Recently reader Natalie alerted us to a new vegetarian cafe just a few doors down from Animal Orchestra. Lucky for me I had a couple of quiet lunch breaks to check it out right away. Mantra Lounge is doing its level best to attract students from the neighbourhood, advertising its $7.95 main/salad/dessert special with pamphlet distribution and travelling trailer signs. It's going for a funky, chill-out atmosphere and doesn't hide its Eastern spiritual leanings - there's a soundtrack of chants, inspirational quotes on the wall, plus yoga and meditation events on the notice board.
The menu is on chalkboard and changes daily, with all foods clearly on display at the counter. In addition to the three course special there are a few wraps and snacks, salads, sweets and drinks. Gluten-free options are marked and almost everything is vegan - I think just a couple of the drinks contained dairy, but even their chai latte is based on rice milk.
On my first visit I tried their vegelicious chickpea wrap ($4). Though it looked small, the chickpea masala was filling. The tomato sauce I was offered on the side didn't do the subtle spices of the filling any favours. I was surprised that my lemon mint lagudi drink ($3) turned out to be pink, with fragments of dried mint - it was refreshing and sweet, but not necessarily something I'd order again.
I felt ambivalent about the 'amazing apricot slice' ($4) too - the apricot filling had a jellied texture (but also pieces of real fruit) and the coconut cream top was fatty and bland.
The $7.95 meal deal proved much more successful the following day - it was a huge plate of pasta dotted with salty soy meat, covered in a sweet saucy lentil and pumpkin tagine with a little lightly dressed salad. An unassuming square of coco-lemon cake was the surprise star, with an open coconutty crumb shot through with sweet-and-sour lemon syrup.
It seems that we should heed Mantra Lounge's advertising and make the most of their cheap meal deals - these plates are simple, filling and fresh. The staff were friendly, aren't inclined to rush you through, and the setting is cheerfully coloured. This cafe will surely become a student staple in Carlton.
167 Grattan St, Carlton
0433 531 345
menu: visit one, visit two
Accessibility: Mantra Lounge has clearly given accessibility some thought - there's a ramp up from the footpath (see photo above) and plenty of space around the counter, where ordering, payment and food pick-up occurs. There's a unisex toilet with wheelchair accessibility signage on this level. There are a few moderately spaced tables downstairs; the stairs themselves are wide and sturdy with a new hand rail.