“Life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living,” claims the famous chef Anthony Bourdain. Even Thanksgiving, a day that now prominently features sweet potatoes, green beans, and corn took 130 years to adopt the bean- and corn-filled succotash in addition to the standard fowl and venison. Vegetables have it hard beyond the USDA’s idealized food pyramid, but Mana Food Bar validates veggies entirely.
On the edge of the Wicker Park neighborhood, Mana Food Bar forswears the militant personality and gaudiness typical of many vegetarian and vegan spots. Instead, the small-plates restaurant features dark hardwood floors complemented by sea-foam green walls and attractive wood sconces over intimate carpet-covered booths. A fully stocked bar, which focuses on sake cocktails, fresh-squeezed juices, and locally made beers and wines adds the final touch of smooth yet accessible class.
Mana’s attitude toward vegetarian food similarly abandons the usual “faking” of meat in favor of showcasing vegetables in their own right. The menu is comprised of four categories—hot, cold, noodles, and sides—that all strive for clear, natural flavors with interesting spins. The Thai watermelon salad, for example, is prepared with spicy green chili peppers in addition to mint and lime, and the restaurant’s take on chili incorporates manchego cheese and chickpeas to delicious effect.
The increasingly cold weather led us to first seek comfort in the “hot” menu’s baked goat cheese and sweet potato pancakes. The goat cheese, accompanied by toasted slices of bread, skillfully melded warm soft cheese and an unusually spiced tomato sauce. Although not quite the best goat cheese we’ve had (oh, Uncommon Ground…), we had no complaints, especially not about the plentiful bread that proved both crisp and chewable. The sweet potato pancakes—more or less a latke retooling—effortlessly brought together the respective staples of Thanksgiving and Eastern Europe. While the pancakes themselves were fairly thin compared to massive Polish potato version down the street (mmm, Podhalanka), a tangy apple sauce definitely supplemented the rich taste of fried yam. If you don’t relish the idea of compote on your pancakes, however, the small dollop of sour cream is perfect for pancake Puritans.
Thanksgiving would be far different today had colonists encountered free-range blue-cheese tarts in the wilds of New England instead of picking up stray turkeys. As such, we’ll have to settle for infrequent encounters with the former while deep-frying the latter. Mana’s blue cheese tart may be smaller than the belt buckle on a 17th century Plymouth pilgrim hat and somewhat pricey at six dollars, but the powerful blue cheese kick, gently sweetened by caramelized onion, makes its four bites worthwhile.
Mana not only creates vegetarian versions of American fare but also draws on worldwide inspiration for dishes. Served with a sunny-side-up egg, the Korean-style bi-bim-bop brought together a cornucopia of fresh vegetables and brown rice in an unbelievable hot pepper miso sauce. We also tried two Italian pastas: The mozzarella lasagna had a harvest-fresh base of eggplant and basil, while the tomato pumpkin ravioli was perfectly al dente and delicately drizzled with sage cream.
Mana Food Bar treats vegetables with moderately priced dignity, drawing a sharp contrast with the higher-end Green Zebra and the seitan-happy Chicago Diner. Take a pilgrimage on the Blue Line to the promised land yourself, and you’ll see why Mana Food Bar merits our thanks.