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Dining at its Best

NOTHING CAN GO WRONG! Manna’s scallops and bacon offer happiness in every bite, with smoked pimenton jus, roasted mushrooms, bacon, haricots verts, herbed farro and fresh basil. Courtesy photo

I’ve loved Manna since it opened in 2010. In fact, I love everything about it: its elegant simplicity of plain black-and-white bar stools, its gorgeous silverware, tremendous efforts spent on its cocktail and wine lists, its dedication to using local products and, of course, its menu. Manna combines fascinating ingredients, marked by its dishes’ clever names, from the cute (“One Hot Hen”) to the referential (“Iron Chef Bobby Filet,” “The Porkshank Redemption”) to the mildly but amusingly crass (“Virgin Snapper”). My list of loves could eat up all of the review’s column inches.

However, this was my first visit since the departure of Chef de Cuisine Jacob Hilbert. Hilbert has prepared some of the finest meals I’ve ever eaten in town, often in an impromptu setting. I always thought he “spoke” food like it was a language, crafting brilliant dishes from disparate ingredients the way talented writers turn words into thought-provoking paragraphs. Sufficed to say, I feared I’d miss his input in the kitchen.

Nevertheless, I ventured on. After all, who am I to turn down a new experience, even if it is at one of my haunts? Newly promoted chef Jameson Chavez (once Hilbert’s sous chef) deserves our attention, too. After a quick glance at the menu, my reticence abated. The much-beloved Beet Box Salad—a terrine of goat cheese and beets—remained in place. Thus, I knew I was dining in the same Manna.

I opened with a small plate accurately dubbed “Pork Is Awesome…Try This.”  There’s something about the directness of that recommendation which I found irresistible. Featuring braised and pressed pork belly, with ancho chile jus and sautéed mustard greens, garnished with grilled peaches and pecans, the plate proved lovely to behold.  While it can be a bit of a chore to get all those ingredients on a single forkful, I suggest diners try. The combination strikes the palate perfectly.

The rich, fatty pork (seared to a beautiful crispiness) is a delight. Matched with the pungent mustard greens and offset by the saccharine of the peaches, the dish takes on a life of its own. While I’ve never been a huge fan of pecans, in this instance they added much needed texture both on the plate and tongue.

I moved on to a large plate selection, also bearing a helpful title, “Scallops and Bacon… What Could Go Wrong?” The sight of three large scallops (easily U-10 and possibly U-8), seared to the lightest shade of brown, immediately told me I would not regret my choice. Paired with roasted mushrooms and bacon, haricots verts, almond herbed farro, fresh basil and smoked pimenton jus, the scallops couldn’t have made me happier.

The grainy texture of the farro contrasted nicely with the tender shellfish, and the earthy mushrooms added depth to the flavors. On one fluky forkful I did get a bit too much overpowering basil, but I’ll take that chance any day of the week to eat at Manna.

In an interesting twist, Manna does not give bread to each table. Rather, bread and butter is featured on the menu for a very reasonable $1.50. Diners don’t only get some of the freshest bread in town, but also cleverly made butters and spreads. I was given a chili butter with just the faintest hint of spice on the finish. It’s well worth 150 pennies.

The charcuterie remains the best in town, too. Prepared locally, the meats are cured perfectly—with enough fat and spice in cuts of sopressata or prosciutto to leave a lasting impression. Diners may not see the same dish twice, which is actually Manna’s greatest strength: flexibility. Though it makes Manna difficult to review because it stays in a constant state of flux, it’s also exciting. Unlike the static menus offered in most restaurants, this downtown gem might change at any moment based on the availability of products. The outcome is diners can rest assured their meal will be fresh and complex—every time.

The bar is really where Manna shines brightest. Multi-colored liquids glisten in bottles as though the building doubled as an apothecary. Fresh ingredients prove every bit as integral to the cocktail list as to the kitchen’s menu. The clever layout, alternately listing drinks as “Fruity and Floral” or “Boozy and Fearless,” gives patrons a simple means of discerning style before ordering. Combined with bartenders decked out in full hipster-chic, mixing fantastic cocktails not available in most parts of the city (including absinthe), and it’s a concept difficult to imitate and impossible not to love.

The wine list is a thing of beauty, too. While storage concerns would never allow Manna to keep a list as extravagant as Deluxe or The Fortunate Glass, the well-constructed menu gives oenophiles an array of interesting choices not readily available in any Harris Teeter. I highly recommend folks attend their “Winesdays” (Wednesdays) where tapas dishes are paired with select wines. Proprietor Billy Mellon brings fascinating selections from around the world, and often overlooked wines from Spain or Italy.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Manna’s Beggars Can’t Be Choosers Sunday menu. Each Sunday Manna prints a Spartan menu telling the reader only which proteins are available (beef, salmon, tofu, etc.). For a $7 small plate, one can choose any of the proteins without knowing the preparation until the dish arrives. It’s a fun and inexpensive dining adventure, which I recommend wholeheartedly. It proves the chops of the chef and allows creativity to taste divine.  Not to mention $7 can be a little easier on any budget.

Manna isn’t cheap. Before I sipped a single cocktail, my bill cleared $40. Quality and cleverness come at a price. I say they’re worth it.

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