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Cheap date 

Starving artists will have a hard time resisting The Cheapside Cafe, says Liz Feltham.

It’s March break, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s reception area is crawling with kids. Before they’ve even begun their tours of the gallery, they’re shouting questions—“Where’s the bathroom?” “Where are the pirates?” “Why’s that restaurant called Cheapside?”—and adults are patiently answering—”Down that hall,” “At the other museum, dear” and “Because the food’s cheap.”

They’re right about the bathrooms and pirates, and can be forgiven about mistaking the reason for the cafe’s name; The Cheapside Cafe (operated by Scanway Catering, of Sweet Basil and Saege fame) is named after the area between the two buildings that make up the gallery. Once a gathering place and market, this area took its name from a medieval London market.

The lunch menu is on offer, so we decide to pop in and have a bite before checking out the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt. The Cheapside is like a little art gallery itself, with paintings and artwork all over, subdued orange walls and elegant black tables and chairs. A glass case showcases “edible art” (Scanway desserts), and black-garbed wait staff bustle between tables during the very busy lunch rush. Despite the rush, we don’t wait long to be seated and served—obviously, the staff is used to this midday meal madness.

The menu is small but inventive, featuring lighter fare like soup, sandwiches, salads and crepes. The two soups available today are mushroom-artichoke and asparagus-potato, and we decide on a half-sandwich and soup combo ($9.95), with each of us having a different soup. For sandwiches, we get the apple-curry chicken salad on multi-grain and the jerk pork tenderloin on rye. A small basket of raisin bread is brought quickly, but we seem to be having a little longer wait for our food than another pair who was just seated. The reason becomes clear when our server comes to tell us he has bad news—they are out of the artichoke soup. No problem, we say, we’ll both have the asparagus, and almost immediately the meals appear in front of us.

The asparagus-potato soup is excellent, with no discernible trace of artificial flavour enhancers, and no cream to dilute the delicate essence of asparagus. The sandwiches are a generous half, well filled with their respective ingredients. Sadly, the pork is missing any trace of spicy jerk seasoning and is a bit of a letdown, although the zingy cranberry compote does help it along a little. There are no such problems for the apple-curry-chicken, with enough curry to excite more adventurous taste buds but not so much that more timid tongues will be frightened away.

The soup is so thick and the sandwiches so robust that we’re full after our lunch, but we’d be fools to leave without dessert; brought down from the Scanway kitchen on Quinpool, they’re a must. We pick the Princess Martha torte and an apple rum cake ($6.95 each). The torte, a raspberry cream confection, is surprisingly light and absolutely fabulous, as is the apple rum cake, which is served warm.

We finish the meal with cups of coffee and tea and a couple of “Unni’s Famous Florentines” (two for $2.50) and waddle out into the gallery, hoping that we’ll enjoy the Egyptian art as much as we did the culinary artistry.

The Cheapside CafeArt Gallery of Nova Scotia1723 Hollis Street425-4494Open gallery hoursLunch 11:30am-2:30pm

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