Small plates, big flavours
A nother week and another quality neighbourhood tapas bar has popped up in the back streets of Bristol.
Just a week after Spanish- influenced Bravas launched on Cotham Hill, Manna opened its doors in Westbury Park.
You won't see the word 'tapas' listed in Manna, which describes itself as a bar and kitchen, and there is no reference to this relaxed Spanish way of eating on the menu.
This is more Italian in style and the menu is divided into sections for 'bar snacks', 'charcuterie and cheese', 'small plates' and 'desserts'.
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Small plates are big news at the moment. You can barely get away from places offering plates of food that are slightly too much for a starter but not quite enough for a full-blown main course.
For the establishments, it can mean an easy way to up-sell to the customer because, if you are as greedy as me, you inevitably end up ordering far more than you would normally and spending a lot more money in the process.
But it's also a nicer way to eat, especially with a larger group of people because you simply order everything, ask the waiting staff to plonk it down in the middle of the table and tuck in.
Manna is the baby sister of Prego, the popular Italian restaurant across the road and co-owner/ chef Olly Gallery is splitting his time between both kitchens alongside former Flinty Red and Lido chef Sam Sohn-Rethel.
Occupying the site of an old Chinese restaurant, it's an intimate place with a few high stools in the window for those who just want to pop in for a glass of wine or a well-sourced beer (Estrella Damm is on draught but you may be tempted to explore the bottled beers, especially the excellent Moor Beer Revival from Somerset).
Designed by Bristol's Simple Simon team which has been responsible for most of the city's best-looking bars and restaurants in recent years, there is a vaguely utilitarian, between-the-wars feel with its industrial lighting, tiled floor and Caramac-coloured leather banquettes.
The food, however, is anything but retro, being a thoroughly contemporary take on European cuisine.
We kicked off with a wooden board decorated with four different types of Italian and Spanish charcuterie (£12), which certainly got the digestive juices going ahead of a parade of 'small plates'. If there was one criticism about the generous slab of brawn, however, it was that it required more salt, a quibble that returned later in the meal.
A plate of piping hot pissaladiere (£5) prompted a lively debate as to whether the topping of this southern French version of pizza should feature tomatoes as well as caramelised onions and anchovies. Whether that was the case or not, it was well made and a highly enjoyable dish.
Iberico Butiffara with white beans and aioli (£7) was a rustic, earthenware dish of spicy pork sausage with tender beans anointed with garlicky aioli the colour of buttercups.
Better still was a ridiculously tender veal cheek (£10) that had been cooked slowly in Pedro Ximenez sherry to give it a mellow sweetness, and topped with wheels of morcilla (Spanish black pudding) and a few crisp, deep-fried sage leaves.
A dish of perfectly cooked, rare and tender grilled onglet steak (£8.50) was dusted with grated horseradish to give it a fiery kick but a final seasoning of salt was conspicuous by its absence. We asked the waitress for some salt to finish the job at the table and it transformed the dish.
Best of all was the charcoal grilled squid (£8) which was impressively tender and not the usual inner-tube chew that it can be. A perky chopped salad of tomatoes, peppers, red onion, masses of herbs and a punchy lemony dressing was spectacularly good.
After the opening courses, desserts were a slight disappointment and, it could be argued, ambitiously priced. Prune and Armagnac tart (£6) was too shallow, a touch anaemic and the prunes weren't half as boozy as they could have been.
A fairly loose Chocolate mousse with cherries soaked in kirsch (£6) was a touch too sweet and not bitter enough for my tastes – maybe something to do with the chocolate used – and there wasn't enough air mixed into it to truly justify its name. There were no such complaints with the cherries which were highly alcoholic and all the better for that.
In the first few days of business, however, this was not a bad showing at all from Manna, which has opened in an area that has long needed a decent bar for the locals.
It was doing a fairly brisk trade on a wet Tuesday evening, with many of the visitors using it as a place to have a drink before walking across the road for dinner at Prego, which is just what the owners had hoped for.
Of course, this is also good news for those of us who want to return to sample more of Manna, too, because it means it won't be as hard to get a table as it has been in this busy opening period.