Michelle Shin / Sun Contributor

March 27, 2017

Ten Forward Cafe: An Honest Review of Ithaca’s First Vegan Cafe

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Ithaca’s first vegan café, Ten Forward, celebrated its opening with a launch party on Saturday. The new café is located at 115 East State Street, on the second floor of the Autumn Leaves bookstore on the Commons. The café will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This café was opened by Tammie Olefski, owner and founder of Star Truck, a food truck in Ithaca that offers plant-based comfort food. Although I did not get a chance to talk with her personally, it seemed clear to me that this café serves as an extension of her philosophy with Star Truck: offer food that is affordable, plant-based, local and memorable.

As a transitioning vegan, I was interested in the fact that this was Ithaca’s very first vegan café and decided to check it out with my friend. We got there two hours into the opening, and the café was bustling with customers ranging from college students to elementary school kids to elderly Ithacans. Although the space was small and had limited seating, it seemed to welcome every member of the Ithaca community.

The staff was very friendly and hard at work, remaining at ease and enthusiastic while hustling through the endless orders.  The café had a hipster vibe with a display of comic book collections and unique names for their bakery items, from Magic Bites to Captain’s Cupcake. Their featured Facebook logo is a chocolate chip cookie floating in a galaxy. As a part of the launch party, there was a raffle for the customers, with prizes ranging from Star Trek books to a collector’s edition of the StarLog poster magazine.

The menu itself was extensive, and everything was very customizable. You could build your own sandwich, wrap, salad or rice bowl with a plethora of options. They offered racked wheat, multigrain and rye for their breads. Protein options included Susie’s Seitan, Tofurky and Ithaca hummus. What’s more, there were also various fresh and pickled vegetable toppings and unique spreads like chili garlic mayo and creamy curry. They also offered many baked goods and coffee from Forty Weight Coffee Roasters.

Because I had dinner plans, I decided to get something light as my pre-dinner appetizer. Nearly everyone seemed to be sipping on a build-your-own banana-based milkshake, so I ordered a banana smoothie with every ingredient offered: cocoa powder, chia seeds, peanut butter, cinnamon, pumpkin and pea protein. I was going to leave it there, but the display of bakery items got ahold of me. I ended up ordering a lemon-raspberry bite, a Captain’s Cupcake and, why not, an earl grey latte, too. The total came out to a little under $15. The prices seemed reasonable, similar to the prices at other local coffee shops like Collegetown Bagels and Gimme! Coffee.

My order came out within minutes, and I quickly grabbed one of the limited seats before they all filled up again. I was excited to try out beverages and baked goods that were 100% vegan. It was one of the few times I felt at ease knowing that I won’t get an upset stomach from indulging in such drinks and bakery items that tend to be concentrated with dairy.

Before diving straight into my review of the foods, I do want to note that I am a very critical and picky foodie. I don’t believe in Yelp reviews, because they always end up disappointing me. I also am very skeptical of restaurants and foods that are hyped up. So perhaps, you might be surprised by what I have to say about this café.

Earl Grey Latte

First up, the earl grey latte. Honestly, I was immediately disappointed by its presentation. I have had my share of lattes, and because this was a more “hip” café, I thought the baristas would put more care into latte art. I also thought I would get a more high-end steeped loose-leaf tea. Instead, what I got was a cup of Numi Tea’s Aged Earl Grey with a thin layer of soy milk foam. But I value taste over presentation, so I remained on the fence. After my first sip, however, I knew I would not order the drink again. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it tasted like a watered-down earl grey tea with a tasteless foam on top. I would rather spend the money to buy myself a box of earl grey tea and steep it in heated soy milk myself.

Next up was the custom-built, banana-based smoothie that everyone was drinking. I don’t know if I just combined too many ingredients together, but it was a challenge to finish the drink. It was very thick and the peanut butter was so overpowering that I could not taste the cocoa powder, chia seeds, cinnamon, pumpkin or pea protein. I am usually good at distinguishing the various flavors in my smoothies or foods, but I could not taste anything other than a liquified version of a standard peanut butter banana sandwich. So if you don’t like banana, definitely stay away. And if you aren’t a huge peanut butter fan, don’t bother including the peanut butter when ordering your smoothie. But I do have to say that I appreciate how they stay true to the ingredients — the smoothie was not too sweet because they do not add sugar or its alternatives, and they blend it well so that you’re not gagging from forcing raw chia seeds down your throat.

“Captain’s cupcake” had a flavor I couldn’t quite figure out. The base cake of the cupcake was flavorless. It didn’t even have a grainy, wheaty flavor; it was really just bland. But it was perfectly moist and dense without the overpowering sweetness in most cupcakes found in grocery stores. The sugar frosting on top had a slightly tangy taste, but I wasn’t the biggest fan of its synthetic flavor. The lemon-raspberry bar was exactly as it stated. It had a yellow, lemon jello-like layer on the top, followed by a red raspberry layer and a buttery (probably margarine) graham cracker crust on the bottom. I could not taste the raspberry, but I did not mind the tang of lemon at the end of each bite. Pretty standard.

Although I did not try the sandwiches, salads and other food options they offer, based on the couple of items I did try, I was not that impressed. It was more of a standard café you could find elsewhere. Granted, I did like the vibe and enthusiasm of the staff, and I support their mission to offer a communal space while also offering wholesome, plant-based comfort food. I hope this sheds light to a more critical view of the café rather than the over-the-top hyped reviews that stem from the fact that this is Ithaca’s very first vegan café. If you’re not convinced by my review, go try it out! I believe it is worth at least exploring this new landmark in Ithaca. And I will be back for to try out the rice bowl next time.

Serves: coffee, baked goods, sandwiches, light vegan fare

Vibe: a casual, hip café

Price: $

Overall: ★★★☆☆