To the Manna born
Yes, you did read that right – vegan. And yes, I know that I am a fully committed and signed up omnivore. Not that this has ever stopped me enjoying food that does not include meat or fish. Actually, that’s not entirely true, I did once have a vegan meal that so defied description that I simply scrapped the review, there being nothing to commend the place whatsoever.
So why vegan now? Well Latest readers, and in particular those who turn straight to the monthly Wave section, I do have an interest in vegetarian and vegan food. So when the inbox went ping inviting me to Manna in North London I decided to pop along when I was next in town. Very kindly they had on this occasion sent me a voucher, which meant that on my arrival they had no idea that I was writing a review, although the massive camera and flash is often a bit of a giveaway.
Manna is a pretty restaurant in an area not short of pretty places to eat. It’s about 45 years old now, so it has obviously found its market and, despite having made an early reservation (essential, I am told) it was soon full.
The menu, a changing feast, is pretty short, which is always a good sign and as ever I allowed my companion, the lovely Ms C, to choose first.
So off we went. Ms C started well with the spring cabbage rolls with dark dipping sauce. They looked and tasted superb, a good balance of the crisp and fresh flavours of vegetables with the earthy darkness of fermented soy. They were generous too, not huge but very satisfying and very prettily presented.
I started with crisped ravioli filled with wild mushroom and walnut pâté with fennel cream sauce, sun-dried tomato pesto and balsamic reduction. It was delicious, really delicious. The ravioli were light and crisp, the filling earthy and robust and the fennel cream totally delicious. Sadly though, it arrived piled into a soup plate with the pretty ravioli and sauces hidden under foliage. How great it would have looked presented on a large plate with the parts for all to see, rather than just taste the sum of those parts.
Ms C was fast to spot the spring thali amongst the main courses and once again her choice was a fine one. A platter of excellent Indian inspired dishes, all a delight and again prettily presented. Ms C was more than happy and cleared the lot with no complaint as I looked on with envy.
Envy you ask? Yes, envy. I read the menu well but at the last moment was swayed by the offer of the day’s special. Now I love daily specials. The words suggest something seasonal, fresh and…well, special. How sad I was when my main course arrived. It could not have looked less special. It was for all the world a dish from the dark ages of vegetarian food, made of beans, dotted with sweetcorn and formed into a sausage. Beneath lay the promised sweet potato chips but these were limp and greasy and to one side was a red cabbage slaw, okay as slaws go but nothing special. It all looked pretty dismal and uninviting and to be honest, save for a good red sauce in the middle of the dish, it tasted the same. I had a go at eating it but I gave up and sipped my glass of white wine.
Ms C declared herself too full for dessert, which is odd because she is a pudding fan. I asked the waiteress to recommend one to me and she advised that the coconut cheesecake was her favourite. I went with her advice and I am very glad I did. How the chef makes such a convincing dairy style dessert without using cream or cream cheese is a mystery to me but he does and it was truly delicious. It had a fairly retro look with red swirls around it, but the cake had real quality and the stem ginger ice cream and rhubarb were equally good and I polished off the lot.
Manna has perfect manners. The service was both charming and impeccable and they did notice that I had not enjoyed my main course and apologised for that. Had I had Ms C’s dinner I would no doubt be whooping with delight, but my dinner fell at the second fence only to come in a disappointing second place. Starters are between £7 and £8, mains around £14 and desserts around £8. There are some cheaper pasta choices and also meze dishes that can be made to order. All in all a curate’s… oh no, I can’t say egg, that would not be vegan.
Manna, 4 Erskine Road, Primrose Hill, London, NW3 3AJ 020 7722 8028, www.mannav.com