The Kitchen has been operating casually for several months now, but only recently put a hand-scrawled sign out on Agua Fria to announce its presence.
Situated in the beautiful Lynn Stehwien adobe and timber structure on the grounds of Plants of the Southwest that used to be home to the Treehouse Pastry Shop and Café, The Kitchen is even more open and welcoming than its predecessor. There's not even a counter separating cook Olive Tyrrell's careful operations from the business of devouring them.
The Kitchen is a kind of fantasy restaurant: It's a melding of classic European eateries that faded away 100 years ago and casual mom 'n' pop operations that throw out "gone fishin'" signs when they don't feel like cooking, all with contemporary food, conservation and community sensibilities.
There is only one meal a day. That meal is lunch ($8.50), and everyone has the same thing because only one entrée is made each day. There's no poring over the menu or requesting laborious substitutions or having two apps instead of an entrée; rather, you are eating at The Kitchen or you are not. The exception to this is that you may have dessert without an entrée or vice versa.
Offerings are strictly vegetarian, sometimes vegan and predominantly sourced locally. On my first visit, a substantive red chile tomato soup was followed by a quesadilla. The soup was a smooth and delirious affair, perfectly seasoned for a winter afternoon but not so overstrained that it lost all carnality. The creamy tomato flavor was tempered by the chile, rather than being overwhelmed with heat. The quesadilla featured whole black beans, goat cheese and fresh salsa, and was brilliantly topped with coyly pungent onion sprouts.
I chose to continue with desert and was served a quince with crème fraîche and brandied cherries that was plated like a classic still life. Seriously, I did a double take to look for pheasants and hunting dogs. The meat and tart of the quince was matched step for step by the sweet and lather of the cherries and cream. A warm hibiscus tea was served.
On another visit, lunch began with a salad of spinach leaves, fingerling potatoes, bean sprouts and sesame seeds, all lightly dressed with a buttermilk Dijon concoction. A hot ginger-lemon tea was offered. I admit to wishing I could rob some gingery bite from the tea and loan it to the salad so that both would have a perfect edge, but I also admit to not caring all that much. I eventually found myself forgetting the fork and slowly nursing the dressing off each leaf as though I were methodically pleasuring an artichoke.
The salad was followed by tofu cakes served on a bed of kale and with a little tarn of very mild horseradish aioli. Tyrrell's tofu cakes were akin to the best crab cakes I have had on shores in North Carolina and Massachusetts. The outside was crispy with cornstarch and kelp, and the interior was made soft and savory with some kind of tofu and yeast voodoo I cannot begin to understand.
It would have taken the threat of violence to make me eat dessert—I was perfectly sated. Payment at The Kitchen is made on the honor system. Open the pay box and leave a personal check or make change from the existing cash. If you suspect that you might need a doggie bag—the meals are well-portioned but not small, vegetarian but not insubstantial by any means—you'd do well to bring your own. The Kitchen doesn't keep disposable food containers or aluminum foil or other icons of restaurant waste.
Finally, the fantastic setting at Plants of the Southwest beats just about any place in town, even in the winter. Do me a favor and let's just keep it between us.
Open11:30 am-2:30 pm
3095 Agua Fria Road