearly every buzzworthy new restaurant concept offers plant-based culinary creations. You can even be in a small town such as Oyen, Alta., and have a vegan burger at the local A&W.

Of all the Prairie cities, Edmonton has embraced this tidal wave of a trend the most. The city boasts a number of popular vegan eateries including the charming Moth Cafe, the meat- and cheese-less pizzeria Die Pie, and even a vegan-Vietnamese restaurant named An Chay.

The newest addition is Kanu Cafe, which comes by way of a U.S. celebrity chef, Matthew Kenney. Though his name is lit up above the restaurant’s entrance on Jasper Avenue and proudly on the top of the menu, Mr. Kenney is hardly a household name in Canada. That said, he has partnered with investors and businesses to help open plant-based restaurants around the world. He recently opened a concept in Saks Fifth Avenue in Chicago and a Four Seasons in the Middle East just launched a vegan menu he developed.

Clearly the chef is in demand, but making a Canadian restaurant debut in Edmonton seems rather odd. It’s not quite a franchise, but whatever it is, Mr. Kenney isn’t the one in the kitchen cooking.

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Chef Justin O'Reilly puts the finishing touches on the kimchi dumplings at Kanu Cafe in Edmonton, Alberta on Feb. 27, 2019.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Odd might be the best way to summarize the menu at Kanu. For any diner who has been on a vegan diet for their adult life (i.e. the majority), part of the struggle here lies in titles and descriptions for certain dishes setting unrealistic expectations for themselves.

The restaurant’s $27 “cheese” plate is a trio of house-made “cheeses” that, not surprisingly, tasted nothing like cheese, but rather pureed cashews and coconut, lightly fermented and formed into chunks that resemble pieces of cheese. The seasonal fruit mentioned on the menu must have been referencing the few raspberry and blackberry halves strewn on the plate. To my knowledge, neither of them was in season on this particular winter evening.

One of the most odd dairy-free variations to arrive at our table over dinner was the cashew “raclette” which was intensely tart and also grainy in texture. Served with slices of toasted sourdough, pickles and pickled radish, as well as a handful of edible flowers, I don’t think there could be a deviation from raclette more perplexing than this one. Describing it as some sort of dip rather than a salty, gooey, stretchy cheese may garner more favourable reactions.

A trio of truffled beet sliders also garnered fair reactions from my friends as well as myself. They are nothing more than just a slice of roasted beet in a slider bun with a schmear of truffle “aioli”, but sometimes there is beauty in simplicity and a dish not trying to be something it’s not.

The udon noodles – mixed with oyster mushrooms and tomatoes and in a chili hoisin dressing before being topped with black sesame seeds, cashews and a healthy sprinkle of togarashi – aren’t hard to swallow because of their taste, but rather their price tag of $19.

Chef Justin O'Reilly preps dumpling wrappers at Kanu Cafe in Edmonton, Alberta on Feb. 27, 2019.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Satisfying? Sure. Something more complex than a hungry person could throw together for a midnight snack? I’m not so sure.

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Kenney’s kimchi dumplings seem to be a signature dish that most of his concepts offer. They are quite beautiful visually, especially with the bright green outer layer. The completely raw dish of minced white kimchi in a wrapper, made up of dehydrated coconut and spinach, is more intricate in terms of construction and presentation. The three bundles will set you back $15.50, but at least you know where in Edmonton to bring your one friend who’s on a raw diet.

Another raw dish, the kelp cacio e pepe, is made with glass noodles and is inventive and well-seasoned, though not even remotely similar to the classic Italian dish. Unnecessary garnishes of shoots and edible flowers take away from its unorthodox ingenuity.

In stark contrast to the elevated efforts of the dumplings came our favourite dish of the night: butternut-squash nachos. Blue corn chips were topped with a delightful butternut-squash “cheese” sauce, guacamole, shaved radish and a lime-infused “cream” (think sour cream).

Ending dinner on another high point: a slice of delicious coconut-cream pie made up of a pureed banana and coconut filling in a macadamia nut crust. In hindsight, I’d happily skip the cheese appetizers and save room for an extra slice of pie.

Kanu’s atmosphere also doesn’t really do the dining experience any favours, feeling more like a decently designed fast-casual chain as opposed to a restaurant you would feel comfortable hunkering down to enjoy food and drink for a few hours.

If this is a place that is “crafting the future of food,” as Kenney’s trademarked tagline so proudly puts it, I’m not sure that I’m ready for tomorrow.

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