It had been a mere six months since my last visit to Nordic-inspired Manchester restaurant Mana, but having experienced one of my absolute favourite meals in recent memory, I found myself with an unquenchable longing to return and see if the latest seasonal menu could blow me away once again. And so, with great anticipation, I rocked up for lunch with my wife on a rainy Saturday in August.
I suppose it wasn't just a great first visit that brought me back; the positive reviews since then have continued to flow like an unstoppable waterfall from other publications (in the main), and that combined with a real possibility of a certain award from our favourite tyre munching inspectors arriving later in the year (I know, in Manchester, surely not) led me to realise getting a table could become much more difficult if I left it too long. Plus, having visited with a friend first time around, I was keen to be a good husband and share the experience with my wife too; I know I know, I'm such a hero.
The final reason was really to judge the evolution of the menu; the principle criticism levelled at the restaurant at launch was around the food being too similar (like, really similar) to the world-renowned restaurant Noma, where of course Chef Patron Simon Martin spent time previously. Personally, that didn't bother me at all, but I was really curious to see how the most recent seasonal menu would match up against those great dishes I enjoyed first time around.
We arrived pretty much bang on time for our lunch reservation and were shown to the small lounge area first to peruse the drinks menu. There's still only one gin available (it did the job though) but I did notice they now have a couple more wines available by the glass which was good to see. My wife doesn't drink and although the non-alcoholic selection was very small (only two drinks effectively) these were at least slightly more interesting than just lemonade or coke, and she enjoyed both options during the meal.
The snacks in the bar area consisted of the little cup of mushroom broth again (still enjoyable) and a pork skin type crisp with various charcuterie. This was very tasty indeed; uncomplicated but delicious. We were then shown to our table in the dining area, smack bang in front of the kitchen. The restaurant is still a very nice space but in truth, it is starting to look a little bit tired. There were a lot of marks on the walls and floors and that wow factor of the room I experienced previously was a lost a little.
It was around this time I was starting to get a little bit concerned about the menu; I'd seen on the website a lunch menu is "available" for Saturday lunch but I was keen to have the full menu again and for my wife to experience it too. As no one had asked, I assumed I must have selected it when booking. Fortunately, the restaurant manager gentleman popped over just before our meal started so I could check we were having the full menu. Unfortunately, "No, we only offer the lunch menu" was the response.
There was a slightly awkward pause but by this point, I was kind of stuck. I was really, really surprised by this revelation. Firstly, the website did not make it clear at all that the short menu was the only option for lunch (just that it was available) but secondly and perhaps more importantly, every top class restaurant I've visited in recent years is happy to offer their full tasting menu at lunch on request; it's a key differentiator between a good restaurant and a not-so-good one in my experience. Yes of course, most people will opt for a cheaper lunch menu regardless, but you've simply got to give people the option if you're trying to be a destination restaurant, particularly if you only open for one lunch service per week. I was a tad frustrated by this to be honest as I'd been looking forward to the full experience. I should add that the wording on the website has since been changed; a bit late for me though.
Another prominent issue was that we were just about to be delivered our first course in the dining room by this point, and for some reason I'd yet to be asked if I wanted any wine (despite finishing my gin in the lounge area). At least there is a wine flight available for the lunch menu and I managed to get my order in for this just in time. Again though, it was an unexpected lapse when the service had been absolutely faultless last time. It's not difficult to ask a customer if they'd like any wine before moving them to the dining room.
Chef Patron Simon personally came over to the table to say hello and check if we had any dietary requirements before the meal started (a nice touch) and we were then on to a few little starter courses. First was a very pretty little 'English tostada' ball, covered in edible flowers. This was a lovely little bite and was followed by an oyster served in chicken fat, served in an oyster shell complete with dry ice theatre. I'd enjoyed this dish on my previous visit, but I'd say this version was actually slightly better.
Last of the little courses to start was the famed eel, served once again sizzling away on a stick (another dish I remembered from my previous visit). This was once again delicious; my wife loved this course. First of the proper courses was a new dish of broad beans, tomato and caviar. We loved this dish, it was so fresh and vibrant, absolutely delicious. Next was barbecued leaves with a paste made from scallops and beeswax. Again, I'd had a version of this dish in February, but this one was much more successful and a lot tastier.
Next came some lovely sourdough bread with butter; I have to say the butter was good (from Guernsey this time) but not as spectacular as the Norwegian (I think) butter I'd enjoyed in February; that butter was off the scale in terms of deliciousness. Last of the savoury courses was a sharing plate of hogget with a lovely little individual pile of salad. I'd watched one of the chefs faffing about for ages preparing the little green top layer of the salad, but I appreciated his efforts as the dish overall was again, delicious. The hogget was cooked beautifully and just melted away in my mouth. There was a noticeable wait for the dessert course, but the "mini Magnum" style grilled rose ice cream with caramelised rice was very tasty yet again. We were then offered cheese; to be honest I much prefer this offer to come after the savoury courses and before dessert begins on a tasting menu, but alas that wasn't the case here. We took a plate of everything to share and it was an enjoyable selection.
And so, after a coffee to finish (still no petit fours here, sadly), a very enjoyable lunch came to an end. The food here is the star of the show; albeit the menu contained many of the same dishes as my last visit, which was a surprise. Ignoring that though, we enjoyed every course and my wife would quite happily have given the place five out of five just based on that. The wine flight was good and I actually think better than last time with some interesting selections; all the wines were poured at the table (which is a plus) and explained well. They also provided a pretty decent glass of port to match the cheese course too. It was also much clearer than last time how many courses each glass of wine had to last, so clearly that feedback has been taken on board. My only niggle with the wines is that having to share one (not very big glass) across the two main courses was, I felt, slightly mean.
Service throughout was good in general although the menu pacing was not as perfect as my last visit, with longer-than-there-should-have-been-waits between a number of courses. Menu pacing in my experience is one of the toughest things to get right and it really separates good restaurants from great, but it's something I'm sure the team at Mana will be working on. Overall though, despite a number of niggles and that feeling that being brutally honest, my experience wasn't as good as last time, this was still an excellent lunch. I'll certainly be back and I'm already very much looking forward to what I'm sure will be another fantastic meal.
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