Manna Cafe: Three Secrets
Manna Cafe, located on the 2nd level of SM BF. has three secrets.
First, Manna serves the most fabulous honey-glazed ham I have ever tasted. It was served to me perfectly in thin slices with a sweet condiment. The combination left a nice, clean feel on the palate. (And I love food that makes my palate feel clean).
Rosemarie P. Rafael, proprietor of Manna Restaurant, says the ham is smoked for hours. Although it is mostly in demand during the Christmas season, it’s available all year upon order. (Call 358-5271 [look for Eds], or 808-6504 [Chef Janine]).
Second and third secret
The second secret of Manna Restaurant is its Challah bread, which also is available upon order. I wanted to experience the Jewish celebration of eating Challah bread to honor the days when, in the bible, manna fell from the sky. The cost was most reasonable at P120. A friend said the bread is tasteless and unleavened, so I plan to look for some dips to go with it. Challah bread is gluten free and Rafael’s commissary has a separate area for these breads (more kosher, perhaps).
The third secret is that Manna serves REALLY good food. I went there four times before asking for an interview, to test their service and consistency. I first went with my daughter, Kat. The water came in an attractive, upcycled, translucent blue wine bottle with tiny blue and orange glasses adding a homey feeling.
Ambiance always sets the tone. I love barns, so the imperfection of the uneven, white brick wall was most agreeable with its incomplete array of bricks, making it cozy and interesting.
The sandwiches, served on wooden chopping boards, added a rustic touch. And though I love barns, I won’t roll in the hay, so the chandeliers were quite lovely.
I ordered an Italian soda kiwi, and Kat had green iced tea. The blend of kiwi with soda water was basic and fine. Kat’s green tea was, she said, exactly how she likes it.
soup, open sandwich and kiwi soda
We also ordered two open sandwiches -- the four cheese sandwich and the cherry tomato balsamic -- both delectable. The four cheese blend was smooth and lush, with a delicate unfolding flavor of the cheese varieties, completed by the chewy ciabatta bread. However, the amazing cherry tomato balsamic open sandwich upstaged it.
On my second visit I tried the Italian soda pomegranate which, for me, was more satisfying than the kiwi soda. I’m a kiwi purist, you see. The fruit, as it is, is sheer perfection.
Next, I had a rich, thick clam chowder served in sour dough bread. With each spoonful of the creamy soup, the bread softened as the soup permeated it, ending the dish with soft, tasty bread. Nothing beats eating a bread bowl – not even munching on fine china.
Finally, I ordered pork stew with bokchoy and ribs. It was tender and the sauce on the bokchoy was flavorful. However, the soup was so filling that I took the pork stew home. Later that night, someone ate all the pork and bokchoy, leaving only the sauce and rice behind. But I ate it and the sauce on the rice made a fine, Spartan meal.
On my third visit I ordered a blueberry spinach grilled cheese sandwich, curious about the combination of jam, cheese and spinach. The feta cheese melted perfectly in my tongue and the blueberry added a dash of sweetness. The spinach was no Popeye experience, but who wants to be Popeye? The sandwich was served in farmer’s bread, soft inside with a crunchy crust.
The sandwich came with camote chips (a refreshing departure from French fries) complimented by a mayo with blueberry dressing dip. Finally I had the Mango cherry torte. I love cakes topped with cherries and the nuts added an interesting crunch. Who doesn’t enjoy mango and cake?
Meeting the owner and chef
I interviewed Mrs. Rafael and Chef Janine on my fifth visit. They served me lemongrass tea in a pretty, yellow - printed stacking teapot cup set. I stared at it, wondering how was I supposed to drink the tea. Mrs. Rafael lifted up the pot and poured the tea on the cup underneath. Oh.
“This is pretty common in the US,” she said. Well, with this stacking teapot and cup, you can sing “Tea for One” (instead of “Tea for Two”). The lemongrass tea was soothing to the throat. They also served Tropical Fruit Apple Peach which was juicy and pure.
Mrs. Rafael suggested I try small servings of different dishes. First, there was shrimp pasta. The shrimp was boiled perfectly, and the pure taste emanated cleanly. The essence of the ingredients, put together, brought out the best in the mushroom, more so with an undercurrent of sourness from the battered cream combination.
The Bolognese was a tad sweet, and made me think of my husband who would have adored it. The ravioli was tender, and flavored perfectly in its sauce. It was the best ravioli I had ever tasted.
However, I looked condescendingly at the Almond Chocolate Cake, thinking, “This is what I would have eaten when I was younger and into my chocolate phase.” Wrong. The Almond Chocolate Cake proved I never left that phase and I refused to let go of the cake and they couldn’t pry it from me until they promised to let me take the rest of it home.
Rafael said Manna is a display outlet for their artisanal breads, which is their specialty. These breads are commonly sold in hotels and upscale outlets. They personally supply bread to airlines and serve the bread in their three other restaurants, namely Kaffe Yen (specializing on authentic Thai food), The Coffee Republic and Asian Noodles & More.
Rafael says constant product development is the key to this business. She showed me an interesting photo of Manna toast – a block of bread topped with ice cream, banana, a cookie straw and drizzled in chocolate sauce. In San Francisco, toast has become THE comfort food, replacing cupcakes.
A little help from OFWs
Rafael says Manna serves American comfort food with an Italian touch. Its strengths are good bread, great sandwiches, terrific jams and her personal derring do to improvise on the Pinoy’s love for sweet salty flavors.
For example, they are also experimenting with ensaimada, with salted corn beef inside, and a second ensaimada version with salted chorizo inside.
Rafael has gotten terrific help in putting her restos together. She was formerly in the OFW business, and many who got jobs in the food industry remembered her. They came back, skilled and with greater sophistication, and they helped her with the menu, restaurant concept, and updated her on trends.
They also helped her with the artisanal breads and cakes. The result: Not too many cooks spoiling the broth, but true comfort food where each dish blends well with the next and the consistency of flavors compliment the differences of each selection.