Mana Food Bar

October 26 2009 - 11:10 PM

Veggie_maki The Mana Food Bar on Division comes highly touted. It's a vegetarian spot in Wicker Park opened by the DeCero and Sushi Wabi owners. They have a full bar and their by-the-glass offerings include a few sake options (one sparkling). It took me a bit to think through this place. Eating with Tammy and Bridget from Chicago Bites, and our own Crystal Cun ensured that we tasted plenty of the menu.

First is from the cold menu. Pictured is the veggie maki. It's a maki roll made of blanched collards and filled with raw veggies: enoki mushrooms, asparagus, carrots, other green things… and dipped in ponzu sauce.

We also tried the assorted picked veggies: cauliflower, cabbage and okra as well as the chickpea salad with hearts of palm among other things, the beet dish with apple salad, and a lovely quinoa dish with raw corn and a light touch of chipotle.

The hot options included sesame noodles, mushrooms sauteed and served over polenta, the lentil soup special, a blue cheese tart, bi bim bap, pumpkin tamale, and finally, mushroom and brown rice sliders.

It's hard to knock Mana. Everything was good. Across the board the seasoning is light. I'd say bland but it seems like the intention is to let the ingredients be themselves. The lentil soup tasted simply like lentils… the pumpkin tamale was also light on spice but not on heat. I tasted the pumpkin. The sesame noodles also had more heat than flavor. But the beets were very pleasantly salty. The sliders were a disappointment here. The expectations for the mini-sliders that looked so very much like White Castle were high…  but they didn't have any deep flavor. The side cup of pickle slices tasted mildly sweet and cucumbery. That said I clearly tasted the mushrooms and brown rice but here I wanted more.

On some level Mana makes perfect sense. The sake is really simple. The raw or lightly cooked and delicate cold dishes have really clean flavors. It took a bit of adjustment. The mushroom saute over the cheesey polenta was without a doubt, the heaviest thing we ate and could easily be the 'entree' if there were one. The blue cheese tart was too overpowering. When the cheese gets really salty it's just too big a piece. There needed to be more tart, more egg, more something… too much cheese (and I'm from Wisconsin). When you think about how subtle the other dishes are it makes the tart even more extreme. The bi bim bap was missing the crispy rice at the bottom of the bowl. It was simply a stir fry over rice with a sunny side up egg on top.

I think the dish that sets the tone is the collard maki. If you want more complex big flavors stick to the hot side of the menu. Even then courses typically run lighter. But if all you are craving is simple fresh vegetable-forward courses you're in for a treat. Very few restaurants serve 'naked' food like this. 

Mana Food Bar
1742 Division