Manchego delights with an authentic and satisfying tapas experience
By Richard Foss (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I have a simple faith in the ability of good food to cheer up people who are having a bad day. This often leads me to cook someone’s favorite meal so they can enjoy comfort food in a low-stress situation, but under certain circumstances a great meal in a restaurant works
Last week the latter was the case as some relatives accidentally ended up on the wrong side of the globe. They were booked on a tour in Spain but their flight was cancelled, so I decided to take them to the most Spanish experience I could find. A friend who had visited Manchego on Main Street in Santa Monica had highly recommended the place, so to Manchego we went.
The restaurant is small but not cramped, with a mix of modern and Iberian elements in the décor. The lighting is low — enough to create a romantic, intimate atmosphere, but not so much that you can’t read the menu.
If you are familiar with Spanish food, you’ll know at a glance what you want, because much of it is a greatest hits collection. There’s a selection of cheeses and sausages, including the coveted Iberico ham, and, in descending order, vegetarian small plates, seafood and heartier meat items.
The flipside is a mostly Spanish wine list, and there are some bargains lurking there. Our server, Adrian, helpfully pointed out six wines that were half off that evening, so we started with a bottle of sparkling Poema Cava Brut for only $17. We sipped it while ordering the rest of our meal, choosing partly based on whatever caught our fancy, partly on guidance from Adrian.
First to arrive was grilled octopus over a mix of sautéed vegetables with olives, which got things going on a high note. The tentacles were tender and slightly smoky, a great contrast with the bright flavors of bell pepper, onion and olives with herbs and a dash of vinegar.
Spinach croquetas followed, the vegetable blended with milk and flour, then formed into cylinders, breaded and fried. As to how well this worked, it is enough to say that as soon as the first order arrived, we ordered a second one. We asked for bread so as not to waste the bell pepper cream sauce that arrived on the side.
Next were dates stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped with bacon, then drizzled with a balsamic vinegar sauce and pomegranate seeds. This sounds ornate when you write it out, but the flavors were perfectly comprehensible — a procession of smoky, sweet and unctuous with a sweet-and-sour edge. There were four to an order, and as they’re small we could have easily devoured another plate if we hadn’t known so much else was on the way.
One of our party was charmed by the idea of a Spanish-Californian fusion item, the Manchego mac and cheese, so we ordered it. It was decent but not noteworthy, with little variation from the American favorite save for a slightly different cheese flavor.
There was nothing standard about the item that followed: Catalan-style roast chicken with poached wine-soaked golden raisins and shaved almonds. This showed a distinct Moroccan influence in the use of nuts and fruit with meat, and with the sauce that had a vinegartang and hints of cinnamon. It was the best item of our meal, and one that I’d order on any future visit.
We finished our savories with that mainstay of any tapas meal, patatas bravas, and Spanish-style pork belly in a quince glaze. The pork was a bit of a dud because it was extremely fatty and the skin hadn’t crisped at all. If it had been allowed to roast a bit longer to intensify the flavor and reduce the fat it would have been fine, but I liked the seasoning more than the pork. The potatoes hit the high standard of the rest of the meal, crisp-fried and topped with an enjoyably lethal garlic-cream sauce.
We shared glasses of red and white sangria after the bubbly ran out, and I preferred the white. Red sangria usually needs a shot of brandy to balance the wine, and as Manchego doesn’t have a liquor license they may have had to leave that out. We finished with fresh churros that were served with a very authentic chocolate sauce, and they tasted exactly like the ones I
had enjoyed on a vacation in Salamanca.
The evening went just as I had hoped — a taste of Spain to hold my companions over until they get to experience the real thing. Dinner for five with wine ran $140 before tip, a fantastic deal on a delightful evening.
If you’re looking for a Spanish experience on the Pacific Rim, start at Manchego. I can almost guarantee you’ll be back.
Manchego 2518 Main St., Santa Monica (310) 450-3900 manchegosm.com