Want a haircut with that new dress? Advice on flower arrangement with your salad? Recently gaining in popularity in cities across the world, combination stores offer cosmopolitan consumers unique opportunities for one-stop shopping. Although the Have might not be New York or Paris, it boasts perhaps the oddest combination of shops yet — photo lab and organic cafe.
imagincafe, located at 930 Chapel St., shares its storefront with the somewhat confusingly named imaginstudio, displaying a remarkable lack of creativity for two businesses that ask you to imagine the possibilities in both your food and your photography. imagincafe brings to New Haven vegetarian fare that is also largely vegan and even partially raw, separating it from the pack of Chapel Street restaurants like Claire’s Corner Copia and Rainbow Cafe that cater to health-conscious locals. The food is free of refined sugars and preservatives, made-to-order and comes in biodegradable packaging.
Owner Nirav Shah opened the restaurant over the summer literally inside his father’s photo shop. Luckily for him, his father will be getting his store back in the next few weeks when imagincafe moves to a new location at the corner of Chapel and Howe streets. In the meantime, the right half of the store functions as the restaurant and juice bar, while those who haven’t converted to digital cameras yet can pick up their prints from the left side of the counter.
imagincafe doesn’t provide much in the way of atmosphere, with dreary photos for sale adorning orange and green walls that are reminiscent of a hospital waiting room. While the restaurant does a steady trickle of business throughout the lunch hour, its six scrubbed wooden tables don’t often host more than a pair or two of diners. There are always assorted members of the Shah family manning both registers, and although service is slow, they are cheerful and eager to please. imagincafe offers free wireless and relative quiet, making it an ideal spot for studying or a quiet conversation.
The food, however, leaves much to be desired. It may be natural and environmentally friendly, but it’s not always good.
The avocado was uninspiring in the avocado and mango wrap ($7.50), topped by a coconut mint sauce that tasted far too sweet. A roasted veggie wrap ($6.50) was similarly disappointing. It was packed with eggplant, squash, shallots and pepper that clashed with the goopy “nut cheese” sauce. Your best bet at imagincafe may be a salad, such as the delicious spinach option ($6.50), with organic greens currently subbing for the spinach, tossed with mandarin oranges, raw sunflower seeds, almond meal and the tangy house dressing.
Shah’s crowning achievement is the hummus wrap ($7.50), topped with cucumbers, tomatoes and tahini and wrapped in collard greens, which puts whatever they try to pass off as hummus in the dining hall to shame. The sprouted chickpea spread is smooth and creamy, served on a warm tortilla with a crisp side salad.
imagincafe also offers a variety of “blends” made from fruit and vegetables (try Love Potion at $5 for a small), and smoothies that come in small ($5-6) and large ($6-7). I preferred the smoothies to those from Claire’s, but they lost the taste test to the flavorful and similarly priced options from Gastronomique. The lime soda ($4), however, was sublime, with just a hint of agave nectar, a low-calorie natural sweetener which is conveniently available to purchase across from the camera cases, should you be so inclined.
Healthy desserts usually get a bad rap, and true to form, one bite of the vegan double chocolate chip cookie ($2) was more than sufficient. Although promising-looking, it tasted like a tough lump of fiber and did nothing to satisfy my sweet tooth. I abandoned it in the common room of my suite and waited to see who would pounce, since an entire box of brownies sent by my mother had disappeared overnight the weekend before. Sure enough, the cookie went, but the health food connoisseurs of my suite pronounced the texture disgusting. “I actually kind of like it,” one sheepishly admitted. “But I don’t think you can call this dessert.”
imagincafe’s takeout menu describes it as a “hip, eclectic hotspot.” While I wouldn’t choose those exact words, if you can ignore the slight odor of photo chemicals, the cafe is an excellent choice for a light wrap or salad. Play it safe when ordering from the unusual menu and you’ll be rewarded with some of the freshest food in the city with organic and flavorful ingredients that are worth the price.