It should be a truth universally acknowledged that vegetarian cafés are far more exciting then their carnivorous rivals. Partly because making vegetables sing requires a little more effort than offering a rack of condiments (French mustard, sir? French mustard? Does anyone actually have that – I don’t mean dijon – unless they’re having served-with-chips-and-onion-rings steak?), and partly, I think, because they have to convert suspicious meat-lovers.
The Rainbow Café in Cambridge has done this beautifully, attracting glowing reviews and loyal customers for their mixture of vegetarian staples, like their spinach and ricotta lasagne, or far-flung dishes like their Ethiopian Mesir Wat (lentil bowl). And, stereotypical as it may sound, vegetarian cafes usually do a mean carrot cake – the Rainbow Café proudly say theirs is the best Nigel Slater has ever tasted.
But where the Rainbow Café falls down is on price – as a lowly student, I always thought £9.95+ was a bit steep for lunch (especially when I wasn’t getting a dose of much-needed iron to sort out my pallid library-induced complexion). Not so at the Museum Street Café in Ipswich, where their imaginative, tasty and homecooked vegetarian food costs as little as £4.50.
Two things to notice first about the Museum Street Café. One, jugs of water and glasses come as standard on each table. Two, you queue up for your food, so service is quick, you can see what today’s specials are – and can work out for yourself just what a beetroot and goat’s cheese pattie will look like (this…)
If that hasn’t endeared it to you already, then the fact it’s always bustling, food runs out (rather than being resurrected from some over-frosted freezer), and the owner is usually on hand to recommend his favourites should do the job. Just like the Rainbow Café, it tries out exciting new ideas to tempt people in – and they really work.
Indecisive as ever, my friend Soph and I picked two dishes and shared them – huge platefuls which meant we weren’t competing for the last mouthful. We chose the sweet pepper and onion tart and the beetroot and goat’s cheese patties, served with beetroot tzatziki and rice.
Both were gorgeous. The tart was lovely, just warm, really cheesy, creamy and downright savoury, with good crispy pastry. The beetroot patties – not quite the disturbing shade of pink my camera converted them to – were good too, fresh and sweet, with a creaminess and depth from the goat’s cheese. The beetroot tzatziki verged on overkill, but it was tangy and colourful and helped to cut through the goat’s cheese. Both came with a green salad, which was freshly dressed as we waited, and for an extra charge you can get a variety of brightly-coloured side salads.
Other options included a spicy dahl, and a gorgeous-looking lasagne. Everything’s vegetarian, and they have a great selection of cakes too, including their version of the commonplace carrot cake – a courgette cake, which I’m still working up the courage to try.
Warm and bustling, the Museum Street Café makes you feel like you’ve just wandered into your friend’s kitchen. The food is substantial, a proper meal rather than just a sandwich, the prices are little more than you’d pay for a boring chain cafe panini, and the quick service means you can nip in on your lunch break.
Try it – and bring along your most carnivorous friend. They’ll be surprised.