Wednesday 7 September 2022

Manteca, Shoreditch

You may notice a rather dramatic improvement in the quality of photography on this blog post compared to the usual. There's a very simple reason for this - they're not mine. I visited Manteca last week not on a PR invite but as part of a work business lunch, which although meant we got to try a wide selection of dishes from this brilliant new restaurant, it also unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) meant I felt a bit too self-conscious to do the usual antisocial snapping. So credit for the pictures illustrating this post goes to a combination of Anton Rodriguez (the food) and Mariell Lind Hansen (interiors) via the Manteca PR Nancy Brownlow, so thanks v much to all those people.

Anyway, the food at Manteca deserves better than my meagre artistic efforts. This is a seriously impressive, important restaurant working at the top of its game, and their fresh take on modern Italian food is so good as to be something approaching a game-changer in the capital. I know, I know - you've probably heard all this before. And I admit I have been equally breathless about places like Padella and Bancone in the past, when they were the bright new things. But Manteca, honestly, is another level above.

At first glance, of course, it just looks like another Italian restaurant. The menu has the odd eyebrow-raising ingredient here and there (including gazpacho on an otherwise staunchly Italian menu) but with its arrangements of small plates, pasta dishes and larger sharing items it's very much in the mold of places that have graced the capital since forever. You may think we've all been here before. So did I. And then the food arrived.

Focaccia is made in the bakery downstairs all through service - none of your yesterdays bread served here thank you very much. It's gorgeous - of course it is - drizzled with olive oil and with just exactly the right amount of salt. That's it on the right there, next to a plate of cured meats we didn't order. Looking at that though I'm kind of wishing we had.

A salad of lovely soft, sweet, room temperature (strange how rare this is, and it makes all the difference) tomatoes came dressed with bottarga, a genius move which gave a lovely additional texture as well as adding an extra hit of umami.

Ricotta is apparently made in-house, and it shows through a fantastic fluffy mouthfeel and dairy freshness. It comes under a blanket of breadcrumbs, roast peach, fresh mint and chilli, a riot of colour and flavour that generously outpaces its modest £8.50 price point.

Seabass crudo came as a few elegantly sliced bits of fish under a dainty dressing of cucumber, fennel and lemon juice, easily as classy and attractive as anything from a top Japanese restaurant. I have no photo of this I'm afraid, but please take my word for it, it was beautiful inside and out.

Also not pictured is "venison fritti", a giant (singular, despite the name) cylinder of slow-roasted venison (haunch I assume) encased in a delicate breadcrumb. Not only did I not get a picture of this but I didn't even get to try it - but I have it on good authority it was "delicious". So delicious in fact it disappeared before it reached my end of the table, but I'm not bitter honestly.

I always order gazpacho when I see it on a menu. There are a million different ways of constructing this cold summer soup, with almost as many ingredients to decide whether or not to include, but I personally always look for a version with a good strong hit of garlic. This was exactly that, the allium burning the tongue with each sip. Great stuff.

Then, we tried all four pasta dishes and spent the next fifteen minutes or so arguing about which one was the best. Was it the rigatoni in the shocking forest green kale sauce, which felt like it was boosting your life expectancy with every bite? Or perhaps the thick strands of tonnarelli soaked in a "brown crab cacio e pepe" so rich and beguiling it was like taking a morning swim in the Mediterranean? How about the shapely fazzoletti in a dense duck ragu crunchy with breadcrumbs and high with red wine, worth the journey all by itself? Or even the mortadella campanelle, thickened with parmesan cream? We couldn't decide - they were all essentially perfect, each individually the best pasta I've ever eaten in London, and together a kind of masterclass in the art of pasta. Truly extraordinary.

Manteca hardly needed to do anything else after the pasta courses to convince us that something very special indeed was going on here, but Creedy Carver duck breast, fanned out in neat pink slices and served alongside an incredible sausage made with (presumably amongst other things) duck offal was just yet another reason to fall in love with the place. If you are desperate for something negative to lay on Menteca then perhaps the pink fir potatoes weren't anything much more than nice, but then I'm not a huge potato fan anyway so there's every possibility you'd fall in love with these, too.

We drank Chin Chin Vinho Verde during the meal, then shots of Fernet with our dessert doughnuts ("zeppole") and raspberry cream. The bill, which also included a cocktail each (I can recommend the Calabrian Buck with brandy and amaro) came to £65 each and I can tell you I've spent an awful lot more for an awful lot worse. This is a mid-range Italian restaurant operating at world-class levels, with sparkling service and a bright, bustling atmosphere only adding to the overall levels of awesomeness.

So yes, I loved Manteca. It's not even 9 months since the shift from Heddon Street popup to the current Shoreditch location and it's already settled into its role as one of the best Italians in London. I realise claims like that are hard to quantify and can be less than useful. What I can promise you is that I've not had a better Italian meal for a long time, perhaps ever, and I'm as sure as it's possible to be that if you went you'd feel the same, too. In fact, Manteca may be the only Italian restaurant you'll ever need.


Tuesday 6 September 2022

Wyatt & Jones, Broadstairs

Compared to some of the places I've visited in Kent over the years, Wyatt & Jones is a relatively easy expedition. Despite being the best part of two hours' journey from Victoria, it's neither buried deep in the single-lane-road countryside (the Compasses) or in a suburb of Tunbridge Wells stubbornly unserved by public transport (Tallow), so all that extra money you've saved on deeply unreliable local taxis can go towards your restaurant bill.

Not that Wyatt & Jones is particularly spendy. I'd estimate that had we been paying the bill per head would have come to about £70, deeply reasonable for anywhere serving food of this standard never mind a restaurant in the centre of one of the prettiest and busiest coastal Kentish towns. Broadstairs is - you'll know if you've been - a fantastic place to spend a hot summers day, and a window table at Wyatt & Jones offers the most beautiful (not to mention entertaining when trying to guess which hapless tourist is going to have their ice cream nicked next by a seagull) view over the beach and harbour to accompany your tasteful selection of BSP (British Small Plates).

We began with chargrilled sourdough dipped in hot potted shrimp butter, and if there's any better start to a meal with a sea view then I want to know about it. The bread was toasted only to give it a slight crust - fortunately inside it was soft and squishy enough to soak up an obscene amount of salty shrimp butter with each dip - and the little shrimp were bouncy and fresh.

Oysters (Jersey rocks) were served in two ways - one 'au naturel' although accompanied by a quite impressive house sriracha, and one with 'Hogwash' dressing, jalapeno and mirin. In both cases the oysters themselves were stellar - generously proportioned but lean and minerally, with a lovely sweet aftertaste. And while the natural serving were easily enjoyable, the Japanese flavours of the 'Hogwash' made even more of the oysters, to great effect. Time was I would have always chosen oysters un-mucked-about with; lately I've had more fun with inventive house dressings.

Tuna tartare came as three generous mounds of sesame-slicked raw tuna beneath shiso leaves. You pick up the leaf like a kind of upside-down taco, and eat the tartare by hand, the shiso and spices provided in just the right strength to not overwhelm the seafood.

Smoked eel croquettes were cute bitesize spheres of heavenly thick, eel-spiked bechamel which disappeared in record time. It's worth noting that not only was all the food at Wyatt & Jones seasoned perfectly and texturally just-so (nothing dry or overcooked, nothing underdone) but every technique, whether it was a rich bechamel or the occasional bit of deep frying, was pulled off perfectly. It was all just so easy to enjoy.

Dorset crab tostada, not content with having a lovely amount of white crab meat next to neat dollops of avocado purée and mayonnaise, but was topped with a half a battered soft-shelled crab to add extra texture and seafood punch. It worked brilliantly, a familiar set of flavours perhaps but in my experience a set of techniques not at all trivial to get right.

Scarlet prawns made up for their being from Argentina (I suppose any seafood restaurants need to be a bit flexible with their sourcing these days) by being dressed in Kentish rapeseed oil and cooked so perfectly the tail flesh lifted out in one satisfying chunk. Also, I realise frozen prawns are always going to be a less expensive option than fresh, but I think £10 for two giant specimens cooked this well and dressed so elegantly is an absolute bargain.

Final dish of the savouries was a giant mangalitza pork chop, cooked to very slightly pink next to the bone and with the little elements of fat crisped up nicely alongside. The mustard butter and taragon dressing was a delight, and the giant blackberries were fun, but this was really all about the mangalitza, king of the piggies and treated to a basically perfect grilling.

Alongside the pork, a side of 'layered crispy potatoes', an impressive bit of spudwork you've probably spotted in some form or other if you've been eating out in the UK in the last few years. Whilst not quite as spectacular as the version at Quality Chop House, it still had a very satifying flake to it, and the aioli was pleasingly powerful.

It's impossible not to enjoy freshly fried doughnuts, and even without the house Nutella (sorry, chocolate and hazelnut sauce) these were crunchy on the outside and soft within, and utterly charming. The sauce, though, made the whole thing all that more decadent.

Even more startling though was this beautiful puck of white chocolate cheesecake, the delicate shell of which broke to reveal a soft fluffy filling and a layer of sweet mango jam. Again, it was not only sweet and biscuitty in all the right proportions but the technique to produce that cheesecake "truffle" with the mango centre must have taken quite a while to perfect. Impressive stuff.

It is my curse (I know, I know, poor me) that it seems the further away from home I travel (recently Weymouth, and Norfolk not to mention Lancashire, the Peak District and Cornwall) the better experience I have. I won't repeat the tired clichés about Non-London British food finally finding its feet - this happened a good half decade ago, or even more - but I will say that when you can go to a small town and find not just one but two or three very decent places to eat (Wyatt & Jones own the lockdown smash Flotsam & Jetsam next door, and I'm reliably informed that the Table is another Thanet destination restaurant) never mind interesting natural wine bars and local breweries, it all points to a regional food scene rapidly approaching serious maturity.

Wyatt & Jones may have to rely on a steady stream of hungry tourists to fill out the booking sheet in the summer months, but unlike various other seafront places it nevertheless feels like a proper serious restaurant, aware of the responsibility it has to the local community (any Broadstairs local will tell you how chuffed they were to have Flotsam & Jetsom to cater them through the grim lockdown months) as well as to the wider foodie dispora. It is thanks to this rather diverse customer base, then, and not despite it, that it works so well. Anyone could come to this picturesque seafront spot and have a quite wonderful time. I certainly did. And I'm pretty sure so will you.


I was invited to Wyatt & Jones and didn't see a bill. As mentioned above though, you're probably looking at about £70/head including booze and service.