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Lunch review: One World Cafe is refreshingly reliable

Bastion for vegetarians belongs on every foodie's treasure map

By John Lindner, Special to The Baltimore Sun

2:20 PM EST, January 2, 2011

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From the outside, One World Cafe looks like it could be a small coffee joint housed in a one-story addition to a much taller brick building on the cusp of the Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus. In fact, if you walk past the few tables up front and the full service bar, you'll find it has a largish dining room with seating to accommodate, by my rough guesstimate, easily 40 to 50 diners. Its interior is not the only way the cafe offers more than meets the eye.

12:58 We entered very much looking forward to eating in a reliably vegetarian restaurant and specifically not seeking vegetarian renditions of meat-centric recipes — except for a veggie burger. We wanted vegetable dishes, not vegetables-disguised-as-meat dishes. And no salads. Salads are too easy.

1:13 After a long look at the menu, we ordered a tomato-based vegetable soup ($3.50), enchiladas ($13), jambalaya ($12) and a veggie burger ($8). The burger was a test. I've never cared for the veggie variety but wanted to see if One World's take would be more to my liking. Might as well get this out of the way right off: It wasn't. But that's not to say it isn't a good veggie burger. I just don't like them. And if a veggie burger were my only option for a last meal, I'd pick One World's because of the incredible nondairy aoli they serve with it. This aoli could improve the taste of a basketball. I'd also recommend One World's veggie burger if you're a fan of that species or if you're veggie-curious.

1:17 The soup was delivered by one of the more affable servers I've met in a long time. He answered our questions, fielded special requests with aplomb and set a tone of relaxed, but not overly or falsely casual, welcoming — a vibe that permeates One World. Our fellow diners were as diversely dressed as one might expect from a university setting and a restaurant named One World, but I confess, my dining companion and I were braced for more of a hemp skirt and Birkenstock crowd. Shame on us? Maybe. But if so, credit One World with dispelling a stereotype. Neither of us has felt more at ease in a new place in a long, long time.

And the soup was fantastic: big cubes of al dente veggies huddled in a hearty, spicy broth that had us scraping the bottom of our cups. The soup was a sign of things to come.

1:26 When our entrees landed, the first thing I noticed was that the enchiladas practically sparkled. The color on my dining companion's plate was far richer and more vibrant than the deep hued dark reds and browns I associate with enchilada plates. The refried beans were mahogany, the sauce was cherry tomato and the lightly crisped corn tortillas glistened, though they didn't seem at all oily. I was glad my dining companion ordered them. I would not have. Another prejudice: Enchilada lovers should never order enchiladas outside verifiably tipico restaurants, for otherwise lies disappointment. One World's kitchen does this delicacy's concept right, but in its own style.

I'm just as picky, perhaps more so, about jambalaya, but I am far more forgiving of mediocre attempts if they splurge on the andouille. One World doesn't have that option, and its tempeh isn't and shouldn't be considered a substitute. It should be enjoyed for what it is, and in One World's jambalaya it's but one of many supporting players that accept jambalaya in concept but present a fun new take on it. Rather than trying to imitate a classic recipe, its rice, tempeh, beans, corn, peppers, tomatoes, celery, et al present a jazzy variation on a theme — with a mind-blowing grace note: Atop what could justifiably be construed a vegan rendition of a Cajun classic, chef Sue Novak tosses a mound of delicately sauteed baby kale. Oh Em Gee. The kale turns the recipe into a dish that deserves its own name, if not category. What fun.

In a way, One World's jambalaya is a mirror image of the Louisiana staple. It's got a fairly similar spice spectrum, but where good jambalaya is marvelously dark and weighty and swampy, One World's is light and airy — but every bit as playful and decadent as its namesake. Blue corn muffins and vegan maple syrup butter are two more nice touches.

1:50 We finish and take possession of two One World Cafe brownies: one a peanut butter chocolate and the other a gooey chocolate. The peanut butter brownie is not bad but, cakey and dry, it begs for coffee. The gooey, on the other hand, is rich and hefty and uncompromisingly chocolate.

While I'd wager most area vegetarians would place One World Cafe high on their go-to restaurant list, this spot belongs on every foodie's treasure map. While it's comforting to have a place that allows vegetarians the run of the menu rather than a three-item, oh-by-the-way, hope-you-like-portobello-sandwiches afterthought, One World Cafe's kitchen is for everyone.

One more note: No doubt another nod to its location, One World Cafe kitchen serves late — to 11 p.m.

Get more information about One World Cafe.

One World Cafe

Where: 100 West University Parkway

Contact: 410-235-5777, one-world-cafe.com

Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Lunch sandwiches and entrees: $3.50-$14

Food: ✭✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Key: ✭✭✭✭ Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]

Dining time: 52 minutes