(Manna Dining Room; Taken from Restaurant’s Web Site)
Wilmington is a challenging restaurant city; while affluent, the demographic is not particularly conducive to modernist cuisine. With its cobblestoned streets and historic architecture, I find the city quite charming, but surveying the restaurant scene reveals very few restaurants of interest to culinary enthusiasts. There are a number of expensive restaurants, but for the most part they offer menus with no distinction. I have no doubt that the food in such restaurants is tasty, but there is a difference between taste and affectivity and in my experience generic fine dining menus—regardless of how well-prepared they might be—are too easily ‘digested’ and leave little impact.
With this context in mind, Manna is iconoclastic and easily my favorite restaurant in the city; the menu changes micro-seasonally and there is a strong personality and a consistent authorial voice communicated through the cuisine. Executive Chef Jameson Chavez creates combinations that are exciting but also very accessible. I enjoyed two superb meals at Manna in the spring and so my brother and I were curious to try their early winter menu and made reservations.
The restaurant’s interior is divided between bar and dining room, and a hallway separates the two spaces. I appreciate this because Manna has a pronounced bar scene—a pet peeve of mine is when restaurant’s don’t clearly organize their space, such that the bar spills into the dining room and ‘worlds collide.’ The formal dining room is notable for its interior design and its lighting level. It is one of the darkest dining rooms I’ve dined in and this makes the space seem a bit cold; on the other hand, the darkness has the benefit of segregating the tables, which is always a blessing for me.
The decadent interior design veers towards camp; there is a platform in the right-hand corner that houses two tables. Bright red curtains add a bombastic touch, separating the dining room from the hallway to the kitchen. Meanwhile, the centerpiece of the room is a long table that I have never seen occupied; two enormous, outlandishly anachronistic beige velvet chairs occupy each end of the table. Ornate light fixtures (barely turned on) complete the design, which manages to be both contemporary and gothic. Overall, the decadent chairs, curtains, and light fixtures make the room feel like the studio set of a 1930s/40s Hollywood Melodrama—a gothic Xanadu, of sorts. This descriptor is not intended as a pejorative; I consider restaurants to be sites for sensory engagement, and the ambience at Manna certainly leaves an impact.
We were seated on the raised upper level, and the elevated perch reinforced the strong impact that the specific table location has on the dining experience. The clientele was upscale and included UNC basketball coach Roy Williams. I was struck by the oddity of the center table again being empty, and the table (and extravagant beige velvet chairs associated with it) seems to serve more of an aesthetic purpose than a utilitarian one.
One of the pleasures of dining at Manna is that the menu titles always incorporate creative puns, similar to Five Fifty-Five in Portland. Examples included “Homard Simpson” (poached Maine lobster with hard squash agnolotti) and “Duck-toberfest” (pastramied Moulard duck breast with autumn lentils and rot kraut.) The puns are also punctuated by creative punctuation, which is a welcome diversion from the norm; where most menus set out to simply describe the dishes, the titles at Manna are in excess of their basic function, evincing a performative quality typically absent in restaurant menus. Obviously, the titles are only appreciated if the ingredients are as creative as the titles, and Manna always manages to accomplish this. The titles also make the esoteric (for Wilmington) ingredients accessible, which is a must for an ambitious restaurant in such a gastronomically conservative city.
Our outstanding server introduced the menu and explained sourcing and techniques. I selected “The Nutty Professor” (shaved housemade Tasso, walnut-pecan puree, plums, cheddar, white balsamic gel, crostinis) as a starter and “Marching to the beat of a different…” (Braised local drum in sauce chilpachole, turnips, sweet potatoes, mussels, red cabbage) as my main. Meanwhile, my brother selected “Breakfast of Champions” (tartar of beef, tapenade of hard-boiled egg and Nicoise olives, fried Bernaise and grilled bread) and a short rib roulade special for his entrée. We also ordered the bread service, which carries a $1.50 surcharge.
Unfortunately, the lighting was so dark that my pictures came out horribly. All pictures of my brother’s food were even more indistinguishable and so I haven’t included them in this write up. I also did not try his dishes and so I can’t comment on them.
In the past, the bread service has impressed (bread, butter, and jams are all made in-house), but on this evening it was cold and hard. Our reservation was for 8:00, and I can only assume that they hadn’t reheated it.
I rarely order salads in restaurants as they tend to be less creative and a poor value, but the house made tasso and walnut-pecan puree piqued my interest—I actually approached this like a composed cheese course, and the dish was fantastic. The tasso and white balsamic-plum gel combined modernist techniques with Southern ingredients. I also enjoyed the claustrophobic presentation, which eschewed negative space and emphasized the 3-dimensionality of the ingredients, vaguely similar to a Cezanne composition.
The drum arrived with the stew-like consistency that seems to be quite popular with entry-fine dining restaurants. The spicy chilpachole sauce was well-matched for the mild-tasting drum fish, although the red cabbage was a bit much. This plating style basically involves stacking ingredients one on top of the other with a pool of sauce on the perimeter; restaurants that use this style include North Pond and Vie in Chicago, as well as Primo in Maine. To their credit, however, Manna at least avoided the micro green garnish that has become so pervasive at restaurants of this caliber. Although this plating aesthetic involves a bountiful portion size, I don’t care for it since it looks a bit messy.
Having been wowed by Manna’s desserts in the past, it was without hesitation that we decided to order desserts. Manna’s pastry chef last worked in the pastry kitchen at Eleven Madison Park and I enjoy how she manages to rework canonical American desserts. In a past meal, we enjoyed a memorable revisionist Boston cream pie, for example. I followed my server’s effusive recommendation and chose the pumpkin pie dessert, while my brother chose the cranberry goat cheese cheesecake.
The pumpkin dessert arrived in deconstructed form; with cylinders of pumpkin accompanied by pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, and brown butter ice cream. There was also an edible flower that made a visible impact, although it was really a distraction rather than an attraction. I loved this dessert, particularly the interaction between the ice cream and the pumpkin.
This meal was easily up to the standard of our past dinners at Manna. I prefer Manna’s ultra-contemporary approach to southern ingredients over that of restaurants like Husk that simply “celebrate” and reproduce regional dishes. My salad was particularly memorable and overall, I find Manna to be operating on the same level as many Michelin one-stars in Chicago. Manna accomplishes the difficult task of embedding itself within the South while at the same time gesturing toward non-indigenous preparation methods and cuisines. It is also a case study in how to successfully implement an ambitious culinary approach within a conservative dining landscape. While perhaps a big fish in a small pond, I think the principles of Manna’s success would translate to any setting; the technique is precise enough to inspire confidence, yet dynamic enough that I can’t wait to see how the restaurant evolves.