Mantra Lounge

If you spend any time around the area of Melbourne University, it would take special effort not to be aware of Mantra Lounge. The advertising blitz started even before they were open, with tram stop poster displays and advertising wagons being pulled behind cars and bikes alike canvassing Carlton streets, all advertising their $7.95 meal deal as the best value vegan food in town, and it’s continued in the months since they’ve been open.

Despite this hyper level of awareness, it’s taken me a bit of a bloody long time to get to Mantra Lounge. But the lure of cheap vegan food cannot be ignored for long, and I found my way there for a weekday dinner.

Mantra Lounge is kind of set up as a hippie canteen. You grab your tray, line up and choose your meal from the board and cabinet displays. There are the aforementioned meal deals, which comprise the vegie dish of the day (you can upgrade to get the hot savoury bake of the day), salad and a square of cake, and for a very economical $3 extra you can get one of the brightly coloured homemade drinks that sit in dispensers at the very end of the counter. Pretty much everything is vegan, and there’s quite a few gluten-free options to be had as well.

I went with the meal deal that included the hot stodgy main, as they had a vegan lasagne available that looked very creamy and cheesy, and I was intrigued to see how it would stack up against a dairy version. The salad was filled with green leaves, slices of cucumber, grated carrot and beetroot, and was drizzled with some kind of harissa spiced dressing. The cake, which was placed precariously on the edge of my pasta and salad plate, was banana.

The lasagne was indeed very creamy and cheesy, and most pleasingly didn’t have any kind of chemically after-tang that a lot of vegan cheeses have. It was a generous serving too, although some of the vegetable chunks within were a bit big and still had a bite to them rather than being good and mushy, but that is more of a personal lasagne preference than a real criticism. I was happy to see the variety of ingredients in the salad, and the harissa dressing certainly kicked it way above what you would expect from a side salad at this price. The square of banana cake (I am slightly worried about the fact that the cake is served on the same plate as everything else, WHAT IF IT GOT PASTA SAUCE ON IT?) was lightly crumbly yet moist, and with a nice balance between crumb and fruity bits. The mango smoothie I had to accompany my meal was smooth, lightly fragrant and very agreeable, and I was given a more than generous glass to fill from the dispenser fountain.

You definitely aren’t going to get a vegan meal this good for this price anywhere else. Really the question to ask is whether the vibe of the place will gel with you or not. The canteen process has zero frills, and you do have to tidy up after yourself and return all dishes and trays behind the counter. Given that it targets students you may, as I did, encounter large groups having some kind of extra-curricular dinner, and there is not a lot of room to queue and sound travels VERY LOUDLY in this bare-walled space. It is also, obviously, quite a hippy-dippy establishment, so if your comfort level with being surrounded by flyers for drumming circle groups and ‘mindfulness’ seminars and the kind of clientele those activities tend to attract isn’t terribly robust, you may want to give Mantra a pass. However if you are after a cheap vegan meal that is simple yet tastes pretty darn great, you really can’t go wrong.

Mantra Lounge

167 Grattan Street, Carlton

Ph: 0414 888 002

www.mantralounge.com.au

Nora

I’ve somehow wound up with a Saturday morning film reviewing gig on radio (I know, right?!) which has the pleasing bonus of causing me to be up and about way earlier that most Saturday morning foodies. All early opening breakfast spots are mine for the taking!

I’d been wanting to visit Nora since it opened – a Thai cafe serving Thai-inspired brunch meals, that’s a damn sight more exciting than plain old eggs on toast (not to disparage eggs on toast, but I consume A LOT of eggs on toast, change is good and healthy for mind and tum). It’s an extremely visually appealing space, coming across as half coffee spot, half art project, with an overall Scandi blonde wood look and the big table by the front window doesn’t appear to be for customers, instead displaying a tableau of the produce used in the menu. Very striking, although it must make things a bit crowded when there’s a full house.

The second thing you’ll notice after the space is that menu. Warning, it is LIMITED. Two options for vegetarians, out of seven dishes all up. But it’s an interesting menu, with things like smoked fish with nashi, beets and coconut ricotta, and the intriguingly named “Pig From The Ground It’s Raised From” (perhaps a nod to Ben Shewry’s renowned potato cooked in it’s own earth). Everything is just that little bit fancy, down to being served sparkling as the standard water option.

Out of the two vegie friendly options available, I decided to go with the ‘2010’ rice bircher, with longan, jackfruit, toddy palm, coconut and almonds. This was quite a visual and textural experience, being served in a heavy stone bowl, with the mass of purple-black bircher rice supporting crescents of jackfruit, ever so thinly sliced rounds of longan, roughly shaped shavings of coconut, the jelly-ish toddy palm and chopped chunks of almonds. The only component that didn’t really work for me was an unfamiliar nut or seed that had been combined in with the rice bircher and were shaped kind of like a gingko nut. These had an unpleasant texture that felt out of place, particularly in among the smooth creaminess of the bircher.

While I may not return frequently for Nora’s food given the small amount of options for vegies, I definitely will for their excellent coffee which really was gorgeous, perfectly poured with good colour, and not too strong. I’ve just started working in Carlton and Nora is within walking distance, which pleases me no end in terms of afternoon coffee breaks.

While Nora may not have enough on the menu to make regular diners out of those with specialty diets, if you are intrigued by any of their dishes I do recommend giving them a go. Perhaps you’ll even be able to snaffle one of their famous charcoal tarts, but be warned that they only make up to 100 a day, and they’re normally gone by noon!

Nora

156 Elgin Street, Carlton

www.noramelbourne.com

Blintz on Tour: Sage, Los Angeles

As the last stop on my trip, Los Angeles’ food unfortunately had to suffer from the fact that I was COMPLETELY LAID BACK IN SUPER HOLIDAY MODE by this point and was not taking notes as diligently as I should have been. I would have loved to have been able to cry rhapsodic about the first meal I had in town, an enormous stack of pancakes filled with layers of sliced caramel banana goodness which we had at a cafe near my friend Joe’s apartment and was close to the best thing I ate all trip, but I stupidly didn’t do the simplest thing of taking down the cafe’s NAME (if Joe reminds me I’ll update you all, make no mistake). Another old friend Jess took me out for a whirlwind day where we had brunch at Malibu Farm, which is right on the end of Malibu Pier, which I highly recommend, I had a delicious Thai-style tofu curry called the Vegan Coconut which I scoffed while watching fishermen try their luck outside. We also had an afternoon snack at Superba, an excellent bakery and food store where we shared a gorgeous cinnamon bun that was thick both in cinnamon seams and sticky white icing, and a beautiful little berry and custard tart.

But if there’s one LA restaurant I have to give the proper full-review treatment, it is Sage.

You can’t go far in Los Angeles without being reminded that the entire city rides on the back of the movie business. Sage, an all-vegan bistro that touts itself as “a cruelty-free plant based restaurant that meat eaters AND vegans and vegetarians adore” is apparently owned by Woody Harrelson. And as Joe and I ate our meal we spotted more than a few celebrity faces at other tables. But the real star here is the ENORMOUS menu, featuring purely plant-based bowls of green goodness to big mock meat extravaganzas, and everything in between.

We started with one of the specials, a plate of vegan ‘hot wings’ – fried cauliflower pieces that had been generously slathered in thick red hot sauce. They’re not lying about hot either (this is AMERICA, hot sauce is SERIOUS BUSINESS), I was glad I’d had the forethought to order a bourbon-heavy cocktail so I could gulp away the burn. With two pots of dipping sauce and sticks of celery and carrot to boot, this was a good-sized entree.

Next was the BBQ pineapple pizza: spicy housemade maple syrup barbeque sauce with grilled pineapple, Follow Your Heart mozzarella, with breaded seitan chicken. This was probably my fave, because how can you go past PIZZA especially when it has big chunks of well-seasoned mock chicken and pineapple all over it (pineapple on pizza haters TO THE LEFT).

Doubling our carbs, we also had the tuna melt sandwich: jackfruit tuna salad, heirloom tomato, avocado, iceberg lettuce, grilled red onion and mustard with spicy cashew cheese, with a side of spicy dill pickle slices and homemade potato chips. I was a little bit disappointed with this, I had a different idea of what texture the jackfruit would lend to the mock tuna and it was just a bit off from what I was expecting, which was clearly entirely my fault. But I love the idea of mock sandwiches, especially if they get served with crispy potato chips, so I would definitely recommend trying one of Sage’s many sarny options.

If I were to visit Sage again – and my goodness I really do hope I get to do so – I would probably not go as carb heavy and maybe have another of the pizzas alongside one of their salads or taco options, as by the end of this meal Joe practically had to roll me outta there. But oh, it was so very worth it, and the perfect way to cap my North America trip. Thanks Woody.

Sage

4130 Sepulveda Boulevard, Culver City

Ph: +1 424 228 5835

www.sageveganbistro.com

Blintz On Tour: Craftsman and Wolves, San Francisco

CAKE. That is all we really care about, in the depths of our souls (people who profess to not like cake just haven’t found the right one, don’t worry they’ll catch up one day). I had been recommended Craftsman and Wolves by my friend Jess who had spent some time living in San Francisco and assured me that there was no better venue in town for baked treats.

Craftsman and Wolves puts itself forward as a modern patisserie.¬† The choice of ‘craftsman’ in the cafe’s name is deliberate to express the respect and dedication to the craft of creating sweet pastry delights. SOUNDS LIKE MY KIND OF JAM. The interior of the store was very impressive and inspired in me instant goodwill – lots of dark wood paneling and wide, golden-lit displays cabinets filled with pastry treats, set up just the right way to encourage optimum ogling.

There were many sweet delights to choose from, but rather than err on the side of something familiar, I decided to have something alongside my coffee that I hadn’t experienced before, and the cube cakes fit the bill. Cube cakes are apparently a bit of a Craftsman and Wolves specialty – perfectly squared cubes of cake that look like the consistency of mousse from the outside.

I went for an apple one, a perfect cube, colour like a sandy pebble, crowded with a semicircle slice of apple that had been poached to the point that it was bright red, like a sliver of blood moon, with a tiny mound of crunchy spiced sugar for the apple crescent to sit on.

Dipping a fork in (and it really is like dipping, the cake is so soft there is only the merest resistance, I have no idea how this thing retains it’s structural integrity), the texture was really similar to mousse with only the merest crumb fluffing. In the middle was a seam of pureed apple, coming across with a texture sort of akin to almond paste, but smoother. It was, altogether, one of the most enjoyable things I have ever eaten in my goddamn life. I have no clue how it was made, I don’t need to know, I just know it was a perfect cloud of delicious wonder and if you are ever in San Francisco you should plunge your face into one toot sweet.

Craftsman and Wolves

746 Valencia Street, San Francisco

Ph: +1 415 913 7713

www.craftsman-wolves.com

Blintz on Tour: Cha-Ya, San Francisco

A holiday observation: Dogs are acceptable absolutely everywhere in San Francisco. I saw them on streetcars, in stores (macaws are also apparently acceptable in thrift stores), and yes, even in restaurants. I didn’t notice the little dachshund hidden under a patron’s coat at Cha-Ya until it barked imperiously at a server.

I was at Cha-Ya because I was suffering slightly from an overindulgence in Mexican food. You see, California does Mexican food very, very well, and I may have got overexcited and partaken with a bit too much gusto (Sulagna and I *may* have recoursed to Chipotle several times by this point. Also a lot of Melbourne’s Mexican tastes like Chipotle, so maybe we got a bit too excited there guys). Anyway, I had started to think keenly about noodles and sushi and miso and so very much needed a Japanese lunch.

Luckily, San Francisco happens to be home to Cha-Ya, an entirely vegan Japanese restaurant. The menu is huge, and was full of all the things I’d been longing for – agadashi tofu, maki rolls, gyoza, edamame, my head was turned every which way as I bounced from choosing the vege tofu curry, the sea vegetable salad or a plate of fried loveliness in the form of vegie tempura.

In the end I decided to go with the lunch set, as then I would be able to have the choice from a list of big bowlfuls of assorted vegies alongside a small bowl of warming miso. The hana gomoku, or sushi rice bowl, looked to be the ticket: sushi rice mixed with seasoned shiitake, green beans, carrots, lotus root, sliced tofu pouch, yam cake and hijiki, topped with seasonal vegetables.

After enjoying the miso, which was delightfully salty and filled with threads of seaweed, the hana gomoku was just the hit of vegies I craved. The almost overflowing bowl sat on a mound of sticky sushi rice, and the highlights included warm shiitake wedges that had been broth blanched, meticulously carved carrot pieces, big half moons of lotus root, and many shiny orbs of bright green edamame. It was the perfect dose of hearty, generous vegie health that I’d been longing for, and very much satisfied my craving.

The service was very efficient and kindly, and the staff are equipped to deal with the unexpected (like barking hidden dogs) with aplomb. Cha-Ya is a definite must for vegans traveling in San Francisco, or anyone who likes a fresh bowl of vegie delights.

Cha-Ya

762 Valencia Street, San Francisco

Ph: +1 415 252 7825

Blintz On Tour: Curry Up Now, San Francisco

It was time to say goodbye to Canada and head south to the Land of the Free, and specifically the city of bridges and very VERY steep streets. SAN FRANCISCO!

I was in San Francisco to meet up with a group of very fabulous ladies from the Twitter – hello to Liz, Bear, Jinxie, Mia, MLE and especially Sulagna who flew all the way from New York JUST TO MEET ME, I will never be over this for the rest of my life, honestly – so to be blunt while food is always a priority it was not at all my first priority in this particular case. Thankfully though, Jinxie is a foodie too and knew exactly where to take us for a good introduction to the city’s food scene.

After first conveying for a cheese and a cider at Mission Cheese, we headed down Valencia to have dinner proper at Curry Up Now. Starting out as one food truck that eventually grew into a fleet of trucks and bricks and mortar establishments across northern California, Curry Up Now offers an interesting fusion of Indian food presented in ways that you might ordinarily expect from California’s reigning cuisine, Mexican.

Which brings us to the curry burrito.

For you see, you can have CURRY FILLED BURRITOS at Curry Up Now. And thali platters and deconstructed samosas and aloo parantha quesadillex, but most importantly CURRY FILLED BURRITOS. I went with the ‘Hella Vegan’, because California, which was comprised of tofu, rice, garbanzo beans, onions and, get this: TINY CRISPY VEGIE SAMOSAS. There is not enough capslock in the world to truly express my joy with this creation, which was an absolutely enormous thing all wrapped up in a tortilla and properly dwarfed my hands. The curry tofu mixture was spicy enough to provide quite a bit of warming heat (I certainly was glad I’d also ordered a rosewater mango lassi to complement my meal as it was required quite a few times when the heat built up), while the samosas, which somehow retained a sense of crunch rather than going completely soggy, provided textural excitement and little flavour punches that made this quite the extraordinary meal. I was so disappointed that the gargantuan size of the burrito meant I was full before I could finish it – a meal this good shouldn’t of had any bits left behind!

Curry Up Now was a very good introduction to a food scene which appears to be ever inventive, and not at all satisfied with sticking with the status quo. I mean, TINY SAMOSAS in a BURRITO, for god’s sake. If you can’t get excited about that something vital inside of you has died.

Curry Up Now

659 Valencia Street, San Francisco

Ph: +1 415-504-3631

www.curryupnow.com

Blintz on Tour: The Hogtown Vegan, Toronto

On my last night in Toronto, I was adamant that I had to make sure my last meal was at the venue most keenly recommended to me by Michael in terms of having the most interesting menu of near endless vegan comfort food – The Hogtown Vegan. Hopping on the subway and heading out to the outer reaches of Bloor Street West past Koreatown, Hogtown Vegan welcomes you with a dark cosy interior reminiscent of a smoky bar, but given the array of customers from hipster couples, college-looking kids, and whole families with little ones, it’s clearly a beloved dining option for all kinds of folks.

The menu is very extensive in terms of mock meat delights, to the point where I got far more indecisive than usual. Should I go with waffles and ‘unchicken’? Build my own Hogtown burger? The Philly ‘Cheesesteak’ comprised of seitan topped with pepper, onions and vegan cheese sauce on top of baguette? Eventually I narrowed the numerous choices down to the ‘unchicken’ Caesar wrap – breaded fried soy chicken, romaine lettuce, croutons, fakin’ bits, almond parmesan, and house made creamy Caesar dressing all squeeze together in a wrap. This was a hefty sized wrap, with breaded pieces of unchicken packed in tightly with a generous hand, there was barely any room for even the lettuce! The spice of the unchicken had a bit of unexpected heat to it, but otherwise it was quite good, although it was overshadowed slightly in my choice of side.

This side was poutine, which was a personal mandatory choice because Canada. These hot chips came topped with daiya cheese and mushroom beer gravy. As I hinted at earlier, for a side it was ENORMOUS, I was a little trepidatious embarking on it, but taste-wise I had no worries. My experiments with daiya continued to be fruitful, with not only that full cheesy flavour being present without any hint of chemical taint, but it also went sufficiently melty to make a proper cheese experience. The mushroom beer gravy was rich and satisfying, and I feel I was quite valiant (or perhaps unheeding of my long-term health prospects) in finishing the whole serve. I certainly needed the aid of my glass of Southern Tea, comprised of bourbon, iced tea, agave and muddled mint.

Maybe I’d been getting too used to devouring salads and fresh veggies during the rest of my Toronto eats, but such a huge plate of delicious stodge sat a bit heavily with me than it would usually. Maybe my experience would have been more dynamic as part of a group of people being able to share a bunch of dishes together and experience more range, rather than as a lone diner. Maybe I was just sad at the prospect of leaving Canada! I do however really encourage Toronto visitors to experience Hogtown Vegan, it’s a really comforting spot, the staff were lovely and there is so much interesting mock-meat deliciousness available that you would really benefit from several visits rather than one. Just make sure you arrive very, VERY hungry.

The Hogtown Vegan

1056 Bloor Street West, Toronto

Ph: +1 (416) 901-9779

www.hogtownvegan.com