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.
167 Grattan Street, Carlton
Ph: 0414 888 002