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Refuel: Cornucopia ***

It's a tradition, here at Independent Newspapers, for me to start the year with a 'healthy' review. I suppose it makes sense, given the post-Christmas pudge -- but that doesn't mean I like it. Of course, I don't actually do the New Year review in the New Year: deadlines require me to do it in December.

Looking back, I've rung in the New Year with some godawful crud. Misery food: polenta, cabbage soup, tofu. My body can't take it, and by the second week in January, I'm back drinking Amarone by the neck and eating enough rashers to render the pigs of Ireland extinct. You'd never think it, but for many years I was vegetarian, and like the nymphomaniac who escaped the nunnery, I've spent many more years making up for it.

As it happens, I spent a lot of time in Cornucopia back in my meat-free teens and 20s. I'm old enough to remember when it was primarily a health-food shop. As a poor student, I used to get my mother to bring me there, so she could witness me eating an actual meal. She gamely ate the unrecognisable things on her plate, but always complained she wasn't right for days. Flannery digestion wasn't cut out for it, she said.

These days Cornucopia is a large restaurant, and I've still got a soft spot for it -- not enough to frequent it, mind. And on the previous occasion that I reviewed it, I was disappointed. This time, knowing I'd have a hard time recruiting an accomplice, I rang The Italian Millionaire and strung him along with the promise of "being surprised" by our destination. He was surprised alright.

Cornucopia is self-service, and the queue moves fast, so if you're not au fait with how the system works and you can't speed-read the blackboard, you won't get the best out of the place. Here's a few tips: unless you have an intolerance or allergy, it's best to ignore the WF, EF, GF symbols -- they'll only confuse you. Don't be distracted by the juice and herbal tea menu either -- you won't have read it by the time you get to the till.

There's usually a couple of wraps. On the day we visited, the choice was between broccoli, coleslaw, red onion and toasted hazelnut, or roasted Mediterranean veg with rocket, and sun-dried tomato and basil cream. Then there's a pitta and paté option, which comes with olives, and may (or may not) involve hummus, you also have the option of adding a salad, and of replacing the pitta with gluten free bread. Confused? You should be.

What I suggest is this: if you're not starving, stick with soup and salad. Although, I forewarn you that the soup can be experimental: parsnip, parsley and almond, for example. The salads, on the other hand, are arguably the best in town. Long-term residents on the menu include baby potatoes with hazelnuts and garlic mayonnaise, and sprouted beans with ginger, coriander and lemon.

Cornucopia does a mean spanokopita, but this wasn't available, so I settled instead for a massaman curry, prepared with sweet potato, broccoli and tofu. Despite its sludgy appearance, the vegetable flavours were distinct, although the sauce lacked the spicy nuances of a proper Thai massaman -- and tasted primarily of peanuts.

Predictably, The Italian Millionaire chose lasagne. Rather than bore you with his diatribe about what makes a proper ragu, I can vouch that it was as good a veggie lasagne as you'll find: layers of courgette, mushroom and fennel in rich tomato sauce. The main courses, with two salads, cost €12.95, which is steep enough at lunchtime, but pretty good value if you're eating after 6pm.

And so to dessert -- and this is where Cornucopia smacks of joylessness for me. A chocolate muffin tasted like an arts and crafts project -- using Styrofoam and chalk. Silken berry tart was strange and synthetic. Health freaks take note: sweet stuff requires sugar, butter and eggs -- and plenty of it. Likewise, a word of caution to those who think vegetarianism is a fad: Cornucopia celebrates 25 years in business in 2011, and the queues are still forming. They must be doing something right. So, Happy New Year to them, I say.

TYPICAL DISH: Chickpea tagine with couscous

RECOMMENDED: The salad bar

THE DAMAGE: €33.35 for two mains and two desserts


AT THE TABLE: Vegivores

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