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

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