A first solo outing for 28-year-old Simon Martin, a Shropshire lad who came up through the Chester Grosvenor, Royal Hospital Road and spent two years at Noma, this 28-cover restaurant is freighted with such pedigree and ambition – it serves a 16-course, £95-a-head blind tasting menu – that people are already talking it up as Manchester’s newest, best chance to bag that elusive Michelin star. It is a prospect that (even prior to the demise of Manchester House), Martin cautiously welcomed, but sensibly sought to downplay: “It’s destructive if you’re striving to get one, and destructive if you’re worried about losing it.”
That circumspection is not the only way in which Mana differs from previous (hyped) Manchester openings, such as Simon Rogan at The French. Mana has fewer covers. The chef, a co-owner, is on-site. Its food style, while comparable to Noma – in its use of strictly seasonal wild British ingredients – is genuinely new in the city. “We’re going to move on quickly, and I think people will stop comparing us to Noma. Naturally, we’ll create our own ideology,” says Martin.
Historically such outré food has been a difficult sell in Manchester. But Martin wants to offer a high-end experience minus any starchy pomp. Guests will be served 16 dishes in 1 hour 45 minutes, which chefs will deliver from the open-kitchen. This is not to rush guests out. Sixteen covers will be turned each night. But restaurant manager Anthony Barnes, a personable food nut born in Ancoats (previously chef-owner at Squid Ink), will encourage them to linger over the bar’s modish wine list. Martin says: “We want it to be exciting and interactive. We don’t want people sat for 10 minutes between three bites, getting bored.”
Prior to launch, 91% of Mana’s autumn season had sold-out (deposit £30pp). “It’s given us a lot of confidence,” says Martin. Not least that he will be able to cover the “asset finance” and private investment which made Mana possible. It will open for four evening services (176 covers in total) and Saturday lunch. As those hours suggest, Martin is not chasing big money, personally. “We’re not in it for that,” he maintains. “When I was younger I did consultancy. I had plenty of money. It didn’t make me happy. My salary here is probably the lowest since I was 18. But I’ve got this.” A “home” where fulfilment means “making others happy, progression, learning, creativity”.
Where money has been spent in this quietly glamorous if boxy unit, beneath residential development Sawmill Court, it has been ploughed into maximising food quality and staff comfort. Built right into the dining room and encased within beautiful Dekton surfaces, the £300,000 kitchen is amazing. Suppliers CHR Equipment were so impressed by Martin’s plans they decided to discount its installation, as an example of what is possible. There is no pass – 14 chefs (five staff work FOH), occupy four temperature zones: frozen, cold, ambient and hot, each of which assembles and dispatches dishes individually.
Despite their use of sometimes fleetingly seasonal ingredients (the sourcing is meticulous; Mana retains two foragers, for instance), Martin can spend six months developing his heavily veg-centric dishes. Some have a theatrical edge. The ‘autumn bark’, a cracker of juniper and barbecued thyme paste, is served in a pile of russet leaves. Like the ‘first apple of the season’ (a fresh apple on ice, hollowed and filled with apple spheres, fermented apple, apple juice and rose oil), it is a visual showstopper that sings with seasonal flavours. A dish of milk curds, fresh shaved walnuts and marigolds, bathed in cep and cabbage broth, is a cohesive multi-layered taste of summer as it turns into autumn.
Certain dishes require a leap of faith. Barbecued cabbage leaves, drizzled with beeswax and a dehydrated scallop sauce, deliver an outrageous spectrum of meaty flavours. This is cooking as alchemical art: creating gold from almost nothing. Keep that up and Mana will resonate far beyond Manchester.
42 Blossom Street, Manchester, M4 6BF
On the menu
Early autumn bark and fresh juniper
First apple of the season
Milk curds, fresh walnuts and fermented cep
Barbecued cabbage leaves, dehydrated scallop paste, beeswax
Biodynamic radish, sea coriander and kelp fudge
Yakitori smoked eel marinated in elderberry vinegar, yeast reduction glaze
Hen of the woods, pheasant ginger sauce, ramson capers