Travels With Mai Tai Tom 2017 Restaurant of the Year
Visited: Brunch and Dinner • February 2017 & Dinner: December 2017
Restaurant Type: Eclectic Contemporary Southern
As the year was winding to a close, we had yet to select Mai Tai Tom’s Restaurant of the Year for 2017 (aka…we eat out way too much). There were many deserving contenders this year including Alimento in Silver Lake, Alexander’s Steak House in Pasadena, Trattoria Allegria in Montrose along with Nick’s selection of restaurants in Laguna Beach, Long Beach and San Clemente. As much as we loved all those establishments, our thoughts kept returning to Manuela (located in the Los Angeles Art District), which we had visited for dinner and brunch earlier in the year (that review is below this update).
We decided to return one more time in December with friends Paul and Susan to see if Manuela was truly worthy of the coveted Mai TaiTom’s Restaurant of the Year (below photo from internet).
Since we had a designated driver, I started with a Vesper (I didn’t have a prayer); Farmer’s gin, crop Meyer lemon vodka, lillet blanc ($15). It was very, very good.
We brought a couple of bottles of wine with us on this trip ($25 corkage) and were greeted by the personable and very knowledgeable sommelier, Preston, who spent some quality time discussing wines with us and how one trains to be a sommelier.
On this evening we started with hushpuppies; molasses butter and Manuela hot sauce ($9) and deviled eggs; buttermilk dill and celery salt ($6). Tracy and I enjoyed the hushpuppies more than Paul and Susan (I think we were wearing more comfortable shoes); and while we very much enjoyed the deviled eggs, we all agreed the deviled eggs at Nick’s are not to be beat.
Next up, we shared a plate of raw broccoli (Cheddar cheese and Ranch dressing) and Roasted Carrots; sesame, ginger lime vinaigrette, serrano chili ($11). The broccoli was totally old school and both of these dishes earned the coveted “Wow” from our table.
Dinner followed, with both Paul and Susan opting for the halibut, which they thought was fabulous. Tracy ordered the duck but it was already sold out on this evening so she selected the Crisp Emmer & Co. Heritage Half Chicken; braised fennel, harissa, mizuna ($29).
I venture a little outside my comfort zone with the Grilled Elk Loin; with house cured bacon vinaigrette and maitake mushrooms ($39). The bacon mushroom sauce was unbelievable and added yet another “Wow” to our dinner. We learned from our server that the menu changes frequently, about every three days.
For dessert we managed (amazing how we can always “manage” dessert) to share the Milk Chocolate Ice Cream Sundae with roasted strawberries and salted peanuts ($9) and the Apple cobbler with cheddar and buttermilk ice cream ($10).
The food quality at Manuela and Alimento are really just about even. What puts Manuela on top is the ambiance. Congrats to Manuela…an award well deserved!
(Our first review with more info on ambiance and interesting story about its chef and how the restaurant came to fruition is below).
(February Review…Dinner and Brunch) We are always interested to see what’s going on in the culinary world of L.A.’s Art District (numerous great restaurants now reside here), so when Tracy and I were told about a “hot” new eatery, we knew we needed to find out “what’s cooking” at Manuela. What we didn’t know was that we would encounter a large establishment that has everything from live chickens…to a garden…to a giant flower…to a contemporary art gallery. It all actually makes perfect sense because Manuela is part of an art gallery, Hauser & Wirth. Confused? So were we.
Arriving early for our 7 p.m. dinner with friends Steven and Adelaide, we decided to scope out the place. Entering from its 3rd street entrance, we passed by the art gallery bookstore located across from one of the inter-connected galleries in the complex. It was preparing for an opening of a new exhibit a week later. To give you a hint of how much we would enjoy our dinner, we would come back for brunch at Manuela the following week on the day of the gallery reopening.
Everything except the garden is located inside the restored, 5,000 square foot Globe Mills flour processing plant…
…which dates back more than 100 years. The concept for this endeavor came from Switzerland’s art aficionados Iwan Wirth (president and owner of Hauser & Wirth, the internationally acclaimed gallery of contemporary art and modern masters with exhibition spaces in Zurich and London) and his wife Manuela (hence the restaurant name). They partnered with with art collector Ursula Hauser, who I read somewhere is a “department store magnet.”
In any case, the Wirths hooked up with Chef Wes Whitsell (there will be a test at the end), whose roots are in rural North Texas and has worked at major restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. According to the Manuela website, “Utilizing his strong relationships with farms throughout Southern California, Chef Whitsell has centered Manuela’s menu around locally-grown produce, seafood and grass-fed livestock, sourcing each ingredient for flavor and seasonality, an ethos that is shared with both Iwan and Manuela Wirth. A kitchen garden provides the restaurant with seasonal herbs, fruits and vegetables as well as a beautifully designed chicken house and run for the restaurant’s 12 rare-breed chickens.”
Since we were early, we wandered past the restaurant and some native plants…
…into the public garden.
Manuela nestles in the courtyard and although its patio seems like it is actually outside, you’re really inside the warehouse. Trust me. There is also an interior dining area (I guess that would be the interior of the interior) and an open kitchen…
The cocktail menu is eclectic to say the least. I ordered a Minerva, Redemption rye whiskey; cara cara, yuzo, oregano and lemon (it was a little tart for my taste, but it was good), while Tracy surprised the hell out of me and ordered the House Martini; Bar Hill gin, lilet blanc, and orange bitters ($14). I was taken aback because Tracy doesn’t really care for gin and usually orders vodka martinis, yet she declared this one “delicious.” I seconded her opinion…hey, I had to have a sip.
There were pieces of art on some of the walls (remember, this is contemporary art, so don’t expect a Rembrandt up there, but some are pretty interesting)
After we were seated, Adelaide must have remembered my motto of, “You’ll never be sorry with another Campari,” as she enjoyed an Americana Campari; carpano dry, gualco amaro ($14). Since I was not driving, I joined her with an Islay Manhattan Ardbeg Corryvreckan (which turned out to be a Scotch drink), bigallet china china, Luxardo cherry syrup ($16). It was actually more like a fancy name for a Rob Roy…but it was very good (in addition, the night I met Tracy back in 1990, I was drinking a Rob Roy).
Our personable, attentive…and most importantly… knowledgeable server, Angel, gave us the lay of the land when it came to ordering. Fortunately, when we dine with Steven and Adelaide, we tend to try a lot of different dishes. Tonight would be no different.
Angel explained the dishes were meant to be shared, so away we went. The menu is divided into three categories…Raw, Cured & Pickled (coincidentally, after that last drink, “pickled” was within reach), Supper and Vegetables and Sides. We passed on the first category, although the the Ahi tuna ceviche, jalapeño, avocado and lime with tortilla chips ($17) was calling my name (next time) and went directly to Supper.
Since Steven and I both work with produce industry clients, which include a number of avocado people, we had to try the Grilled Avocado with crème fraîche and finger limes ($9)…a grilled avocado cut in half and filled with crème fraîche…Simple, yet surprising. We were off to a great start.
Manuela offers a dip that is addictive. The Queso, chorizo, poblano, fontina and pimento dip with tortilla chips ($12) served piping hot just out of the oven was delectable…I want more as I write this.
Tracy, who never passes on beets, said, “While visually stunning, the salad of sherry marinated beets, arugula and pumpkin seeds ($13) was rather bland.” This might have been the first time I liked a beet dish more than she did.
Earning the first unanimous “WOW” of the evening (Steven and I had given the Queso dip a “WOW”), for our main course we shared the smoked pork ragu, soft polenta, parmesan ($15) followed by the very excellent smoked half chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy ($28). The combination melded perfectly together and there were happy taste buds around the table.
From the Vegetables & Sides we also ordered the two slices of cast iron cornbread, fermented jalapeño and soft butter ($8)…
For dessert (by now it was like a runaway freight train…we couldn’t stop) I shared (sort of) the Apple & Walnut Cobbler with vanilla ice cream ($10) and tried to steal as many bites as I could of the Meringue with berries, yogurt, chantilly (no lace), and lemon zest ($10).
By now, the restaurant was filled (be sure to make reservations).
Manuela’s dinner menu contained so many great items that it made us want to return to try their brunch menu, which we would do the following Saturday morning…this time with our friend, Susan. We learned from our server that brunch used to commence at 11 a.m., but the line was so long, they now open at 10 a.m. The following Saturday we made reservations for 10:15 a.m. It would almost fill up an hour later.
On this morning, we sat outside on the covered patio (well behaved dogs are welcome, which is why our corgis were home watching college basketball). There was a slight chill in the air from the remnants of the big rain storm we had the previous evening, so the patio heaters were on and each table had a folded blanket over the back of the chair in case you were cold. Nice touch!
Apparently we were starving, as we really gave this menu a whirl. We started with grilled apple bread, molasses, and salted butter ($8) and cinnamon churros with dulce de leche sauce ($7). The churros were incredibly light and airy. Both were straight out of the oven, warm and inviting. Not content with massive calorie overload at this point, we moved on.
Next up and both earning a “WOW,” the cornmeal pancakes with blueberry compote and maple syrup ($15). These were excellent and slightly crispy, but be sure to order extra syrup.
The pancakes were served at the same time as the biscuit and egg sandy with bacon, cheddar and pickled jalapeño ($10). I’m guessing Whitsell was showing off those southern roots, because that biscuit was off-the-charts good. It was flaky and crunchy all at the same time. Tracy and Susan ordered the egg scrambled as they do not like yolk. I’d like to try it with the fried egg next time. It was incredible, and also received a “WOW.”
At this point, just like our dinner, I should note that the food came out of the kitchen in twos (kind of the Noah’s Ark of serving), which was the perfect pace so we could enjoy each item without rushing or something getting cold. It also let you savor the delicious dishes. And believe me, we were enjoying these items that our server Shelby was bringing to us.
Next out were the chilaquiles; crema, fried egg and guacamole ($18). I don’t think we’ve ever had better chilaquiles. This garnered “0ohs” from the tables around us and was yet another “WOW” dish. It was served with a not-too-spicy salsa roja made with Serrano chiles. Chilaquiles is another dish Tracy can never pass and these exceeded her expectations (sort of like her marriage). They once again ordered it scrambled.
The chilaquiles were served with our last dish, the smoked chicken salad with radicchio, jalapeño and almond ($20). This was the only disappointment of the morning; the chicken was delicious, but the radicchio was unwieldy and we did not care much for the Dijon mustard dressing. There was a sprinkling of croutons, almonds and olives which did not add too much of interest to this salad. However, the presentation was beautiful.
There were so many other items on the menu we wanted to try. Heck, we didn’t even get down to the Vegetable & Sides section (looking at you crispy fingerling potatoes, horse radish and crème fraîche…come to papa!). I would also like to try the Hush Puppies (hopefully not the same pair my dad used to wear) with molasses butter ($10) or the Biscuits with orange marmalade and soft butter ($7). We saw an order of those at another table, but before I could order anything else, Tracy paid the check and hustled me out of the restaurant for a little walk.
On this morning, when we visited the Public Gardens…
…the chickens were out strutting their stuff and accepting visitors. We inquired if these chickens were being raised for eating or (hopefully) eggs….and were glad to learn they are egg-laying chickens only (I always hate to eat anyone’s relative). In a flash of what I thought was brilliance, I told Tracy we should raise chickens for our own eggs.
I was shell shocked and had egg on my face when she said, “No!” I even felt a little henpecked.
This also happened to be the Grand re-opening day for the Hauser & Wirth Gallery presentation of Jason Rhodes’ installations, which (according to the press release) is “the first major Los Angeles exhibition devoted to the politically charged, darkly exuberant art of Jason Rhodes.” Although the gallery wasn’t going to open until later that evening, we were allowed in for a little sneak peek.
Before entering, Tracy popped into the nearby bookstore to say, “Hello Dali.”
There were lots of crazy, colorful neon art pieces in the gallery, and it reminded me of my good old bachelor days when my apartments were adorned with colorful Coors and Michelob signs and the renowned painting of Dogs Playing Poker.
Tracy put her foot down on purchasing one of these for our living room (she can be so strict), which I guess is a good thing because we didn’t see any price tags, so I assume if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
The nearby area surrounding Manuela in the Arts District has other interesting spots to enjoy, like Salt & Straw, where you can purchase some incredible ice cream. Amazingly, after our fantastic dinner and dessert at Manuela, we stopped in and found room to have ice cream there, too. “Moo!”
Needless to say, Manuela wins on all fronts. An interesting space accompanied by a terrific selection of menu items with what we thought was impeccable service. If you don’t drink as much as we did, the bill can be surprisingly reasonable, too. For brunch or dinner (or as we did, both), I would highly recommend you give Manuela a try. If you see a couple dining on copious amounts of food, please stop by and say “hello” to us.
Mai Tai Tom Rating…4.75 mai tais (out of 5)
907 East Third Street
Los Angeles, California 90013
Hours: Thursday 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. & 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Friday: 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. & 5:30 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Saturday: (brunch 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.) & 5:30 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Sunday: (brunch 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.) & 5:30 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Monday & Tuesday: 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Parking: Hewitt Street Lot (about 2 blocks away) – $7; street parking available; valet parking $15 or $12 with validation