The smoked Gouda sandwich is an upgrade of a classic grilled cheese. Sweet potato fries and a side salad accompany the cafe’s sandwich.

Restaurant: Ipanema Cafe

Where: 917 W. Grace St.

Phone: (804) 213-0190

Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Dinner: 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Check for two: $35.38

Entrée prices: $13.95-$15

Taste: Ipanema is a cavelike vegetarian restaurant and bar in the heart of the Virginia Commonwealth University community. As an avid meat eater, I was hesitant about venturing into this spot, but was pleasantly surprised by my experience. For dinner, my colleague Caitlin Ashworth and I both ordered the smoked Gouda sandwich with tomato, thyme and caramelized onions ($7.95). The cafe’s sandwiches come with a side salad and sweet potato fries.

The sandwich was a step up from the classic grilled cheese and featured the perfect combination of flavors, with the tomato balancing out the sharpness of the Gouda and the caramelized onions adding a bit of sweetness. The sweet potato fries weren’t overly crisp, and the salad was topped with cucumbers and a subtle, but slightly tart, carrot-ginger dressing.

The cafe offers an extensive craft beer and wine list.

For dessert, I had the brownie a la mode ($5.50) and Caitlin got the Nutella cheesecake ($5). The brownie had a nice crust on the outside and a gooey center. The vanilla ice cream was creamy and had a thick consistency. Caitlin said the cheesecake was smooth and the Nutella perfectly complemented the cheesecake flavor.

The menu includes a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan options — ratatouille with white beans, polenta and fried capers; beans and brown rice with salsa, corn and tortilla chips; portobello french dip on a roll with onions, mayonnaise and cotija cheese. The options are many, but there is something for virtually every palate.

Service: We ate our meal at the bar, but the cafe also has booths available. Our food was brought out quickly and the server was attentive and knowledgeable about the menu.

Bottom line: I had been to Ipanema for drinks, but enjoyed trying its food for the first time. My meal was fresh and wasn’t overly heavy. The exotic, underground atmosphere was a nice switch-up from the typical restaurant feel. Fellow meat lovers: Give this place a try. You’ll likely discover that eating vegetarian isn’t so scary after all.

— Anna Akins

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