Since its announcement Mana has been causing a stir amongst Manchester foodies. Why? Well for one, it’s the first solo venture for Chef Simon Martin. He was previously a chef at two-michelin starred Noma in Copenhagen, widely regarded to be one of the top restaurants in the world. So the bar is set high. Secondly, I think Manchester’s high end food scene has stagnated a bit. It’s been five years since the re-opening of the French and Manchester House soon followed. Manchester House recently went into administration, which is a reflection of how it faired in more recent times. The French has done a little better, though since it was taken over by Adam Reid he had purposefully billed the restaurant as not fine dining (in my opinion to its detriment).
So, Mana is the refreshing, much needed, new kid on the block. A new kid with lots of experience and with that comes high expectations.
High expectations were exactly what we had when we arrived for our table on opening night (17 October 2018). Interestingly, Mana is based in Ancoats, an area on the edge of the city centre, mainly known for its brunch-spots and hipster cafes.
On arrival at the restaurant it’s large curtained windows gave out a subtle warm glow into the dark evening. On entering, we found the restaurant to be one large room. To the left is an informal bar/waiting area, whilst the rear half of the restaurant is taken up entirely by an open kitchen. It feels as though the entire restaurant is set up around the open plan kitchen which meant that you could see the effort and attention to detail put in by the chefs at each station.
Decor inspired by nature
The entire restaurant has been beautifully decorated with natural finishes; wood, slate and stone. The food throughout the evening continued the natural theme, with a menu heavily reliant on core ingredients that could be foraged locally. Even the crockery and cutlery was a natural as possible, for instance many courses were served with wooden utensils and one dish was served with a steak knife with an antler as a handle. I loved this ethos and that it was reflected in the restaurant decor as well as the food, it really felt all encompassing and gave the evening a theme.
At Mana there is no menu. There is only one thing to eat and that’s the tasting menu on which the number of dishes can fluctuate, but on our visit consisted of 12 dishes. The dishes ‘showcase the best of our islands produce‘ according to Mana’s website and our experience definitely lived up to this expectation.
I have to admit that I’m a stickler for good service. It can catapult a good meal to being a great evening and its so easy to provide (meaning it’s frustrating when its done badly or neglected!). Thankfully Mana had this covered.
Interestingly, there are very few waiting staff. Instead, the chefs bring the food over themselves. I love the sense of ownership this provides and that this allowed interaction with the chefs who are usually locked away in the kitchen. There were waiting staff to serve drinks, clear crockery/cutlery and assist the chefs with bringing food. Our waitress Ruby was friendly, attentive and happy to answer any questions we had about the dishes (our table of four had lots as there were many ingredients we weren’t familiar with and in the absence of a menu became curious, particularly about cooking methods!).
A bonus was that despite the many dishes of the tasting menu, we never had a long wait between courses. This kept momentum in the evening and although we were the last table remaining (we’d been the last to sit down at 8.45) we never felt as though we were hanging around or were being rushed.
Although the menu changes regularly, I have listed our Autumn menu experience below. Even throughout the Autumn season I’m told the dishes can alter, depending on whats available and at its best.
Our first course was the ‘First apple of the fall season’ (pictured at top of post). It appeared to be a simple red apple served on a bed of ice, but further inspection (and detail from the serving chefs) found inside it contained balls from six other apples, fermented apple, marigold, herbs and juices of many other apples! This was served with a complimentary apple-heavy sparking wine and acted as a great light and fresh first course.
The second course included juniper Crème fraîche, thyme paste, nasturtium and pine powder in a fried dough which acted as a vessel. The dish was served on a bed of autumn leaves, which the chef made clear were not to be eaten!
Next up, with a glass of chenin blanc was one of the most interesting courses of the evening. Reindeer moss (yep, you read that right!) cep powder and sea salt served with an egg yolk dip. This entire dish was a fantastic culinary experience. After being initially taken aback that we were supposed to eat what had been put in front of us, we dived in, took small sections of the reindeer moss and dipped it into the egg. The ‘egg yolk’ dip was unbelievably divine, we suspect thanks to the addition of butter and other goodness. When the moss was dipped into the yolk it not only was able to absorb lots of the yolk, it became a lovely, memorable course, which tasted like nothing I have eaten before!
Course four was a freshly sliced scallop with ‘cucumber fudge’ and a sorrel and mussel reduction. On taking a bite the entire table erupted with delight at the amazingly fresh flavours. There was a hint of asian flavour which we later found out (thanks to asking Ruby our waitress) was thanks to a small amount of wasabi in the cucumber fudge. This was a firm favourite on our table and we found out at the end of the evening had only been added on the day.
Our fifth course was quite simply a radish….or so it appeared at first glance. In fact it was a radish served with its leaves coated in coriander paste and served with kelp paste. It was a surprisingly satisfying dish, served with a South African sauvignon blanc.
Next was smoked eel. Marinated in elderberry vinegar, coated in a yeast reduction and cooked over a yakitori. The eel was up there with one of the best dishes of the evening (even for my husband who isn’t a lover of fish dishes). For me the coating/marinating was overpowering, but I think thats just personal preference.
Moving onto red, we were served a wine from the Southern Rhône region to accompany the dish most closely resembling a salad. It included milk curds, raw sliced walnuts, Mexican marigolds, nasturtiums and a cep reduction. The colours were truly beautiful, as was the natural wooden bowl it was served in.
Antler steak knives
Next up we were given a beautiful steak knife, with antler handle (as shown on the restaurant instagram pre-launch). This made us think we in for a big piece of meat… we were wrong! The next dish was three types of brassica. We identified them as kale, cavolo nero and cabbage (but may be wrong). The dish included dehydrated scallop paste and the leaves were coated in garlic butter. They seemed to have been cooked in different ways, some crispier than others but definitely required the steak knife (who knew you’d need a steak knife for leaves!). This was another favourite amongst some on our table, mainly for the inventiveness and unusualness of the dish.
Our nineth course was shittake mushroom in a pheasant and ginger reduction, topped with tiny caper buds and served with an Australian tempranillo. I’m a huge mushroom fan but found the ginger in the sauce a bit much. However, this may be due to a slightly sore throat as others on the table loved it.
Our only real meat course of the evening came next. Marinated duck served with crispy chicken skin and accompaniments to make ‘tacos’ with cabbage leaves. The accompaniments included mushroom brushed in cep oil, kelp salt, plum sauce and a tray of pickled items; including chanterelle mushrooms and samphire. The pickled samphire in particular was amazing, it had a flavour so far removed from the usual samphire you experience served with fish.
On to desserts
Finally it was onto the desserts. The ‘crossover course’ was parsnip cake with a parsnip reduction, birch leaves and syrup ewes milk ice cream. This was a good mix of sweet and savoury that provided a nice sedge-way to the end of the evening.
The final course was brioche with chocolate sauce and birch syrup. I found this intensely comforting. The birch syrup gave a lovely salty edge to the otherwise sweet dish.
Worth a visit?
This was probably the equal best meal I’ve had in Manchester (the other being our first experience of Rabbit in the Moon, but thats no longer available!). The attention to detail really shone through and although dishes sometimes appeared simple on first look, it quickly became apparent that they contained many ingredients and complex flavour interactions. This element of surprise I’ve only experienced in the best restaurants, most notably in three star Osteria Francescana and more theatrically at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck.
Price wise, the tasting menu was £95 per head and matched wines started from £38. I certainly thought it worth the price tag. Even better, we shared this experience with two of our close friends who insisted on picking up the bill, which was lovely.
Manchester notoriously doesn’t have a michelin star. It may be early days (OK, it’s the first day of opening!) but if anywhere has a chance it’s here!