I have a note on my phone which is just a list of London restaurants. I mean, doesn’t everyone?
Strictly speaking, it would be more accurate to say that I have a note on my phone which is two lists of London restaurants. The first is a set of restaurants near Paddington, and dates from the time early in 2020 when I thought it might be a good idea to branch out. I figured that many of us end up having to drag our feet in London to take an off peak train home and that some reliable restaurants people could visit in the meantime might prove a godsend.
It was a good idea in theory, but I only managed one before suddenly all of us were taking far fewer trains, and heading to London became a pipe dream. But the list’s still there, and one day I may get back on it, exploring the Malaysian restaurants around Paddington, the Lebanese joints on the Edgware Road, or just revisiting my favourite little side street Greek place in Maida Vale.
The second list is of all the London restaurants I’ve always wanted to review but never got round to. Some, like Rules and Noble Rot, I’ve been to before. But others are ones I’ve read about in newspapers or in blogs and told myself I’ll visit one day. Like the Wes Anderson-esque French stylings of Otto’s in Clerkenwell, or the little dining room above Soho’s French House where Neil Borthwick, Angela Hartnett’s husband, cooks a small menu of Gallic classics. They’re not all French, I should add: Smoking Goat, Kiln, Quality Chop House all get a look in. Even with all the casualties in hospitality, I know this list will only ever increase in size. One day, it will see me out.
Manteca has been on that second list for quite a while. It started with a brief spell on Heddon Street (not far from where Casa do Frango is now) before spending some time in Soho and then relocating to Shoreditch’s Curtain Road in late 2021. At every step critics and bloggers have had nothing but praise for it, and looking at the menu in the run-up to my visit it was easy to see why. They make their own pasta on site – so far, so Padella and Bancone – but also specialise in nose to tail eating and make their own salumi, so nothing gets wasted.
The acclaim was so universal that this felt as close to a sure thing as you could get, so I made a lunch reservation for the Saturday of May’s last long weekend, so Zoë and I could try it out after a shopping expedition. Arriving a little late – finding your way there from Liverpool Street can be a bit of a horror show if you get lost in the Broadgate Centre – the welcome was warm and forgiving.
It’s a sizeable site, although you’d never know it was a Pizza Express in a previous life, and they pack them in, with the overall effect that you can barely hear yourself think (would-be restaurant inspector and all-round gastro-spod Andy Hayler complained that it was “like eating in a nightclub” – as if he’d know), and once you’re wedged into your table you’re going nowhere in a hurry. Our server initially tried to seat us at a dingy, unloved table right at the back, far from daylight, and when I asked if we could instead have a nicer table near the window she seemed taken aback, as if the idea had never occurred to her.
The menu’s brilliant at creating agonising dilemmas, more than nearly any restaurant I can remember. There are snacks and nibbles, small plates and a handful of pasta dishes – fewer than you might expect. Small plates are around a tenner, pasta closer to fifteen. Finally, there were some bigger dishes which came in at thirty pounds plus.
Our server explained that pretty much everything was designed for sharing. She also talked us out of ordering two of the large plates once she’d taken the rest of the order, a fact for which I was very grateful further down the line. I sipped a gorgeous cocktail made with Amaro and lemonade – how did I not know that was a thing? – while Zoë, as is her habit these days, tried (and loved) her negroni.
We started with a few snacks while we made up our mind and they contained the only dud of the meal. Focaccia was, to my mind, nothing of the kind, being dry and stodgy and only having a whisper of oil in it. The top crust was great, but that was the tip of the iceberg. And the iceberg was dense and heavy going. I should add that Zoë loved it, but she’d spent the week on a carb-free diet so she might just have been euphoric to be eating bread again.
Much better were the fried olives, little breaded spheres of sausage meat and olives that I could have eaten all the live long day. At three pounds each, though, you might be broke before you were full. Nonetheless, this was the first hint that something special was in store, a hint which quickly gathered momentum, becoming a firmly held conviction.
I’d seen the first of our starters on Manteca’s very distracting Instagram page, along with a caption that said it was only on the menu when they had the right cuts to make it. Ciccioli was lean pork, braised in rendered fat and then pressed into a cake and fried to a burnished crisp. It fell apart under the fork, eager to be dabbed with the sweet-sharp apple mostarda on the side. More than just the acceptable face of mystery meat, this was a symphony of flavour and texture and I wish I’d had one all to myself: if you go, and it’s on the menu, order it.
Less successful, possibly because it’s a dish that happens to share my porn star name, was hogget sausage. I liked but didn’t love it: knowing that Manteca does all its butchery on site reassured me that this was packed with the good stuff, but the texture was still smoother and closer to saveloy than I’d personally choose. The flavour more than made up for it, the whole thing draped in wild garlic leaves, because ’tis the damn season. Probably should have kept some of that slab of bread to mop up the juices – maybe that’s what the restaurant had in mind for it.
I think I read somewhere that Manteca used to do their pasta courses in a small and large, but they’ve done away with that now and a portion is very respectable size – enough for you to eat as a main, if you’re no fun, or a beautiful stepping stone between the smaller and larger plates. Manteca’s brown crab cacio e pepe is so fêted that it might be the closest thing the restaurant has to a signature dish, so naturally I ordered it.
It was a gorgeous, simple plate of soothing sustenance which didn’t outstay its welcome. The pasta – strozzapreti in this instance – was terrific, al dente almost to the point of squeakiness. And the crab didn’t dominate, playing nicely with the cheese and pepper to create something beautifully emulsified and far greater than the sum of its parts: if anything, the foremost note was a brilliant tingle of lemon that prevented it from cloying. Like most of my experience, it thoroughly justified the hype.
Wild garlic made another appearance in Zoë’s pasta. Chitarra, a sort of square spaghetti, if you can imagine that, was positively luminous with wild garlic, its edges fringed with racing green wild garlic olive oil. An egg yolk nested in the centre and although it looked slow-cooked and fudgy, once nudged with a knife sunrise spread across the plate. I didn’t try any, because it struck me as a messy thing to reach across the table and eat, but Zoë loved it. She tasted citrus in this too – lime, she thought, although that might have been synaesthesia because it was just so very green.
The one thing that doesn’t tell you about those two pasta dishes – one of the few frustrations of eating at Manteca – is that they came to the table ten minutes apart. When Manteca said their dishes were intended to be shared I assumed they couldn’t mean the pasta because nobody shares pasta, except in Lady And The Tramp. Perhaps they honestly thought we’d share the first pasta dish and then share the second, but they’d also said, in a Wagamama-esque spiel, that dishes from the same section of the menu would come out together.
Does it matter? On many levels, not really. We were having a lovely time, by this point we’d ordered a beautiful bottle of an Australian pinot noir/syrah blend and all was well with the world. But it’s always weird to sit there while your dining companion watches you eat and then have your roles reversed: it’s why I so rarely send steak back in a restaurant. More to the point, we only had the table for two hours – less, because we’d showed up a little late, so you’d think they’d be tighter on time. As it was, because they didn’t rush us through the pasta, which they should have done, things got more frantic at the end.
But this was the only misstep in a meal where even if we were slightly processed, it never felt like it. Manteca’s front of house team were quite fantastic from start to finish, working in one of the busiest, buzziest restaurants I’ve eaten in for a very long time. Also, given the acoustics, their hearing must be exceptional – for the first half of the meal Zoë and I probably had to repeat almost fifty per cent of everything we said.
Arguably, the best way to deal with the challenging noise levels is to dish up food so good it renders customers speechless. I think that might have been Manteca’s plan, and they achieved it admirably with the next set of dishes. Grilled duck breast, pink and tender underneath caramelised skin, was superb, and pairing it with sausage – I think also made from duck, but I might be wrong – was a masterstroke. But the thing that made the dish, for me, was the preserved quince that came with it: fruity, ever so slightly chewy, a fantastic foil for all that meat. It reminded me, ever so slightly, of Georgian fruit leather (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it) and I’d choose it over red cabbage any day. We were approaching full by the end of this dish, but we heroically soldiered on.
The accompaniments were a mixed bag. Grilled greens were a wan medley of cauliflower and chard, and although they tasted decent the texture was too limp for my liking. A thousand times better – and again, almost reason to visit on its own – were the pink fir potatoes, cooked until golden and crispy and smothered in something the restaurant calls “salumi brown butter” – little crunchy nuggets of meat, herbs and fat. I could have eaten these on their own and left the restaurant a happy man, but being able to pair them with duck, or sausage, or use them to soak up the pool of juices at the bottom of the plate, was nothing short of heavenly.
By this point we were decidedly full but still up for attacking the dessert menu, possibly with something from the restaurant’s extensive list of amaros, once we’d finished our bottle of red. Our minds were concentrated wonderfully by our server telling us we had less than twenty-five minutes before they needed the table, so we were forced to accelerate matters.
The dessert menu is skeletal, with just three options. Zoë’s choice, a chocolate choux bun filled with chocolate cremoso, tasted very nice indeed but I was delighted I hadn’t ordered it because I’m not sure I could have pretended to you that I could taste the “whey caramel” it apparently contained, or even for that matter tell you what whey caramel tastes like.
I’m also delighted I didn’t order it because the dish I did order, pistachio cake, was one of the finest desserts I’ve ever had. There was an awful lot going on here, all of it good on its own yet better together. The cake, which could so easily have been stodgy or unremarkable, had a beautifully dense texture with flashes of salt and pistachio in every spoonful. The ribbons of candied, pickled fennel on top added a fragrant sweetness that never overpowered: I’d have liked more of them, but fennel always has that effect on me. And the preturnaturally smooth pistachio ice cream was as good as anything I’ve had in Italy – or for that matter at Clay’s, who do a mean pistachio ice cream these days. Resting the sphere on a handful of salted, roasted pistachios, though, was an inspired touch.
Zoë had a spoonful, and her reaction was immediate: “you win”. If we’d had our table for longer, I think she’d have ordered one as a second dessert. It’s rare for me to rave about dessert, rarer still to do it about a dessert with no chocolate in it, but I’ve thought about this every day since my lunch at Manteca, wondering quite how they elevated something seemingly so everyday to a dessert so extraordinary.
As we were tight for time, there was no digestif. But there was still room for one last delight, so along with the bill we asked for a couple of pieces of beef fat fudge to send us on our way. I’m not always sure about beef fat in desserts – I still remember a beef fat caramel I had at an otherwise excellent restaurant in Cardiff for which no word other than “minging” will do – but this lent a certain glossiness while omitting the overtly bovine notes. It was one pound fifty for a generous cube, deftly sprinkled with salt, and it took all my strength not to ask them to make me up a box. I wasn’t hungry any more, but I knew I would be later. Or rather, I wouldn’t be hungry but I’d have made enough room for more of that fudge. Another time, perhaps.
Our bill for all that food, a couple of aperitifs and that gorgeous bottle of red – which I liked so much that before the end of the meal I’d tracked it down and ordered a few bottles online – came to just over two hundred and fifteen pounds, including service charge. You could eat there for less, and have less fun, but honestly, when you have a meal this good it costs what it costs, and you don’t give a shit. We emerged blinking into the Shoreditch sunshine, and made a beeline for the Mikkeller bar for a beer and a post match debrief. Our ratings are usually a gnat’s crotchet apart, but for this one they were identical.
You can see that rating just a few paragraphs below, but what’s more important is to talk about just how good Manteca was. Because the truth is, back when I used to eat in London more often – but wasn’t reviewing those restaurants – they never quite lived up to my expectations. To the point where I worried that I was becoming semi-professionally underwhelmed. So I did the likes of St John or Quo Vadis, the places everybody likes, and I wondered what I was missing.
I sometimes think that London has to survive on a bubble of hype because if it wasn’t for that, people would wonder why they’re paying such unsustainable amounts of money to live and work there. And indeed my two recent visits to highly rated London restaurants, Casa do Frango and Chick ‘N’ Sours, left me equally ambivalent. So I can’t tell you how happy I was to eat somewhere that not only justified the hype but made me want to add to it, to lend my voice to the chorus of voices shouting about how special Manteca is. Though hopefully you’ve been reading my blog long enough to know that I don’t really do hype. I’m just as likely to walk away from somewhere critically acclaimed feeling nonplussed as I am delirious with joy, if not more so.
So there you have it: Manteca served up one of my favourite lunches of the last ten years and is well and truly one restaurant ticked off my “places I must get to in London” list. Although it doesn’t make matters easier because now, when I try and work through the other restaurants on it, I’ll always be thinking, in the back of my mind, or I could just go back to Manteca. Anyway, hopefully you’ve read this and might add it to your own version of that list. I’m still kidding myself that everyone has one, because in my echo chamber they probably do.
Manteca – 9.0
49-51 Curtain Road, EC2A 3PT