El Bulli was a Michelin 3-star restaurant in Catalonia Spain run by Chef Ferran Adria. It was named as the top restaurant in the world for a record five times by Restaurant Magazine. The restaurant closed in July 2011. Prior to closing, el Bulli took reservations for the entire year on a single day. They had over 2 million reservation requests for a total of 8,000 reservations. Interestingly, the restaurant operated at a loss in regard to daily operations, but made up the difference with book sales and lectures by Chef Adria.
This week at Manna Avenue in Wilmington, North Carolina, Chef Jacob Hilbert paid tribute to el Bulli. The menu featured a range of dishes inspired by the el Bulli menu both in terms of content as well as technique. Amazingly, Manna has become somewhat of a weekly pop-up restaurant. Every Thursday they offer a menu based on a theme (artists, chefs, etc.), with the menu typically restricted to those with reservations in the bar. Meanwhile, the weekly/seasonal menu continues to be offered to dining room patrons. The Manna staff consistently executes their weekly “pop-up” menu well, and the integration with their seasonal menu appears seamless.
Foie Gras gelato currant spheres, lavender syrup
We received pan roasted foie gras rather than gelato after the Manna freezer malfunctioned. This was possibly the best foie gras we have eaten, including ala Graham Elliot. Lavender syrup gave a subtle but sweet contrast to the richness of the warm and decadent foie gras. Red currant spheres gave a visual pop to the presentation and an ala carte flavor explosion at the patrons discretion, bite by bite.
Bass air of parsnip, cilantro powder, vanilla & coconut ravioli
The bass had a beautiful crispy skin. The coconut, vanilla (and mascarpone) “ravioli” was light and slightly slippery and difficult to maneuver. The reward was an instant burst of flavor that was worth the effort. This bite layered lingering soft and subtle flavor onto the savory bass. The light parsnip foam corralled the sweet flavors, and ultimately balanced the dish. The cilantro powder teased the palate, but was not especially flavorful, in spite of its visual and textural contribution.
Lomo embuchado red navel aspics, frozen endive, marinated goat cheese, passion fruit foam, mustard
Lomo embuchado is a Spanish dry-cured pork tenderloin. This dish was remarkable for the contrasting temperatures and tastes. Interestingly, the frozen endive opposed the smokiness in the pork, while the goat cheese injected smooth creaminess and salt into the dish. The spicy mustard surprised, and functioned to basically say “Don’t get too comfortable; things are not always as they seem.” The red navel aspics sang with their sweet citrus, adding balance to the smoke and salt of the pork. This dish brought back memories of Oz’s childhood in Turkey eating Jambon and Tulum (a type of Turkish goat cheese).
Five way beef carpaccio carrot noodles with ginger sauce, lime gel, foie gras powder, butter espuma, jellied glace viande
Each of the five ways stood on their own. The carrot noodles were more like warm apple pie than carrot and contrasted the saltiness of the beef. Strange? Yes. Worked? Yes. The lime gel was a strong citrus bully that gracefully wacked you on the palate when you ate it. It made for an interesting experience, but by the time you processed what was happening, the beef was a distant memory and already getting acquainted with my stomach. The foie gras powder was our second foray into foie gras for the night and it was fun to look at it as “Foie gras 2 ways” rather than “foie gras again” (who says that anyway?!) The powder turned into a rich, creamy partner to the beef within seconds of eating. We scraped every last molecule off the plate. The butter espuma (foam) made for a nice “home base” to which the others were compared. Finally, the jellied glace viande were small jellied cubes that burst like a beef jack-in-the-box.
Lemon pudding cake crimson pomegranate foam, citrus snow
The lemon pudding cake had both frozen and powdered elements. The presentation was impeccable and, in this case, outdid the actual taste of the dessert. The dessert was good and was not too sweet in spite of multiple elements including both frozen and powdered forms of lemon cake. As a sneak preview, we were also given a taste of a smoked sweet potato ice cream that united smoky bacon flavor (in spite of no bacon being present in the dish) with the gentle sweetness of sweet potato. On the whole, a savory ice cream that left us wanting more.
Thursday nights at the Manna bar deliver fresh, unanticipated menus. Reminiscent of Chef Michael Carlson at Schwa in Chicago, Chef Hilbert often brings out the dish himself and personally explains. Manna continues to put forward creative ideas and Chef Hilbert continues to execute in seemingly effortless fashion (we know that’s not the case, but we’ve never see him sweat.) The creativity and enthusiasm at Manna knows no boundaries. This is the kind of restaurant that one seeks, but rarely finds, outside of culinary meccas such as Chicago or New York. We are hopeful that the James Beard Foundation will recognize Manna Avenue and Jacob Hilbert in the near future, as they certainly deserve recognition of their culinary excellence.