Mana, Manchester: restaurant review
Does a regular diner reach the same conclusion about a restaurant as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised? Local critic Emma Sturgess and olive reader Janet Robinson compare notes on this Ancoats arrival
About Mana, Manchester
Progressive, sustainable, creative – all words that have been bandied around concerning Simon Martin’s new restaurant. The 28-year-old Shropshire chef worked at Noma and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay before opening Mana, his first restaurant, in October (read our guide to the best places to eat in Manchester here). With an aim to be “casual”, “accessible” and celebrate the “best of our island’s produce”, the restaurant serves a seven- or 14-course set menu (£65 or £105) in just 1 hour 45 minutes.
Little-known ingredients have raised eyebrows among foodies – from dessicated spruce and bark to reindeer moss and lacto-fermented barley – and there’s the option to go for juice, beer or wine pairing. Eight-metre-high ceilings make this minimalist, modern space feel bigger than its 28 seats. Dark wooden floors, grey walls, cream leather, wood-framed chairs and statement drop lighting provide the backdrop for the main attraction – a £300,000 bespoke open kitchen, with compressed stone surfaces, and the brigade of chefs who double up as servers. The ever-evolving winter menu (served until the end of this month) focusses on shellfish, fish and winter greens, and is available four days a week.
The pro restaurant reviewer
Emma Sturgess is a journalist and restaurant critic based near Manchester who writes for The Good Food Guide and SquareMeal. She loves anything with butter in it. Follow Emma on Twitter at @emmasturgess.
The punter restaurant reviewer
Janet Robinson lives in Wigan and works for the local government. Her best dining experience was Aiden Byrne’s tasting menu at Manchester House but she’s also partial to foam shrimp and banana sweets.
Our pro's Mana, Manchester restaurant review…
Modern kitchens signal that they mean business by using chefs as waiters. Lots has been said about Mana: the heavy Redzepi influences, the £105 multi-course menu, the austere, freshly minted Ancoats location with showroom-style open kitchen. It means business. And so a procession of chefs visits the table, and there are too many different faces to build a rapport with anyone. But when there’s a blade-like bone in my halibut, the manager appears as if by magic, smoothing feelings (and knocking drinks off the bill) as he goes. The wine man, perhaps sensing that without encouragement we’ll have a beer each and go home, is alarmingly attentive. *I wasn’t recognised.
Mana’s dishes have caused a storm in the far reaches of foodie Insta, with anonymous accounts sniping about homages to Noma and elsewhere. It may be useful to have someone else to blame for the daft ground grasshoppers in a shrimp tartare that’s killed by the punch of arbol chilli oil, or the painful descriptions of the fermented masa water, which is not even close to being the best thing you can put with gorgeous just-set steamed crab. But the knowledge that foodie parody is just within reach cannot kill the significant buzz of the good dishes, which are gloriously plentiful.
The seafood-led 13-course winter menu is rich with hits: the Cornish oyster wrapped in cabbage with miso fudge is a thing of textural sorcery; skewered eel glazed with roasted yeast is sticky, smoky perfection; and, despite the bone, halibut with baked artichoke, sorrel and pine is clever and likeable.
There’s a glimmer of amusement in the hunting-style steak knife supplied for eating a plate of barbecued leafy greens, from crisp to bitter, laid out like a piece of prime beef and glazed with an umami-central dried scallop paste.
We finish with a ball of reindeer moss coated in mulled wine chocolate, with whisky eggnog for dipping. With my eyes closed I’d have sworn it was a chocolate crispy cake but considerably less fun.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A meal at Mana is part sublime, part ridiculous. Individual dishes can be absolute smashers, and if you’re in the mood to go along with the rest of it, there’s probably nothing finer. I just don’t know when (or if) that mood will strike me again.
Total bill for two, excluding service and drinks (which were knocked off): £210
Our punter's Mana, Manchester restaurant review…
You’re welcomed to a large Nordic-style dining room with an open kitchen that steals your attention throughout. Front-of-house staff set the tone for the diligent and unpretentious service throughout the evening, presenting dishes that surprised and delighted, from the mushroom broth appetiser to the reindeer moss finale.
Having chefs bring the food to our table and explain each course, with perfect wine pairing from the sommelier, felt like an added luxury. Standout dishes included tender, smoky yakitori eel, marinated in blueberry vinaigrette and glazed with roasted yeast; and the sweetest, melt-in-the-mouth Scottish langoustine with cured yolk, served on a smouldering spruce skewer.
Crusty sourdough bread came with creamy butter, which, we were told, was made by a 90-year-old Swedish woman. Beautifully styled tableware and presentation continued throughout the meal, with the starter of winter branch, thyme and horseradish served on a bowl of leaves and twigs which looked good enough to eat.
The textures were as surprising as the tastes, and pork skin with a topping of liver pâté, ceps and truffle was a slight disappointment as the skin lacked that satisfying crunch. Cornish oyster with chicken fat served in a cabbage leaf taco won us over, though, thanks to its delicately sweet flavour and moist texture.
Surprises of the evening were the refreshingly light milk curds with peeled walnuts, lovage, sorrel, nasturtium and geranium, as well as the barbecued brassica seasoned with dehydrated scallops and beeswax. Grilled and seasoned leaves were light and crispy, with an amazing depth of flavour.
Despite being on course 11 out of 13, we washed it down with the help of a perfectly chilled pinot noir from Sharpham, Devon. We ended with an interesting crossover dessert of sloe berry and sheep’s milk ‘froghurt’ followed by chocolate reindeer moss. The latter resembled a bird’s nest, with a crisp exterior and chewy, earthy centre; however, the cream eggnog with a boozy whisky kick was plate-lickingly good and a perfect end to the meal.
THE BOTTOM LINE
At £105 per head plus the £65 wine pairing it’s not cheap, but the attention to detail and intriguing flavour combinations mean we’ll be back.
Total bill for two, excluding service: £199.50
Mana Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating: 7.5
Chef Simon Martin’s mission at Mana is to ‘showcase the best of the island’s produce at any given time of the year’. That means the winter tasting menu is all about seafood and seasonal greens, including foraged delicacies like reindeer moss from the Isle of Skye.
The more conventional greens come almost exclusively from farms in the Manchester area and the restaurant’s very own herb garden. The current menu includes no red meat, although, come the spring they will be serving some beef. Simon and the team’s reverence for the quality produce means they go all out to ensure absolutely as little as possible is wasted – to the extent where they have included a full fermentation facility on site.
All leftover raw produce is preserved in one way or another. In a further bid to screw down the environmental footprint to the minimum, the kitchen has unusually been fitted out with no gas, the instant heat of energy efficient induction hobs keeping the kitchen cool. When it comes to plastic, Mana’s pretty fantastic too; there’s next to none used in the kitchen and what there is is 100% reusable or compostable. Finally, to ensure maximum accessibility for all customers, a raised floor was installed.