Restaurant review: Rainbow Café, 9a King's Parade, Cambridge

Cambridge's Rainbow Café is rather better on the palette than the palate, says Amol Rajan

Veteran readers of this website may recall that in late April I made a great song and dance of my conversion to vegetarianism. Alas, like all good conversions, it has been a struggle. Torn by the competing demands of rationality ("cruelty is bad") and passion ("mmm… lamb chops"), I have vainly fought to uphold the foundations of our moral universe while satiating the constant rumble in my stomach. Mostly, I have failed. At least one meal every other weekend has been attended by some hunk of flesh from a long-dead living thing.

A trip to Cambridge – where, by the time you read this, I will have been married – seems the perfect time to revisit that lifestyle choice, because I am with my beloved parents. I ask Uncle Google for a restaurant to match their vegan tendencies, and he offers Rainbow Café. It's on a little alleyway off King's Parade, smack in the centre of the city, and down some stairs.

But before we are able to head down, we are assaulted by a vast exhibition of do-goodery, as is customary for vegetarian restaurants today. "Winner of the Vegetarian Society 'Best Vegetarian Café' Award", "The Lord Parsvanath Award – Indian Vegetarian Society", "'The best vegetarian meal I have ever eaten' – Tina Fox". And then – appetite killer! – "'I love this Healthy Restaurant' – Gillian McKeith". And on the left, in big, blue font: "Gillian McKeith gives us her approval!"

McKeith, you will recall, was the television nutritionist who agreed to drop the "Dr" from her advertising after somebody complained that it might mislead viewers to believe that she was medically qualified. I can hardly think of anything less appetising ahead of a meal than her endorsement. Bad start.

The basement here catches plenty of natural light, though there are also candles alongside small ornaments and lovely chequered tablecloths. Wine, beers and ciders are vegan and organic (the former good, the latter irrelevant); eggs are free-range; and babies and the gluten-intolerant are more than catered for.

The starters are pretty nondescript. Dad has a garlic bread with sun-dried tomato (£3.45) that is essentially soft, buttery bread infused with garlic and moist but slightly bitter tomato. Mum and I have the small goat's cheese salad (over-priced at £5.25), which has cucumber, tomato, olive, lettuce, red onion and a good vinaigrette.

The mains are each an explosion of ingredients and colour – but not, alas, flavour. I have the Jamaican roti chips (£9.95), which involve fresh banana, rosecoco beans, black turtle beans, coconut milk, Jamaican spices, roasted sweet potato "and more", served in a chapatti cup with rice'n'peas. That is a lot going on, and the competing flavours drown each other out, leaving a glorified mush. I can make out the banana but not the coconut milk, let alone the spices, and the rice'n'peas is overcooked and too starchy.

I ask for the pepper pot with extra tamarind for my dad, thinking its combination of jewel peppers, pumpkin, carrot, onion, garlic and coconut on rice'n'peas, all of it "fiery hot as the Caribbean", will appeal to his need for spice. But spice comes there none. This, too, is a jumble of vegetables cooked in such a way as to make them hard to distinguish.

My mum has an aubergine-, sweet potato- and carrot-based tagine, with couscous and green lentils and fresh coriander. Can you guess what it tastes like? That's it – a bit of a mush. The lentils are too dry, while the tomato needs a lot more seasoning and cooking to intensify its flavour. Also: it'd be great if some of those much-vaunted spices were to turn up.

There are lots of other options, some quick lunches for less than £10, a selection of old-favourite desserts for under £5 (including a good carrot cake with sour cream for £4.75) and decent wine at £3.75 a glass.

And, despite the generally pedestrian nature of the food, the vibe here is wonderful. The staff couldn't be more charming, the atmosphere more collegiate, nor the décor more inviting. I'm minded, therefore, to recommend this place, as the experience was memorable, even if the food wasn't. Unless you're Gillian McKeith, apparently.

6/10

Rainbow Café, 9a King's Parade Cambridge, tel: 01223 321 551. £35 for two, without drinks

Three more vaunted vegetarians

Henderson's

This characterful veteran in a New Town basement has been serving good veggie scoff for half a century.

94 Hanover Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 225 2131

Green's

A great veggie, and intimate space, where carnivores will not be disappointed.

41-43 Lapwing Lane, West Didsbury, Manchester, tel: 0161 434 4259

Terre à Terre

This long-celebrated Lanes phenomenon (est. 1991) can overwhelm with its huge menu choice.

71 East Street, Brighton, tel: 01273 729051

Reviews extracted from 'Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013',  www.hardens.com

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