One for the money, one for the soul
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One for the money, one for the soul

Manouche
Triq Mikiel Ang Borg
Spinola
Tel: 27041478

Food: 8/10
Service: 7/10
Ambience: 9/10
Value: 8/10
Overall: 8/10

The year has hardly had time to get out of bed and here we are, eating away like it’s going out of style. As I’ve done every year since I could hold a fork and knife without much help, I’ve eaten as much as three people would over the last couple of weeks.

And just because the New Year has come and gone, I’m showing no signs of slowing down. In the same way as I ramp up the quantity of food and drink I consume, I can’t just stop cold turkey, as it were. I’ll slowly sink back to my regular overeating in time for February.

It seems we become more inventive to make sure we consume all of the seasonal bounty. Panettone is good enough but when you can slice out a hunk of it, dip a side in a syrup and brandy solution, spread that side thickly with apricot marmalade, then dust the whole thing in icing sugar, why settle for less? It won’t keep forever and we wouldn’t want waste.

This style of eating needs commitment. One must have resolve and staying power, and most importantly, one must choose eating partners wisely. These come in two varieties. The first is the kind of person who is just as committed as you are and who will egg you on, supporting efforts to taste more food. The other variety is the kind of darling who will eat very little and be picky with even that, leaving plenty on their plates for me to finish off.

There are times when I’m eating out and something about the place I’m at reminds me of someone I’ve eaten with before. Take Manouche as an example. I visit every so often, mainly for coffee and one of their devilishly good pastries. The simple croissant, for instance, changes across Europe. Technically an Austrian dish, it was adopted by the French since its naughty birth and we think of it as French. Depending on which part of France you’re in, the simple pastry changes slightly but there is a core essence that remains true to the shape, flakiness, and butter content.

I can’t think of anywhere apart from my favourite places in France that makes croissants, pain au chocolat and other viennoiserie like Manouche does. Shameless indulgences like a choux bombe taste like the start of a cool day in France. So, as I drop in every now and then, I commit to trying different pastries and I have yet to be let down. In the pastry department, Manouche is a tough one to beat by a mile.

What had stopped me from visiting every day was the uniformly poor counter service that plagued the place when it had just opened its doors. There was no table service and being served at the counter was a surprisingly unpleasant experience. Luckily, as the bistro was finished and table service introduced, service went from night to day. Time to try the actual food then.

Sundays tend to be a family affair for me so lunch is a drawn-out affair in the company of the clan and eating food that is really hard to compete with. One particular Sunday, however, with most of the family scattered away from our shores, I seized the opportunity to try the bistro part of Manouche.

Manouche has set the bar for attractive and pleasant surroundings, a technically competent kitchen and plenty of soul

Manouche calls itself a ‘craft bakery and bistro’. I’d expected the bistro bit to be every bit as true to its name as the craft bakery part but it isn’t. There’s a menu that’s neatly printed and that leaves no room for daily specialities. For an eatery that’s so evidently inspired by the French tradition I was surprised that they stray so far from the definition of a bistro but I won’t let that distract me.

There was a deviation from the menu when I visited for Sunday lunch – they offer a Sunday roast. This is closer to the British tradition and, judging by the way the restaurant was jam packed, it is quite a selling point.

As roasts go, it is a pretty good one. We opted for the Chateau­briand at €22 per person and it is served with roasted carrots, leek and fennel, triple-cooked potatoes, pickled onions and Yorkshire pudding. There’s also a tureen of gravy to go with it. The meat, neatly tied and roasted to a medium-rare, is good but not great. The rest is quite delightful. One for the money, I decided.

The next time I visited, it was in the company of a self-declared gourmand. He’s a man to enjoy a meal with, enthusiastic about everything culinary and a great cook in his own right. We took the time to analyse the menu and finally picked dishes we felt would show the kitchen for what it was. We placed our orders, including a couple of craft beers, with a very helpful and polite young man and settled in.

The interior is smart and feels like plenty was spent to use the right combination of materials and colours to turn what is quite a large space into a warm and welcoming restaurant. The music is interesting, too – quite a bit of gypsy jazz to go with the name of the restaurant interspersed with artists from the core jazz canon.

The first to land is a tray of fantastic focaccia and some lovely butter to go with it. The focaccia is an accomplished one, even if I favour the significantly saltier version that’s more common in the North of Italy. It is crisp outside and fluffy inside, with large salt crystals clinging on for a slow-release saltiness as befits the simplicity of this bread.

Our starters were served within a short while. We weren’t prepared for the level of food we were presented with. What we thought would be standard fare – the fried squid – turned out to be some of the best I’ve tasted. The cooking time is spot on so every segment of squid is plump and juicy, bursting with squid flavour and lightly coated in a house batter. The sauce on the side is a gribiche that’s topped with baby capers and finely chopped tarragon.

The sautéed octopus was somehow even better. It is tender and, even if this sounds obvious, tastes richly of octopus. Think of all the times that flavour has been cooked out of octopus in an attempt to achieve a tender texture. The sauce is rich and slightly tart with a citrus zest to it and the cherry tomatoes sweet and flavoursome. I haven’t eaten octopus like this for a good long while.

When we’d polished off the rather generous portions we sat there, eagerly anticipating the main course. When it was served, I allayed all fears of main-course-envy – my saddle of rabbit looked the part and the burger was, well, a burger.

We’d been asked whether we’d be happy with the burger cooked to medium and naturally agreed but this had been cooked through. Had the meat mixture included a little more of the chuck for fat and collagen, it could do with this cooking temperature but as things stand, it is too lean. This is not to say it is not a good burger but our expectations had been set rather high following those starters.

My saddle of rabbit was lovely. The saddle is rolled and stuffed with rabbit shoulder and then wrapped in pancetta for structure and flavour. There’s a pea sauce and a lemon brine on the side and the whole dish is very attractively plated. For a dish that is priced below €20, there is plenty of soul.

We finished off with a lemon meringue, a simple enough dessert that is executed masterfully chez Manouche with layers of flavour and texture that reveal themselves over time. The lemon starts off as a hint, then eases its way in as the creamy interior takes over, and then lingers on as a rather zesty, acerbic finish.

There is soul to the food at Manouche and this seems to be coupled by a strong desire to produce the best version of every dish on the menu. If it takes commercial decisions like a Sunday roast to drive patrons inside, then so be it. One’s for the money, the other’s for the soul.

I like to start the year on a culinary high and Manouche has set the bar for attractive and pleasant surroundings, a technically competent kitchen and plenty of soul to their creations, not to mention their undeniable pastry skills. If it sets the tone for the year, we’re in for quite a ride.

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