Last night, my girlfriend Steph and I made the haul out to have dinner at Café Manna. Located in an upscale shopping center, Café Manna is 100% vegetarian, with many items vegan, gluten free, or raw. In addition, they pride themselves on using ingredients that are either organic or sustainably sourced whenever possible.
Upon entering the restaurant, the decor is inviting but unoriginal, essentially exactly what you would expect from a an environmentally-focussed restaurant located in an upscale shopping center. The colors are harvesty, and the lighting is warm. Adorning the walls are the familiar enormous color close-up photographs of various vegetables. I learned on their website that the restaurant is built using sustainable materials, including bamboo floors and counter fronts, and bathroom counters somehow constructed from recycled paper. It’s a Friday night, and the restaurant is about half full, and it filled considerably while we were there. We were greeted warmly and shown to our seats.
A little background: I have been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for nearly the past seven years, and I was a pescetarian for about five years before that. In that time, I have frequented many restaurants that cater to the vegetarian pallet and offer several varied entrée choices. However, in my time as a vegetarian, I have only been to perhaps two or three entirely vegetarian restaurants. Therefore, I have spent the past twelveish years eating off of between 5-30% of the average restaurant menu, making my selection process incredibly simple.
Therefore, in the few times that I have been presented with an entire menu to select from, I am literally at a loss, and that was the situation that I found myself in at Café Manna. The menu, while not overly long, is incredibly varied. They offer eight entrées, including everything from coconut curry to raw tacos of “nut meat” to pizza margherita to cornish pasty. The menu also includes six sandwich offerings, such as falafel pitas, a Jamaican jerk lentil burger, a “tu-no” melt with tempeh, and a raw vegetable wrap.
We decided to start with “Pepita Guacamole Potato Skins” ($11). The skins were deliciously crispy and filled with a generous portion of guacamole. As potato skins are typically heated through with a little cool sour cream on top, this created a nice contrast between the piping hot skins and the cool filling. The guac was tasty, though not terribly unique or exciting. (I prefer my guacamole with chunks of red onion, tomato or cilantro, whereas this was buttery smooth and homogenous. I was unable to detect the addition of the pepitas.) This was topped with “ancho cashew sour cream,” which was incredibly creamy considering it was vegan, with a subtle hint of heat. This was served with fresh pico de gallo, which provided the chunks that were missing in the guacamole. It was a very tasty and creative starter, and it was fun to have potato skins again, which I haven’t had in a while (although without the melted cheese, it is in many ways a totally separate dish).
For her entrée, Steph ordered the “Savory Sandwich” ($12), which I jokingly described as the two most common token vegetarian options at traditional restaurants combined into one sandwich. It consisted of a marinated portobello and a grilled slice of eggplant with caramelized onions, pesto, and both feta and goat cheese. It was juicy and flavorful. The cheeses and pesto melted together to make a delicious creamy topping, and the mushroom and eggplant combined well together to make a slightly more complex sandwich. Steph’s only critique was that the bread, described as “rosemary olive bread,” tasted of neither and was a bit underwhelming.
I, as noted above, was utterly unable to choose from the menu, so I asked the waitress for her recommendation. Predictably, the two that she suggested were not any of the ones that I had been debating between, but I decided to honor her expertise regardless. I chose the “Vegetable Torte” ($14), described in the menu as a “savory potato custard filled with grilled seasonal vegetables baked on a crunchy pumpkin seed crust,” and was described by our waitress as “quiche-like.” It was served in a wedge-shaped slice, indeed resembling a slice of quiche. The filling was somewhat quichey, but the addition of cream cheese made it much creamier and silkier, and the inside texture almost resembled that of a firm spinach artichoke dish. The grilled seasonal vegetables were good, though I imagine the selection of seasonal vegetables would be more exciting in the summer (there were a lot of potatoes, in mine, but what do you expect in February?). The pumpkin seed crust was delicious and added a very nice crunch to the dish, and a nice char flavor.
Both entrées were served with a side green salad, which were much more like something you would make at home than receive in a restaurant, but were a very nice accompaniment nonetheless, with a tasty herb vinegrette.
At this point we were both stuffed, but I made the mistake to inquire about the carrot cake, which our waitress suggested might be the best carrot cake I’ll ever have. I can’t honestly say that it was the best carrot cake I’ve had (shout out to Amanda P.), but it was certainly a hot contender for second place. It was nice and moist with plenty of coconut inside and out, and a hint of ginger as well as a deliciously creamy cream cheese frosting. It was served with a drizzle of raspberry sauce, which I’d never seen before, and but was an effective flavor contrast. The slice was enormous, and the two of us together only made it through half, but the other half was still fantastic today.
All in all the experience was very pleasurable, with tasty food and a cozy atmosphere. With so many vegetarian things to taste, I’ll definitely need to make another trip at some point. As an added bonus, I learned that they host demonstration vegetarian cooking classes, which are incredibly difficult to find, so I look forward to returning for that. Café Manna is a must for any vegetarian, but I can assure you their carnivore friends will love the experience as well.