Mana Food Bar

Critics' pick
Photograph: Erica Gannett
Mana Food Bar
Wicker Park

While it would never occur to me to discriminate by nationality or color, creed has come up a couple of times. Namely (as I was recently reminded by a coworker), when I commented that a vegetarian could never serve as a thorough food writer for TOC, and again (as I was reminded by a friend), when I stated I’d never date someone who didn’t eat meat. My position hasn’t changed on the former, but somehow I went and crossed the line on the latter. And I’ve been swimming in seitan ever since.

In an apparent effort to save the vegetarians from their strange fate of dining on shape-shifting fake meat (those who soak it in soy and say it tastes “just like duck” have apparently never eaten duck), Susan Thompson and Jill Barron of Sushi Wabi and De Cero have teamed up to open Mana Foodbar on the eastern end of the busy Division strip.

Thompson took care of aesthetics and did a bang-up job of creating a casual but cool space, juxtaposing slate-toned walls and painted brick with warm, chunky wood stools and a bar that runs the length of the small room. A sidewalk patio doubles the size, but the servers already seem to have a handle on the back-and-forth. They also get that most diners are looking for variety, and they’ll rightly suggest sampling chef Barron’s menu as small plates (every dish is available in two sizes). A word of advice for trying to figure out price-point/plate-size ratio: Think of Mana as somewhere between Green Zebra and Earwax or Flying Saucer or wherever else you go to get your tofu scramble. To leave satisfied, two people will spend around $50, maybe $60 if you add on a house cocktail—which you should, as the cucumbery “sakerita” is a refreshing way to start the night. Ditto for the salad sampler, a trio that can include fresh hearts of palm tossed with cucumber, tomatoes, olives and chickpeas; yellow squash carved into soft ribbons to mimic pasta, then tossed with basil pesto and served chilled; and chunks of watermelon that get a squeeze of lime and torn mint, but were inconsistent with the promised Thai chile kick—unbearable one visit and unnoticeable another.

The light, crisp, good-for-you eating continues with the riceless maki, which subs a forest-hued collard green for nori as a wrapper for enoki mushrooms, carrots, cucumber and avocado. A quick dip in the ponzu alongside lends extra flavor to the crunchy combo. Similarly untouched baby carrots and green beans serve as dippers for a garlicky, well-seasoned hummus.

From the hot side of the menu, asparagus ravioli is a little thick but tasty, especially when smothered in roasted tomato sauce with a touch of cream and a good kick of heat. Eggplant lasagna seems a bit lackluster in the ravioli’s wake, with fresh basil overpowering the other flavors. Brown rice and mushroom sliders on small egg buns have a rich, earthy flavor but could benefit from a quick sear to counter the mush factor, something the kitchen does really well with the tofu “bulgogi,” a soy-dipped slab of tofu seared then topped with shiitakes and green-onion slivers. Asian inspiration pops up again with the bibimbap, a solid version that makes up for somewhat lackluster veggies with fluffy brown rice, a perfectly runny egg and flavor-packed sweet-and-spicy red-pepper paste. The only truly disastrous Asian attempt is the pho, an unbalanced broth rendered nearly inedible by a massive dose of chiles, with no backbone of beef stock to help smooth things over. But to Barron’s credit, it was the only time I found myself missing meat, an accomplishment of no small scale.

By Heather Shouse

Venue name: Mana Food Bar
Contact:
Address: 1742 W Division St
Chicago

Cross street: between Hermitage Ave and Wood St
Opening hours: Lunch (Sat), dinner
Transport: El stop: Blue to Division. Bus: 9, 50, 56, 70.
Price: Average small plate: $7
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