Monday, 17 December 2018

Mana, Manchester

I try to avoid reading other reviews or first impressions of restaurants before making my own visit. Unfortunately, thanks to the proliferation of social media (and my own distressing addiction to it), seeing the odd Instagram dish or catching a significant quote from a tweeted review is inevitable, and probably does have a bit of an impact on my eventual reaction to a place. But I try, at least, to go in cold, and any similarities between the opinions - living or dead - stated on this blog and any you may have seen in the national press in the weeks or months beforehand are largely coincidental.

Now, Mana is barely two weeks* old and has had no significant press (to my knowledge) of any kind so I would have come to it knowing little more than the basics - that it's a venture in the swishly renovated Ancoats district headed by an ex-Noma chef - were it not for someone on my timeline linking to a Instagram account snarkily pointing out that some of the dishes snapped in the Mana kitchens during the tentative first few days of friends and family testing bore more than a passing resemblance to those served at Noma.

The tone of the Instagram account (I can't link to it now, it appears to have been deleted) annoyed me; it should be of no surprise to anyone that a chef that trained at Noma - whatever you think of it, unquestionably one of the most influential restaurants in the entire world - would want to use some of the things he'd learned there to launch his first solo venture. But even if Simon Martin came to Manchester with the sole intention of creating an exact clone of Noma on the cobbled streets of Ancoats, so bloody what? Wouldn't that still be an astonishing achievement? Wouldn't people still want to try strictly seasonal, foraged and technically impressive New Nordic cuisine for half the price it's on offer for in Copenhagen? Wouldn't that still be something Manchester could be exceedingly proud of?

I mention Noma, then, because it is, after all, the woolly mammoth in the room and yes, some of the dishes owe a clear debt of technique and terroir to our Danish friends. But here's the thing. I admired Noma more than I loved it. At its best it was technically stunning but a lot of the dishes just left me cold. And I honestly believe, without a shred of a doubt, that Mana is a better restaurant.

OK, I admit that's quite a claim. You're going to take a bit of convincing. So let's begin at the beginning, with a lovely stoneware mug containing a dark mushroom broth "to warm us up after the journey", which was very thoughtful of them as it was freezing rain outside. It was rich and comforting, easily enjoyable enough on its own but a little bouquet garni of herbs added extra heady notes of thyme. I've been writing about restaurants long enough to know that it's the simplest-looking things that often are the hardest to get right, so I'm sure this took quite a bit of skill.

"Winter branch" was a flute of some kind of cracker, filled with a gentle horseradish cream and topped with thyme pesto. It dissolved gracefully in the mouth, releasing a pitch-perfect balance of dairy and heat, and just look at the lovely presentation, nestled in amongst dead twigs and leaves like a winter forest floor.

This bit of puffed rind came loaded with a smooth liver paste and a blob of some kind of plum chutney. On top, neat discs of cep mushroom dusted with (I assume also cep) mushroom powder. It was intelligently constructed and using some clever techniques - the liver paté itself was supremely smooth - and notably one of only two courses out of 14 that involved meat of any kind (which are easily substituted if required). Mana is a good place to take your pescatarian friends.

If the snacks so far had been an impressive warm-up, the arrival of the langoustine marked the first of a run of courses that in terms of quality and consistency I don't think I've known better since a trip to l'Enclume in 2012. Huge scampi tails, licked with woodsmoke, were presented on skewers made from spruce twigs and coated in nasturtium leaves glued on with cured egg yolk. Spruce and egg yolk is, it turns out, a marvellous foil for seafood, but the real stars here were the langoustine themselves - plump and unbelievably sweet, not undercooked but somehow so soft they practically melted in the mouth. I've never had langoustine this good before, anywhere.

Then another dish which almost defied explanation it was that good. Cornish rock oysters were matched with a bit of chicken skin, and all wrapped up in cabbage. It sounds like a strange thing to do on paper, and yet the moment the little package exploded on the tongue it was, well as I say describing it accurately is tricky but it was cool and refreshing like the best oysters are but also distinctly savoury, like God's own surf and turf. Much of the success at Mana revolves around an exquisite sense of balance - not too much of one thing or another, the flavours distinct but complimentary, and the better for being together.

Smoked eel yakitori was the next expression of utter joy. Arriving searing away fiercely on imported Japanese coal before being placed on a folded napkin, the blueberry glaze just accentuated the naturally sweet flavour of eel without being distracting, and conspired to be (sorry here's that word again) the best eel I can remember eating in a good while. Sometimes high-end restaurants end up so obsessed with consistency, with being "just right" every time they run the risk of forgetting that the best food has the confidence and personality to be a bit charred, a bit different. Serving eel on red-hot coals is a risk, but protected with that layer of blueberry glaze the flesh of the fish kept moist and bouncy while the blackened char added- well, for want of a better word, soul.

The sauce that the shrimp tartare bathed in turned to Mexico for its flavour profile. Chapulines (that's grasshoppers to me and you) and arbol chillies created a kind of smoky, earthy vinaigrette that was so completely addictive I'm pretty sure all four of our table ended up not only drinking it from the bowl but sweeping up any last remnants of it with our fingers. Importantly - and impressively - though, the flavour of the prawns still shone through, vibrant little things at their absolute peak freshness.

Peeled walnuts were something I recognised from Noma, except there they were served with a strange bland lump of sea urchin which wasn't very pleasant, and here they made far more sense alongside a serving of dense, nutty milk curds and topped with a fermented mushroom and apple marigold oil. As a metaphor for the restaurant itself - taking advice from Noma and yet somehow using those techniques to even more impressive effect - it was worthy of a wry smile; as a dish, it was yet another reason to gasp and coo.

Mana aren't - yet - offering a completely vegan tasting menu, although I believe it's only a matter of time once they settle into things, and based on this dish I'm confident it would be the best plant-based dinner in the country. Charred onions, themselves sweet and prettily arranged, were surrounded by a sauce made from fermented barley and kelp, hitting all the pleasure points of sweet and sharp, earthy and buttery in one go. Oh, and apologies if it turns out this dish isn't vegan - I'm only guessing it is - but I bet at the very least it could be.

In much the same way as the langoustine astonished with its marrying of seafood and pine, a slice of smoky celeriac draped over a stupidly generous mound of Devonshire crab was a match made in Nordic heaven. But a stroke of genius was to add to this a broth made of masa - corn - with the accompanying unique and distinctive "soily" (for want of a better word) aromas, turning the whole thing into a kind of liquid crab taco.

From here, it's probably fair to say that Mana pulled back slightly from the very limits of perfection, but even when playing slightly safer there was still a whole lot to love. I spotted a familiar technique in the next dish of winter veg painted with "scallop fudge", and in all fairness to Noma, I loved the match of the sweet, sticky seafood and crunchy greens just as much back in Copenhagen as I did here. So what I'm saying is that the most familiar and least revolutionary (though still wonderful, obviously) dish at Mana is at least as good as one of my favourite dishes at The Best Restaurant In The World. That's what I'm saying.

Bread arrived next, a sourdough so good, with its delicate crust and warm, sticky crumb that it quite rightly deserved a course to itself. The butter - with an almost sugary richness - was apparently made by a single woman in Norway, using milk from her own small herd of cattle. It was a pretty much unbeatable match, although if I may just interject the one qualifying note in this entire review, it wasn't quite as good as the bread served down the road at Where The Light Gets In. Still, coming runner-up to them is hardly much of a criticism.

The final savoury course was a huge, bright-white chunk of poached cod, soft and yielding but retaining nice defined flakes, topped with a couple of leaves of salty sea aster. With this, "baked artichoke and oxalis" masquerading cleverly as parsley sauce, and as everyone knows, there's no better way of serving cod than with parsley sauce.

Pre-dessert was a silky sheep's milk frozen yoghurt topped a shocking green pile of sorrel "kombucha", a concoction so mouth-puckeringly sharp it was less a palate cleanser than a palate chemical peel. But in a good way - the vinegar hit carried with it a huge amount of earthy vegetal flavour, which sat very well with the yoghurt.

Finally, reindeer moss from Skye - yes actual moss - which had been treated to some clever technique rendering it as delicate as shredded wheat, blasted with chocolate flavour. The sadness of the reality of the last course was tempered with the joy of eating this strange creation, role-playing as a woodland creature on a dark highlands night.

So, there. I've made my case. Have I convinced you? I'll be the first to admit that I didn't get as much out of Noma as others have, and perhaps what Mana are doing - demystifying and making the most bewildering excesses of the Copenhagen gastro-temple more accessible and enjoyable - was always more likely to win the heart and mind of this particular reverse snob than the unfiltered, uncompromising original. But if I didn't "get" Noma than I certainly can't be the only one, and it was clear from the very first bowl of mushroom soup that Mana are in the business of ensuring their customers are flattered with heavenly textures and strong, lovingly considered flavours, rather than showing off the most obscure way of serving pickled weeds then sitting back for a round of applause.

OK, perhaps that's unfair on Noma. They are, after all, a good chunk of the reason Mana exists at all, and that Mana exists at all is a reason for profound celebration. This cathedral-like space, populated by enthusiastic young men and women right at the top of their game, is serving some of the best food I've had the pleasure of eating in my life, and it's barely two weeks old* - as time goes on, and their confidence grows I'm sure the more obviously Scandi-influenced dishes will make way for others even more wonderful, closer to the generous, soul-affirming propensities of the Mancunian kitchen team.

And you can bet I'll be back to try it when they do. Just like at Roski in Liverpool, or Where The Light Gets In in Stockport, and yes up at Moor Hall near Ormskirk, it seems like being based in the North of England is not only not the disadvantage it once was for making a living from fine dining, but a significant and lasting advantage. The combination of no-nonsense Northern generosity of spirit matched with world-class techniques forged in the wood fires of Scandinavia has created something uniquely of its time and place, and utterly magical, and after so many years of false starts and Michelin snubs, it seems Manchester has, for the second time in two years, found itself host to one of the best restaurants in the world. Book now - these guys are going places.


*Mana is in fact two months old, not two weeks. Still a bloody impressive show.


LyleD4D said...

With respect, they've been open more than two weeks - I think it's heading towards two months now.

I was there at the start of November, and they'd been open two to three weeks at that point.

Totally agree with you on the rest of it though - if they don't get a star (or two) in 2019 I'll be gobsmacked.

Unknown said...

Did you need to have a kebab afterwards? Pretty photos, but where's the food?