Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mana Food Bar

I'll admit, I'm a bit conflicted on this place. I have all these wonderful thoughts and aspects that I loved about Mana, but when I drill down to each dish and think critically about the food I'm left wanting more. Part of that is probably the nature of a strictly vegetarian restaurant and the niche market it serves. Mana doesn't need to appeal to everyone (and they certainly couldn't fit them anyway) but it does a great job of filling a void that Chicago lacks with respect to the vegetarian and vegan friendly crowd. Mana is a very small storefront on Division (and just a block from my new place :) with simple but great wood decor and seating that reflects the subtle Asian influence. As the name implies, there's a long bar that runs the length of the other side of the space - and since we're all crossing our fingers for more good weather, there's a nice outdoor seating area.

The menu is great and approachable, divided into Hot and Cold dishes. Each item is offered in two sizes so you can customize how much you want to share and eat family style or not. Lucky for me my three companions were up for trying lots of dishes. Unfortunately we did not get to enjoy any of the sake list or cocktails (we had already had plenty before arriving late in the evening). And this is where my conundrum starts - I really like the space, the service, the concept, the menu and the value. I just don't know if there are enough things to draw me back on a regular basis (and for other people like me that enjoy meat and fish).

 My three favorite dishes were the sliders, sesame noodles and asparagus. The mushroom and rice sliders are probably their most famous dish and for good reason. They were fantastic and served with a slightly spicy mayo on a delicious (read: likely unhealthy) mini bun. We ordered three to start, and ended up getting three more later. Yea, silly but amazing. The sesame noodles are a staple on most Chinese/Asian restaurant menus. Mana does a nice job with them and I appreciate the kick with the peanut sauce. I'd order that again. The asparagus was our last (before sliders round 2) dish and pretty good. It's simple but they were well grilled and served with a tasty sauce.

The other four plates we ordered had varying degrees of satisfaction. The pierogis were only ok, the best part being the apples and dill on the side. I liked the arugula, avocado and tomato salad though it was quite simple and plain enough to replicate at home. My least favorite dish was the tofu. I didn't enjoy how it was cooked or flavored (hard and rubbery almost) even though the vegetables with it were pretty good. Finally, I was recommended to try to the Bi Bim Bop (with hot pepper miso and vegetables over brown rice and sunny side up egg). There was a lot of potential and good flavors but I don't think the execution was all there. We loved the spicy sauce and brown rice and there didn't seem to be enough vegetables to make it worthwhile. 

Did I mention that for all that food it was only $20 pre tip? We didn't have drinks but still, I was impressed. There are so many interesting items on the menu that we will have to go back to try more. According to Yelp (FWIW) we didn't even order two of the most popular dishes - baked goat cheese and sweet potato pancakes. Add a few other interesting items plus the sliders and noodles and I could be a real happy eater. AND we didn't try any of the drinks.  While I was overwhelmed by some of the dishes, there's plenty of evidence to require a return trip.

Mana is by far the most interesting and best tasting vegetarian restaurant I've been to in a while and they deserve all the praise from their devoted following. It's a fun time with good food, especially if you're looking for a healthy break from the routine.

Mana Food Bar on Urbanspoon


  1. I know what you mean. It leaves you a little unsatisfied. But i appreciate the unique combos (i loved the sliders). I had a cucumber sake drink when I was there last summer and it was heavenly.

  2. http://www.facebook.com/foodkingdom
    This is excellent, finally a food portal which understands what food lovers are looking for. Best wishes and congratulations to the Food Kingdom team!



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