With more frequent travels to Chicago, I've had the benefit of eating at some amazing establishments in the Windy City. This past Feb during a typical cold and snow-filled week, I persuaded close friends P & J to break from their busy doctor lives for a late dinner at MANA Food Bar in Wicker Park. Wicker Park is a trendy gentrified neighborhood in the Northwest Loop known for it's commercial and entertainment venues. MANA itself is a charming and creative vegetarian restaurant that serves inventive and eclectic sharing dishes. This is definitely a winner in my book so check it out.
The interior of MANA is charming with rustic wood tables and bar, clean lines, and Edison bulb fixtures. The interior was very reminiscent of places I've been to in Soho or the Mission - felt right at home! The menu has a selection of american and asian inspired plates that can be served as either small or large plates. In order to maximize a "tasting menu" experience P, J and I decided on nine small plates of cold and warm items, including dessert. This worked out to 3 plates per person, which is what our waiter recommended. For the three of us, it was on the cusp of too much food so keep that in mind.
First up were beets, sliced thin, with arugula and apple salad in a raspberry vinaigrette. A light, fresh, and crisp starter with a good balance of sweetness and tartness. The beets were understated given the abundance of arugula and apples; and the vinaigrette was slightly heavy handed. However those are just minor tweaks for an overall solid dish. The presentation was playful with delicately placed arugula leaves and shoestring apples across a long, thin white plate.
Second up was baked goat cheese served with spicy tomato sauce and sourdough toast. I'm not a huge fan of strong cheeses, but this bake was remarkably muted although a bit too cheesy. The toast was slightly sweet but became cold quickly. The one thing I appreciated was the chunky tomato sauce spiked with chili peppers. Nonetheless, together the cheese, sauce, and slightly charred toast made for a hearty starter. Although a good dish, there seem to be many other better dishes on their menu, I'd most likely pass on this next time.
Third up was the bi bim bop of hot pepper miso and vegetables served over brown rice and a sunny side up egg. This signature Korean dish was our favorite of the evening. A bold mix of cucumbers, zucchinis, mushrooms, spinach, and tofu stir-fried in sesame oil and red chili. The lightly fluffed brown rice and perfectly cooked egg gave this dish an unexpected earthy and creamy texture. The chili was not overpowering, but I felt it on the tip of my tongue. First time I've tried this dish and it won't be the last.
Fourth up was the ma po tofu with spicy eggplant, chinese black beans, and red chili paste served over brown rice. A decent dish but compared against the bi bim bop, it lacked the same depth of flavors. Although the components were well prepared, the paste may have overpowered the eggplant and tofu. A slight refinement of component is all that's needed to make this spectacular. I've had ma po tofu at other restaurants and this was above average and pretty tasty.
Fifth up was the mana sliders, a brown rice and mushroom patty served on small slider bun with spicy mayo, pickled cucumbers, and pickled onions. Okay I lied, the sliders were our favorite dish of the night. I'm typically skeptical of mushroom burgers because of how heavy they can be, but these were surprising. The brown rice and thinly grated mushrooms were bound together lightly and grilled to a slight char. The spicy mayo was nice kick and kept the dish moist and flavorful. I never would have thought to pickle cucumbers and onion for fear of the vinegar taking over, but that wasn't the case. This one that I'll be ordering again and again.
Sixth up was artichoke filled ravioli with tomatoes, spicy kalamata tapenade, and shredded asiago cheese. Not sure that an italian inspired dish fits in with the overall food theme at MANA; and although the ingredients was fresh and nicely prepared, we weren't too thrilled with the overall dish. You couldn't quite taste the artichoke filling nor the tapenade due to the heaviness of the tomatoes and asiago cheese. And by now we were pretty stuffed. Nevertheless, my recommendation is to stick with the american and asian inspired dishes in lieu of the ravioli.
Dishes seven and eight were our desserts, cinnamon creme brulee and double chocolate cheese cake. This was juxtaposition of delicate and decadent desserts. Neither of them were overly sweet. I enjoyed the creme brulee with its hint of cinnamon. The sugar burnt top was textured and flavorful; and the interior creme was light and airy. The cheesecake was dense and chewy; and the cookie base has a nice crunch. I appreciate the fact that it was made with bittersweet dark chocolate, however it was a bit too heavy for my taste.
All in all, MANA Food Bar was a surprisingly charming restaurant. The creative and eclectic dish are perfect for sharing; and pack some amazing flavors. I didn't quite know what to expect from this neighborhood joint; for the most part we loved our dishes and even the ones that were mediocre only needed slight modifications to have been spectacular. This is not a tourist spot which made it all the more better and I can't leave out how great it was to catch up with my friends, P & J. MANA is worth the trip to Whicker Park and I give it an overall 8 out of 10 rating.