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Manteca, EC2A — A Suspenseful Disappointment

At the scrag end of Shoreditch, that part which is frequently advertised to tourists as ‘close to the remnants of the Roman road’, there’s a graffiti-doused Overground station which either leads to Hackney, or to Manteca. And good luck navigating the swathes of £4 flat white snobs and ethical start-up City boys on your walk of shame back to Liverpool Street.

We booked Manteca as we knew it was previously lauded at length, not least by Jay Rayner who had praised it for its verve and originality, and Giles Coren who had pretty much given it 9/10 (though no one quite understands his ranking system). Anyway, it was a damp Thursday, 9pm, and pal and I just needed to eat good pork in relative silence. We were not asking for much.

Manteca boldly uses the ‘nose-to-tail cooking’ prompt. This always excites me, for multiple reasons, not least for the sustainability and commitment to doing the very best with each cut of meat, creatively and to perfection. But this is a slightly odd call given that nose-to-tail cooking was pioneered by St John, which has one of its branches just down the road. This philosophy should be the vasculature of the restaurant, showcased through simplicity and the quality of ingredients. I don’t see how you can also be an in-house salumeria, offer hand-rolled pasta (which should presumably equate to high-quality pasta), and do the whole small-plate sharing circus, whilst scoring highly across the board.

We were booked in for 20:45. Now have I mentioned that it was a damp Thursday, and pretty late? Dinner at this hour in Britain is only eaten by those who either have lots of Rennies on standby or plan on having their last supper here. So why exactly were we so curtly instructed to stand outside, in the rain (theoretically you can scrunch with other punters at the door, thereby blocking the flow of people further), having arrived precisely at 20:45? Not to mention that their booking platform had warned me multiple times about various deadlines associated with modifying, cancelling, amending the booking, plus any special requests and accommodations. I can only compare this with the wretched bird of Duolingo, but with this one holding your card details, credit score, and mortgage-in-principle in its claws. Sorry, but if you’d like me to give you a 48-hour notice if I have to downsize by one fallen soldier, why do I have to wait for this pre-booked table for up to 15 minutes outside, with no offer of a drink (they do this even at Dishoom, where queueing is a rite of passage, fetishised and relished)? I am sure sitting down and signing off the Treaty of Versailles would have been a more laid-back arrangement.

We were finally seated, and we were hoping for a clean slate.

The waiter asked us whether we had been here before, to which I always reply affirmatively, because the next inevitable step is the aggressive spiel of ‘explaining the concept’. Now I absolutely can’t stand this, because this wasn’t a personalised cooking experience at Noma. The concept is that you gaze at the menu, and select the dishes, and then you order them. It was evidently split into snacks, starters, ‘primi’, ‘secondi’, and desserts. It wasn’t titled, but it was described well.

Aaaanyway. After a quick chat with the sommelier, we were given a wine that she absolutely couldn’t describe, even after I’d scaffolded the wine list for her and described exactly what I wanted to drink. I was hoping for some thoughts on one of the rieslings, which seemed popular, but the response to whether it was a Kabinett or an off-dry (i.e. whether it was more on the dry or sweet side) was ‘I think so’. But alas, it was an Auslese. And the wine was subsequently opened and poured by a different waiter (numero tres), and it wasn’t bad. But if your £12 bottle has a philanthropic markup, totting up at £44, I would expect to be given some information on it.

The snout wasn’t available, and I was told by the fourth waitress that the head they’d received that morning wasn’t the best. Perhaps relatable, but what about the snout?

Spotting deep-fried focaccia on a menu is usually a good sign, and it demonstrates that you can absolutely go through the roof with your calories before you even tuck into the starters. Now as I am a man of extremes, I also asked for a bit of olive oil on the side (under the pretext that they would have some quality, unfiltered, deep-green stuff). It never arrived. But what did arrive was galaxies away from focaccia. It was a gluey, cold, miserable cut of dough, so dense that I could insulate my house with it, and still have bread left. A few pieces of rosemary defensively curled up on top, like they knew that it had all been a waste. It’s true — this was the worst focaccia I have ever tried. You can abhor its portrait here.

Deep-fried focaccia at Manteca.

Lurid, uninviting, Shrek-inspired pasta was somehow both too filling and insubstantial, as the chef had mastered the art of cooking it unevenly. And the yolk on top — it would be unfair to comment on the quality of the egg because of the ongoing free-range provision issue — but for hen’s sake, mix it with the pasta, for it is only customary. We finished it but left behind was a solidified, moss-like layer of unspeakable green, which I don’t wish to compare to anything. But perhaps it is telling of how long this pasta had been sitting in the kitchen before it made its way to our table.

In fairness, I would have been more grateful for strawberry laces in custard, and the sight would have been all the more pleasant.

The other pasta dish was advertised as being rich in brown crab meat, but the sauce only vaguely tasted of seawater and had nothing in it. I could only taste freshly ground black pepper. And this is fine for a cacio e pepe, but, omitting the key ingredient from the menu, and given its size, shouldn’t cost £13.

The two pasta dishes at Manteca.

These long intervals between dishes are also concerning — I don’t mind the order in which the plates arrive, but if I leave this up to the restaurant, why can’t they serve them at the appropriate temperature? It’s not like they’re trying to cook a supermarket ‘takeaway’ curry in the microwave, which arguably requires more planning.

Hispi cabbage was nice, in a sense that anything wrapped and charred in good, thin pancetta will be delectably smoky and have a crunch to it — the last two vestiges of Pandora’s box.

And finally, the meat. It was supposed to be a pork chop, and when it arrived, it really looked the part. But I am starting to think this should be more of a contemporary gallery rather than a restaurant.

The best I could describe this pork is Spam on steroids. Whether that’s a good thing is entirely up to you to decide, but this was my dinner, my mouth, and my pig. It wasn’t ‘marbled with fat’, it was more akin to mucilaginous flesh specked with fibrous globules. The rest was just more fat and gristle throughout. Jus in which it sat — fine. This was probably inevitable given the meat’s resting time, as it arrived about 90 minutes after we had ordered it.

Pork chop at Manteca.

With the risk of sounding like I’m about to announce austerity measures — I never do this unless I think it’s absolutely necessary. I will try and compliment a toilet brush if it’s in the correct position and clean. But next to nothing was right with this place. Taking off the service charge was met with surprise and profound apologies. I probably would have tipped the person doing this, since they were really trying to remedy the situation, and asked for my feedback, but they disappeared after this, and the next person was there to bring us complimentary glasses of Negroamaro. Lovely stuff. I think it softened that focaccia, at last.


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