Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mana Food Bar

Every Fall, local public radio station, WBEZ,  holds an event called Chicago Chef Battle in which five chefs are given an ingredient to work with and make a dish to compete with the other chefs.  Several years ago, I went to one of these at the Goose Island Brewery in which the chefs were each given a specific Goose Island Beer to work with.  Most of the dishes were pretty good, but there was one from Chef Jill Barron, of vegetarian restaurant, Mana Food Bar that I was thoroughly underwhelmed by.  I don't specifically remember what it was that I had, I just remember that I wasn't impressed.  This isn't because it was vegetarian, I like vegetarian food and there are some vegetarian restaurants that I really like, it was just this specific dish.  First impressions, though, do make a difference, and I was kind of leery to visit the restaurant.  In the years since then, Mana Food Bar has gotten a lot of good press and it has been a Michelin Bib Gourmand for the last 4 years.  This made me wonder what I had missed and I decided to visit it and actually try the food in person.  In order to make sure I might hit the right points, I decided to bring a vegetarian friend who had been there and liked it to guide me a little.  The restaurant, located on Division St., is small and actually pretty easy to miss.  It had a sign on its covered doorway that was black on black, so unless you knew where to look, it was almost like an underground dining club.  Inside, it was pretty small with a bar with attached chairs on one side and booths on the other side, all made of light colored wood.  The walls were also finished plywood.  We were seated in a booth near the front of the restaurant and were quickly served.  We started things off with cocktails while we were working out what we were going to eat.  Both cocktails looked very familiar, but with small variations from classic cocktails and different names.  Between the two of us, we had a Geisha, which had Sake, Rhubarb Shrub, Pomegranate, and Lemon, and a Gypsy, which had Hendrick's Gin, St. Germain, Chartreuse, and Lime.  I'm not sure what the Geisha was based on, but it had a nice tart flavor.  The Gypsy is a classic drink with a floral, herbal, and tart flavor based on The Last Word, my favorite cocktail.  A gypsy is more floral to The Last Word's sweet flavor, but it was very good and I liked it.
The food menu is divided into Cold and Hot and is supposed to be eaten similar to tapas.  We decided to order several small portions and share, so we could cover more of the menu.  I would have expected the cold dishes to arrive first and then the hot, but the dishes were sent out when they were ready and some of the hot arrived before the cold were finished.  In fact, the first dish to arrive was the Sweet and Sour Tofu with Seared Tofu with Pineapple Sweet and Sour Sauce over Sauteed Greens.  The tofu was mild with a crispy outside and soft interior.  The Pineapple Sweet and Sour Sauce added a sweet and sour flavor with pineapple.  As tofu is flavorless and takes on the flavor of whatever it's cooked with, this was a very good thing.  The greens were mostly Green Beans, although there were also onions (which aren't green).
Our next course was a cold, and it was one of my favorites, Golden Beets with Amish Blue Cheese, Hazelnuts, Arugula, and Sherry Vinaigrette.  The beets were tender and sweet and the bittersweet flavor of the blue cheese went well with it.  The plentiful hazelnuts added a nice nutty flavor, the arugula added a peppery bitterness, and the sherry vinaigrette finished it with a tart flavor.
The course that we ordered first, I was actually hoping would remind me of a favorite dish at another restaurant that is no longer on the menu, didn't actually arrive until almost mid-meal.  It was Wakame Seaweed with Cucumber, Five Spice Tofu, Tangerine Chili Dressing and Micro-Greens.  This was very good with a tart and spicy flavor and lot of different textures, but it didn't get me to the dish that I was missing, Seaweed and Potatoes (with a lot of butter).
Our next course was another favorite, but it was a simple dish that would be hard to go wrong with.  It was Sauteed Mushrooms over Creamy Polenta.  The mushrooms and polenta were both cooked perfectly and went well together.  The mushrooms were tender, savory, with a very hearty flavor, and the polenta provided a light and creamy base to build on.  It was creamy, savory, mushroomy, and very, very good.
Our most complex dish was Bibimbap, a dish that I really like, but which usually has meat.  It had a lot of vegetables, as bibimbap usually does, including Carrots, Peppers, and Onions, and a Hot Pepper Miso all over Brown Rice and topped with a Sunny Side Up Egg.  This was very good and flavorful, the miso really helped, my one complaint was that in many cases, the rice has a crispy edge to it, it was not the case here.  This was a good dish, but I think I will stick with bibimbap with meat.
We finished with a dish which can be found on many tapas menus, Baked Goat Cheese with Spicy Tomato Sauce and Toast.  By the time this arrived we were starting to get a little full, so we didn't dive into it like we might have otherwise.  It was good, and I liked it, but I can't say that it's any different from any other baked goat cheese dish that you might find around at tapas places around the city for good or bad.
We could not leave without trying the dessert.  We were both kind of full, so we decided to go a little light (as much as we could do with dessert) and ordered a Rhubarb Tart with Fresh Caramel.  I really liked the caramel and the tart was good, but it wasn't what we expected.  This is not to say that I disliked it or allowed it to remain uneaten, but it had a crisp top and a texture like a cheesecake below that.  It was very good and went well with the caramel, but it wasn't what we were expecting.

After trying several dishes and the cocktails at Mana, I will say that I was mislead by by initial encounter.  It is very good and I would definitely return.  There are things that I might prefer with meat, like the bibimbap, but the beet salad and the mushrooms and polenta could not be improved upon.  If I am in the mood for vegetarian cuisine, this will definitely fall onto the list of possible options.


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