Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Experiencing Columbus's Restaurant Week: Manifesto

Manifesto Tuscan Grato and Scotch Bar on Urbanspoon

Earlier today, I learned that Columbus was in the midst of a great opportunity for local foodies in the form of Restaurant Week. Essentially Columbus and Columbus-area restaurants come up with very inventive and tasty culinary options for each round of a three-course meal; for a fixed price, diners are then asked to select one item for each course. The result, which should be easier given the limited options, is a personalised experience of great gastronomic value. In a previous post, I raised my glass to the brilliance of the prix fixe approach to dining. For the kitchen staff, it's a bit more predictable; for the diner, it's a particularly economic opportunity to try something new and/or unfamiliar. And so, after one too many hours spent pouring over the many menu options (ranging from $15/pp-$35/pp), I settled on Manifesto Tuscan Grato & Scotch Bar's $20 offerings.

Now, for a bit of context, I took the day off after the past two days' celebrations of the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In my world, it's rather rare to really feel like I'm getting any day off, and so I turned the experience into "M.A.'s Day Off" (for the unfamiliar, a spin on "Alex's Day Off" and "Chuck's Day Off"). In my case, if I'm not cooking on my day off, I'm typically eating instead; naturally, then, what threw me off was that among my list of other things to get to, I needed to pick up my screen printed tee from Traxler Tees (local pickup is free, by the way, as opposed to having it shipped) which closes at 6pm; get to a massage I was able to schedule earlier in the day for 5.45pm at Heritage College; and try and make it to the Gateway Film Center for the Winter Independent Film Showcase (if you showed your Small Business Beanstalk card, you could get a free ticket [January 16 post] to one of the independent films showing that evening)-- the only one I could make was the showing at 7.30pm, i.e., Yogawoman. Long story shorter, if you were to plot all of these different locations to fit the best logistical schedule, that would all equate to quite a bit of driving by the end of the night. After finding out that Manifesto does not take reservations, it ended up being one of the more flexible options, as well as one of the luckiest choices to have made.

Following the aforementioned documentary (the theatre room of which was set up differently than the last time I visited, in that this had considerably more chairs cloaked in what looked like hues of orange and arranged in the traditional stadium seating style), I made my way over to Manifesto and ended up parking in the lot underneath the Ohio Statehouse. Upon exiting through the main staircase and onto State St (note: it was about 9.30pm at this point), I searched for Manifesto and eventually realised it was right across the street from the Statehouse; for future reference, it's located within the 5/3 Bank building. As I entered into the restaurant space, it appeared to reflect the other images posted online: cohesive, earthy and a bit of chillaxed environment. There was a sense of calm that, at least at this time of the night, cloaked the room and seemed to suggest a bit of an escape from the downtown feel that lingered outside of the space. I was quickly directed to my table and met Morgan who brought over both the usual and the Restaurant Week Menu.

Despite having previously seen the menu, I was still in search for some sort of commitment to my choices. Thankfully, Morgan's suggestions more or less resonated with mine and I settled for the beef cheeks, scallops and budino (though, for dessert she had recommended the cheesecake). Seeing that there was barely anyone in the restaurant, I then followed up my menu order by asking how busy the kitchen was at this point. With her response of "not too busy," I followed up by asking whether or not it would be at all possible to meet the chef. As she went to the kitchen to ask, I scoped the room, taking in the décor and the inspirational quotations that surrounded the space. Morgan soon returned and said that the chef had asked what table I was at and so I should expect him to stop over at some point. Along with that news, she had also brought my drink of choice for the night, their featured Restaurant Week cocktail, the Scarlet Apple: a chilled and crisp cocktail that literally tasted like a smooth apple juice made of Gala apples, slightly sweet and smooth because of the bourbon, and something which woke up my palate and somehow encouraged salivation.  

As I continue to take in the ambiance, I noticed the very well placed location of the restaurant, and my vantage point a table in clear view of the Statehouse, the windows which seemed to perfectly frame the Statehouse. The immediate quotations flanking either side were manifestos of American Presidents (e.g.).

Within a few minutes of receiving my drink, Morgan soon brought out the first course: (three) Beef Cheek Sliders with a Horseradish Cream. Earlier in the day, I had looked up "beef cheeks" just to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into. As it turns out, they're exactly what they sound like, the facial cheeks of cows; and as one could imagine, because cows chew quite a lot of food, their cheeks develop into rather tough, lean pieces of meat. In order to cook them properly, it's imperative that they not be rushed, therefore making them great in stews or utilising any slower cooking method (typically braising). And what happens when we braise meat over a long period of time? We get melt-in-your-mouth, tender meat. That's exactly what you get here with these sliders. Just like this blogger, this may very well be my new favourite (next to bacon, of course). Because the meat is so soft, what I also appreciated were the textural layers provided by the lightly dressed greens and the lightly toasted sweet roles that cut through the richness of the meat and slight bite from the horseradish and the horseradish cream.

Soon after my second or third bite of pure deliciousness, a familiar voice sounded. "Hey, I know this guy" was what I heard as the executive chef of Manifesto and his culinary colleague Michael approached my table. Of all the possible chefs to stand before me, it was Chef Robert Harrison, Executive Chef of one of my favourite restaurants, the Short Story, which had unfortunately closed about a year and a half ago. (Ironically, it was the prix fixe menu of the Short Story during Dine Originals Week that brought me there.) After getting over the initial shock (one which lasted but a few seconds), I realised how much of a full circle moment this actually was. Of note, Chef Robert was one of the first professional foodie connections I made outside of Denison and if memory serves me correctly, a lot of my own courage in being able to talk about food began to develop after meeting him and shadowing the Short Story kitchen the few times I was able to do so.

For a few minutes, I spoke with Robert and Michael about the restaurant concept, and soon found out that as fate would have it, the co-owners, Yavonne and Wade Sarber (whom I'll have to officially meet in person one of these days) were sitting at the table directly behind me. In addition to Manifesto (which I also found out is only 9-10 weeks old, thus explaining why it's new addition to Restaurant Week), the Sarbers are the owners of De-Novo which features a different concept altogether and of which Robert is also the Executive Chef. As a scotch bar, Manifesto has one of the largest selection of scotches in the area; as the restaurant continues to develop, so too is the education that goes behind in understanding the diversity within this one genre of drink. Speaking of drinks and owning restaurants, the current plan is to soon open a third restaurant, again with a different concept: French wine/bistro. Let me just put it out there: that will be on my immediate shortlist of favourite and meaningful restaurants of choice whenever I'm in Columbus.

After returning to the kitchen, Chef Robert joined me at my table and just as I remembered him saying about a year and a half ago, he asked "So, what other questions do you have?" Among our catching up conversation, I learned that the beef cheek sliders were the most popular of the entire menu; they go through about 40-50 lbs per week, and braise them for a long time (5-6 hours). In addition, I also learned that one of the great things about Manifesto is the ability to individualise the dining experience in that you could pay, for example, per lamb lollipop or per scallop, making it a convenient way to host larger groups or even to enjoy great, quality food and still maintain your budget. The other fascinating thing I learned was that Yavonne, an interior designer by trained, was the creative force behind the visual cohesion throughout the restaurant which focuses on rustic Italian cuisine and small plates (the flavours of which spill over the edge of the plates). I should note here, too, that the ebb and flow of customers is rather unique to Manifesto's physical location. When facing 5/3 Bank, the Ohio Theatre sits to the immediate left and so the restaurant tends to be particularly busy in time with the shows; again directly across is the Statehouse and so lunchtime with the Senators and public officials tends to be busy during the work week.

As I chowed down on the last slider (as if I haven't eaten for months), Chef Robert went back to the kitchen to fire up my scallops and subsequently delivered to my table in person. Before I continue, I ask that you take a look at the beautiful sear on those scallops. Seasoned only with salt and pepper, the scallops were cooked perfectly-- cutting like butter and delicate, and yet meaty and holding its shape. Topped with micro greens as shown above, the scallops sat atop an amazing polenta preparation with parmesan, grana padano, and semi-dried tomatoes. The polenta was creamy and rich, with a great amount of bite and body as you can see above. To tie this all together, the yellow liquid surrounding the bed of polenta is a limoncello beurre blanc, made with a housemade limoncello.

After nearly inhaling the scallop dish, I was a bit surprised with how filling it was (especially due to the polenta). And yet, I still had just enough room for dessert in the form of the Chocolate Budino Pudding Cake, Italy's response to the chocolate lava cake. Admittedly, the cake threw me off just at bit texturally; along with the luscious whipped cream (with mascarpone for body) the cake seemed to break in my mouth into somewhat of a grainy consistency. That being said, I should note that it wasn't an issue with execution but more so my unfamiliarity with the dish. And after the first few bites, I warmed up to it, aided by the amazing raspberry coulis. In the end, I definitely enjoyed it (especially by the last bite), but now I'll need to for sure come back to try the goat cheese cheesecake Morgan had earlier suggested.

Overall, I absolutely love Manifesto and highly recommend it the next time you're in downtown Columbus. From the mellow ambiance enhanced by the rugged décor to the walls of inspiration that influence your dining experience to the elevated rustic Italian food fare and creative menu designed by Chef Robert to the cooked to order approach I'm rather familiar with, I'm sure there's something about Manifesto that you can equally enjoy. For these and other photos from my day off, click here [an aside, regarding the final three photos in the album: after dinner, Robert and I walked over to De-Novo where I met the super friendly staff and got the behind the scenes tour; I can't wait to go back and try out the De-Novo dining experience].

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