The Magic of Manuela!
Stepping out of the Maria Lassnig exhibit into the Hauser Wirth Schimmel open-air courtyard I was immediately drawn to the giant rose growing out of the ground. Isa Gensken’s “Rose 3” (made of stainless steel, aluminum and lacquer) with its giant leaves and thorny stem, stood in the foreground of an equally arresting spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. The black metal spider legs anchored in the gravel reminded me of something one might see in a Tim Burton movie. As mesmerizing as these two sculptures were, it was the buzzing restaurant I passed on my way into the museum that kept grabbing my attention.
Manuela, the official restaurant in residence at the HWS opened its doors in October 2016. Hardwood planks, velvet banquets, French-country bars topped with white marble and gold trim frame the open kitchen where diners get a front-row-seat to all the cooking action. Inside this industrial box, skylights, weathered-brick, pipes and air ducts are exposed for all to see. Large glass windows and doors separate the sizable outdoor seating area with its wrap-around bar from the enclosed main dining room. French-country wood tables sit on rows of uneven bricks that make up the outdoor patio floors while retro pendants and chandeliers hang down between the scaffold-like ceiling to cast soft illumination. The restaurant itself is a quintessential downtown LA art piece providing a space patrons want to linger in. I gave it a TBOT 9.
Chef Wes Whitsell from Soho House New York and Gjelina is the mastermind behind the eatery. Drawing from his North Texas upbringing, the food is Tex-Mex southern cooking at its best. The restaurant is firmly committed to pairing fresh locally sourced ingredients with seafood and grass-fed meats. If it’s smoked, pickled, brined or fermented and it’s on the menu, chances are the restaurant has done it themselves. Everything is handmade, organic, sustainable and prepared in-house—they even make their own mustard and vinegar which takes months to perfect. Impressive! In addition to the seasoned relationships Chef Whitsell developed with So Cal farmers, Manuela has a garden and chicken coop of its own on the premise. The majority of the produce and all of the egg dishes are sourced from the garden and coop bringing a new meaning to the word “fresh.”
Truth be told, I hadn’t planned on going to Manuela. I was just minding my business, enjoying the Maria Lassnig exhibit when hunger and my inability to resist fabulous décor got the better of me. The restaurant had only been open for 7 days at that point and wouldn’t be serving dinner for another two weeks. Ordinarily, I would’ve brought along my cohorts to assist in helping me sample as much as possible—ensuring that I got a sense of the entire scope of the menu. All I can say is if my impromptu lunch sampling was any indication of what Manuela has in store for dinner and dessert, both my waistline and trips to downtown LA are about to increase.
A tangy, smoky pulled-pork sandwich on a milk bun topped with a fermented jalapeño and the best coleslaw I have ever tasted, stopped me dead in my tracks. I inhaled it and marveled at the fact that me—a professed despiser of coleslaw, was eating it by the forkful. I couldn’t believe how incredible this sandwich was—probably the best pulled-pork sandwich I’ve had in Los Angeles. I gave it a TBOT 9.5!
My sandwich was so great I completely ignored my glass of Rose (Chateau Leoube Rose, Cotes de Provence). As I sipped and watched the chefs in the kitchen prepare other diners’ food, I spotted a plate of golden brown balls. Scanning the menu again, I found what could only be considered a menu-ordering mandate: hush puppies with molasses butter. You’ve got to understand, I’m a southerner, so a good hush puppy is like coming home to me! Fluffy-fried balls of cornmeal, soft and hot in the center, slightly salted to balance the sweetness of the molasses butter. STOP! Manuela’s hush puppies did not disappoint. Another TBOT 9 on the Richter scale of deliciousness.
What a perfect day—great art and great food all in one place. Scoring an overall TBOT 9.1 in the abridged version of my evaluation process, all I can say is, so far so good Manuela! I will certainly be back for more. I suggest those reading this post make their reservations now, because I predict that soon getting a table at Manuela will be like trying to get a table at Bestia circa 2010—next to impossible. Worth the wait though—extremely worth it!