Wicker Park restaurant highlights veggies, spices

December 3, 2008 8:11:40 AM PST
At a tiny Wicker Park restaurant, vegetables and ethnic spices are the real stars.Who says vegetarian food has to be boring? At the shoebox-sized Mana Food Bar in Wicker Park, the emphasis is on full-flavored, veggie-friendly dishes, with hardly any tofu. Take the creamy, rich saute of mushrooms ramped up with plenty of garlic.

"We make our own veg stock here, so a rich vegetable stock, a little bit of white wine, finished with a little bit of butter, served on nice, creamy polenta," said Jill Barron, Mana Food Bar.

Mushrooms show up again, in a different form, as part of the Mana "slider," which couldn't be further from the White Castle original.

"Portobello mushrooms with cracked wheat, brown rice and bound together with a little bit of egg," said Barron.

It's served with a side of lightly pickled cukes for added crunch. Chickpeas get star billing in a cold dish, along with hearts of palm, briny olives, tomatoes and cukes, while dark, buckwheat soba noodles are served chilled, tossed in a spicy peanut sauce; some shredded vegetables across the top add crunch and texture.

They may be out of season, but lightly grilled asparagus arrives with a hint of truffle oil atop a roasted pepper salsa. Meanwhile, the Korean-inspired bi bim bop is a bowl full of healthy eating: veggies, brown rice and a sunny side-up egg all bound together with a hot pepper miso paste.

Even tofu - the butt of jokes among the meat-eating set - is elevated beyond the boring. There, it's seared in a soy-sesame sauce and topped with sauteed shiitake mushrooms for an earthy jolt. Barron says when the right seasonings are used along with the freshest ingredients, the combinations just work.

"I've been working with ethnic ingredients for 20 years, so I find that when you season these things and you find the proper way of cooking it, that those things shine through," she said.

So after a week of eating heavy Thanksgiving food like turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, Mana is the perfect antidote: vegetarian food that's both hearty and satisfying.

Mana is open for lunch and dinner. They do not take reservations, and they also have a convenient to-go window for pick-up orders.

Mana Food Bar
1742 W. Division St.
773-342-1742
www.manafoodbar.com


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