Two days after my first visit to Manna Restaurant and I’m still re-living my first bite of the chef’s special Sunday roast. But I’m already getting ahead of myself. Manna has been an established vegetarian restaurant for 44 years now- that’s a pretty impressive accolade for any independent restaurant these days and shows how vegetarianism has stood the test of time.
Manna is located in Chalk Farm (North-West London), just one stop north of Camden Town; where Camden screams vulgarity, Chalk Farm whispers soft sophistication. Don’t be fooled by the slightly ambiguous and dodgy tube station- a minute’s walk away and over Chalk Farm Road Bridge brings great rewards. Little boutiques, tea houses and exquisitely dressed shops set the stage for Manna- tucked seconds away from one of the main streets, its white façade beckons.
I went with my boyfriend for our anniversary dinner and hoped that Manna would deliver on all fronts: atmosphere, food and service. When we stepped inside it was busy and buzzy. We were seated at a snug table for two and took in the surroundings. It’s tastefully and comfortably decorated with a nature/nest theme.
The menu was well balanced and not too overwhelmed by choice. I opted for a roasted garlic yellow courgette & cherry tomato tart which featured a cashew cheese ricotta and was served on a bed of locally grown organic mixed leaf salad drizzled with a vinaigrette dressing. Now, as I was perusing the menu I found that the (v) next to each dish meant it was vegan. I was under the assumption that Manna was a vegetarian and not a vegan restaurant…so it’s not something they shout about. On their website Manna is introduced as a gourmet vegetarian restaurant which, only a few sentences later, is contradicted and called vegan. A bit confusing. Perhaps they think that if advertised as a solely vegan restaurant they won’t get a decent crowd through the door. At first I was quite happy with this revelation because it meant that I could not only eat a tart as it wouldn’t have egg in, but also try my boyfriend’s ravioli. Both were delicious. However, I felt that they overcompensated on my tart by making the filling extra thick- I’m talking almost 2 inches thick. How they managed to make the light, mousse-like consistency without eggs or dairy I really don’t know and can only ponder in my wildest dreams, but I would have appreciated less of it. The texture spoke for itself so, forgive me for the pun, but it was a bit like over-egging the cake…just without the eggs. I found that the flavour of the cherry tomatoes and yellow courgettes were drowned out by the ‘we can make tarts which are just as good and even thicker than non-vegan ones’ campaign. The ravioli, by contrast, was perfectly balanced. Everything from the fennel cream sauce, to the mushroom and walnut filling and the sundried tomato pesto worked in tandem with one another to create a culinary display of fireworks. The flavours were each different yet tied together by subtle hints.
The Main Event
Whilst the portions for the starters weren’t massive they certainly weren’t measly; I was full enough to feel satisfied but still hungry for more. I ordered the chef’s special for my main: a sunflower seed, cashew nut, mushroom and red pepper nut loaf with roasted vegetables and swapped the red onion and tomato sauce (I really don’t like onions) with a red wine, thyme and leek jus. Words cannot describe the beauty of this main meal; it was earthy, nutty and juicy. The nut roast was a wonder in itself and creatively presented and garnished: circular, firm and flavourful. It was simply a delight. The roasted cauliflowers were a welcome change and even the braised broccoli was a step above your average. The jus, even though not custom made for this dish, fell into perfect harmony with the nut roast, adding deep and rich notes. The roasted potatoes slices, humble though they are, proudly framed the nut roast and made perfect reference to the Sunday roast tradition. I was amazed by the composition of this meal- from the flavours to the textures and its visual appeal. I am very rarely impressed…but: this is me blown away. I would recommend that anybody, vegetarian or not, go to Manna on a Sunday and try their famed roast- it’s famous for a reason!
Our appetites had been whetted for something sweet and I was excited by the amount of choices open to the lacto-vegetarian or vegan diner. Finding an eggless dessert is nothing short of a nightmare in most restaurants. Enjoying my new found freedom, I ordered a banoffee trifle and my boyfriend chose the raspberry cheesecake. One word for my banoffee trifle: diabolical. It was luke warm and the cream was flavourless. Not even the liberal dose of roasted almonds could save the day. The chocolate cake was dry and crumbly, the caramel was sickly and by the time I had poked my spoon down the sundae style glass, the cream had turned into a greyish mush. I couldn’t finish it. The cheesecake, however, was fresh, zesty and exciting. The filling was light and creamy, the base crunchy and the plate was dressed beautifully with a tangy kiwi dressing and an artful display of fresh berries. The acidity of the kiwi provided a perfect counterpart to the sweetness of the cake, like yin and yang.
We were one of the last customers to leave and were served by one of the owners. Whilst my boyfriend was paying she asked if we had enjoyed the meal and I had to ‘fess up about the dessert. She was very pleasant about it and apologised saying that we should have said something earlier and she would have taken it off the bill. She assured us that she would tell the chef next time to keep it in a bowl of ice-cold water to ensure it was fresh. Sadly, I think it needs a little more improving than that.
I would definitely recommend people to go and try Manna, it won’t disappoint. True, I was pretty shell-shocked at my excuse for a dessert but, thanks to the cheesecake, my hope was restored. Next time I won’t get the trifle! A word of warning to Manna though: try to be more honest and market yourselves as either a vegetarian restaurant with vegan options or a plain vegan experience. If it was a vegetarian restaurant we would have been given the choice to select dairy products like cheese and cream but, instead, the unassuming vegetarian is forced to consume only vegan-friendly food. It’s a pretty risky gamble; most vegetarians I know are open minded so won’t be bothered at experiencing vegan cuisine, but, if you have a committed carnivore on your hands it might just put them off an alternative diet for good if they feel forced to eat non-dairy products!
Check them out for yourself here