Manna Café & Bakery: Good for the Soul

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Long before the American Egg Board created its catchy “Incredible Edible Egg” slogan, Manna Café & Bakery owner Barb Pratzel discovered the power of a good egg dish.

“One day I was reading Julia Child’s cookbook and discovered her directions for making a scrambled egg. It changed me forever,” Barb says. “Creamy, custardy eggs, with nothing added—just using her cooking technique—will make the best eggs you’ve ever had. And that’s the only way we make them.”

Today, at Manna Café & Bakery on North Sherman Avenue, Barb and kitchen manager Carrie Carlson meticulously train line cooks how to make eggs for the eatery’s signature scrambles, omelets, and frittatas. Each time Carrie trains a new cook, Barb first demonstrates by cooking scrambled eggs in a traditional manner, and then a second time, by cooking the eggs using Julia Child’s method. “And every time, their jaw drops because they didn’t know scrambled eggs could taste that good,” Barb says.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

“To turn out a really good egg on a consistent basis is a very hard thing,” Barb continues. “Only certain people cook eggs here, and they take a lot of pride in preparing eggs that please our customers.”

Since 2005, customers have agreed. The eatery is a popular hotspot for weekend brunches, filled with both neighborhood regulars and customers who drive from afar to eat the restaurant’s famous breads, egg dishes, soups, and sandwiches, all made in-house, from scratch. Weekday lunch hours are filled with people ordering Monte Christos, Classic Reubens, and Bubbie’s Egg Salad Sandwiches. And to top it all off, last year, responding to demand from the neighborhood, owners Barb and Mike Pratzel added a dinner menu.

“Our dinners really reflect, I think, who we are,” Barb says. “Our goal is to serve comfort food that is not pretentious and reflects our heritage and the neighborhood. During the day, Manna has always been a busy, community gathering place. Now, we’re turning the dinner hour into a more peaceful experience. Watching the neighborhood embrace that transition has been particularly satisfying for Mike and I to watch.”

One of the most well-received entrées on the dinner menu is the Pratzels’ Braised Beef Brisket. Slow-braised in burgundy wine and beef stock, garlic, and onions, the dish is fork tender and “ridiculously rich,” Barb says. Served on house-made spaetzle with a side of chive horseradish sauce and the day’s fresh vegetable, Barb says this signature item will likely never leave the dinner menu.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

While Manna Café & Bakery changes up the dinner menu with the seasons, another mainstay is the Jerusalem “Sliders” with Naan Bread. Savory chicken zucchini “burgers” with scallion, cilantro, and spices are served with a cucumber yogurt raita, couscous salad, and balsamic and feta-dressed grape tomato salad.

All entrées are served with bread from the eatery’s bakery. Oftentimes, customers ask which bakery in town makes the many types of bread available at Manna Café, and are often surprised to learn every menu item is made on-site. That’s because, in addition to delicious eggs, Barb’s second passion is baking bread. She started in 1986 with a partner preparing corporate lunch catering, and learned in order to be a good bread baker, one cannot just follow a recipe, but must do “what feels right.” Early on, she developed a reputation for good bread, and when Manna Café & Bakery opened in 2005, great breads became a core part of the menu.

One of the café’s signature breads is the Bialy, a soft chewy roll with a center dimple, spread with a fragrant onion and poppy seed filling. The history of this particular bread traces back to Bialystok, Poland, a small close-knit Jewish community that was nearly erased by the Nazis. Bialys were eaten straight from hot brick ovens, and “evidently, childhood in Bialystok was synonymous with bialy-eating,” Barb writes in a sign posted in the café.

The Bialy, Barb says, reminds her and Mike of the strong ties that exist between breads and cultures. “We recreated this little gem as authentically as possible, both to share a lost piece of our own culture, and as a symbol of the importance of great homemade breads in our lives,” Barb writes.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

While Bialys are made only on the weekends, another bread that’s made the café famous (and available all week long) is Corn Tzizel, a rye bread from Mike’s family business in St. Louis. He was born into the third generation of Pratzel’s Bakery, a family-owned-and-operated famous kosher Jewish bakery. That bakery has since retired, but the Pratzel Rye lives on.

“Folks in St. Louis have discovered we still make it at Manna, and now we ship to many customers who miss their Pratzel’s fix,” Barb says. “Someone will call in and say, ‘I need eight loaves to take home with me.’ It’s truly a sign that bread is an emblem of many cultures. And this bread is iconic. We’re very proud to have recreated the technique and offer it to our customers.”

In the end, the very name of the eatery—Manna—reflects what bread means to the Pratzels. Barb writes, “At the heart of our business is the idea that bread, in its infinite variety, is core to many a culture. With our Jewish roots, and nearly 30 years of making home-baked breads for our businesses, the name Manna reflects what bread means to us, both personally and professionally—nourishment of the body and soul.”

Amen, sister.

Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.

Manna Café & Bakery
611 N. Sherman Avenue
Madison, WI 53704
(608) 663-5500