Ann Arbor’s newest “it” restaurant is Mani Osteria. Since opening last May the well warranted buzz has been constant. To say that I’m a fan would be an understatement. I’m becoming evangelical in my passion for Mani.
Is it just new-place novelty? Nope. This place is the real deal. According to Mint.com the latest tally is 13 visits for A2GastroBoy. I’ve brought friends, family, clients and co-workers. I’ve eaten 80% of the menu and been waited on by nearly every server. I’ve put Mani through the paces and I stand by my praise. This place ROCKS.
Warning: This is a rambling post. You’ll need to get through 1,300 words on design and service before the first mention of food. If that’s an issue start scrolling.
HISTORY & PHYSICAL PLANT
As I’ve become prone to saying, life is too short to endure ugly. Thank god Mani agrees. The first thing you’ll notice about Mani is the chic makeover.
Do you remember the previous tenants? The location is almost as good as it gets in Ann Arbor. Still the space sat vacant longer than almost any other property in the downtown district. Most recently is was a furniture rental showroom. Prior to that it was a bookstore. It’s a curious leasing proposition; too large for many retailers and lacking the expensive infrastructure for foodservice. Anyone wanting to make it a restaurant would need capital, lots of capital. At one point we thought it was going to be a Mellow Mushroom franchise. Than a brewpub. Time and time again prospective business owners passed. When Mani finally signed a lease I half expected to soon hear they’d backed out. Thank god they didn’t.
The Mani renovation is brilliant. It is a distinctly minimalist aesthetic allowing their food, your dining partner and the outside world, compliments of their wall of windows, to become your focus. Their designer’s attention to detail was meticulous.
Perhaps the most ingenious design choices were in their approach to separating the bar and dining room while maintaining an open space. The raised floor level and a slight rail are the only structural elements used. The separation of ambient zones is predominantly established through contrasting design.
Flooring in the front is crisp tile. In the dining room it’s dull cement. It’s subtle – but speaks volumes to the thought behind every decision. I’m crazy for the high seats used in the bar. They look like post-war Steelcase furniture from a studio or classroom. Now compare that to the intentionally mismatched low back seats in the dining room. They could easily have been reclaimed from dormitory common areas. Independently they would be gauche – in this space they remain below the sight line allowing diners to focus on the open kitchen’s centerpiece hearth. It’s masterful. Interestingly, the opposing chair styles also neutralize the four-foot height difference, creating a unified through-line. Finally, the wood paneled bar, stacked firewood and discrete curtains add just enough warmth to protect against what would otherwise be a cold room.
In all candor, the most striking aesthetic in the entire experience though is Sarah, the ever-present Host with her severe bangs and signature red lipstick. She herself is a Haute Couture icon. She effortlessly manages the front door chaos, always smiling, never frazzled. With the seating chart as her canvas, you could easily imagine Mani as her personal design shop in Milan.
NOISE: Can Mani get loud? Define loud. When you combine tile floors with glass walls and exposed ceilings sound will carry. I consider it lively. It’s actually one of the charms. If you consider it too loud you can always walk your AARP card west a few blocks to the Earle, Ann Arbor’s version of the Regal Beagle, where 50 year old divorces go to slurp mussels and punish their liver. Too snarky? Sorry.
SIDE NOTE: Mani should consider adding translucent decals to the bottom three feet of dining room windows. It will prevent seated diners from accidentally flashing a crotch shot to sidewalk pedestrians who because of the raised dining room floor walk at exactly eye-to-crotch level.
SERVICE & SERVICEWARE
Now let’s consider service. Great service is no accident. It takes calculated intention and flawless execution. Mani’s service succeeds in a hundred little ways, all of which accomplishing one massively perfect objective. Let me explain.
On the art of dining…
I hate defined courses. The fact that tradition dictates the order of presentation imposes an arbitrary beginning, middle and end on your meal. It undermines the unique flow of independent social events. And let’s be clear, going to a restaurant is a social event.
I’ve also grown to hate the concept of entrees. I don’t want nor need one huge piece of protein accompanied by a plate-filling starch and an underwhelming after-thought of vegetable. I want to nosh on a cast of characters. I want to have a balanced meal that nourishes my spirit and my body.
And I want to share. What kitchen table has a separate entrée for each person? It’s not natural. That said, I hate “family style” restaurants. Yes, I relish the shared experience, but economic practicalities force compromises in meal selections. The result is a mediocre meal that accommodates all but thrills none. On the other end of the spectrum I hate the way tapas has been bastardized in the American dining experience. “Small plates” allow discovery and sharing but most restaurants confine the concept to one section of the menu. By default they become appetizers.
Wow. That’s a lot of hate. Here comes some love.
The French take credit for creating the worlds best cuisine. Perhaps it’s true. But let me be clear, the Italians have perfected eating.
Once again Mani is masterful in their design as well as execution. The menu has no beginning, middle or end. It presents a variety of inspired dishes, each highlighting a lusty ingredient, within loosely relevant groupings. Food arrives as it is prepared. And everything is presented in a fashion that makes sharing an assumption, not a novelty. The staff is trained to coach diners through their decisions in both cadence and scale. For mouth-breathing Mall-rat adults it may be intimidating. For me, it’s breathtaking. You achieve the shared experience of “family style” meal without the compromise. You’re also given the opportunity to let you body and mind call the shots on the fly rather than ordering everything at once only to find you’re too full for the last course or that plate-envy has you regretting your choices.
Here are a few additional service-related observations. As a guy who came of age working restaurants, I love studying the architecture of service. Mani, like Frita and many other restaurants at large, has opted to provide diners with large bottles of water at the table. Yes, the bottles are “pretty” but the real benefit is service – wait staff doesn’t have to leave your table to refill water glasses. It also eliminates the ubiquitous condensation-sweaty pitchers that never pour straight. I’ve also realized that it subtly limits the amount of ice used by the restaurant; a valuable tactic. And speaking of savvy tactics, check out the bathroom.
Have you seen the men’s room at the Chop House? Some well-intended soul thought it would be nice to provide real towels. In theory it is. Here’s the problem; men are pigs. Unless you staff the restroom with a dedicated attendant (more labor, cost), it takes but five minutes to look like a disheveled locker room. Mani has no towels at all – paper or otherwise. Don’t go hug a tree – I doubt it was a green decision. The benefit of no towels is no mess and no distraction during the dinner rush, which is invariably when the towel dispensers run out. Brilliant.
SOAPBOX NOTE ON SERVICE: When dining recently with someone I consider a good friend I learned that they ignorantly tip a meager 10%. I was shocked. I’m a 20-percenter. I grew-up in the service industry. Service people work for tips. If you’re reading this post you can afford to tip better. Let us all resolve to tip like a drunken sailor. Make it your goal to over-tip. Then go home, ring-up Kickstarter and donate to some cool art project. Pay it forward. Amen. I now return you to your normally scheduled programming.
We’re almost ready to talk about food, but first – a self-indulgent debate. Is it Northern or Southern Italian fare?
While praising Mani to a friend recently he asked whether it was Northern or Southern Italian fare. I’m accustomed to the terms yet I’ve never spent the energy to consider and clearly articulate a distinction. I had no clue how to answer. For a moment I associated the north with more dairy and cream sauce vs. southern being more tomato-based, but that was quickly an irrelevant oversimplification as I considered some conflicting Tuscan and Neapolitan dishes. So what’s the difference? To my amusement this friend was also unable to explain. He was hoping I, GastroBoy, would lend assistance. After doing some research on the topic, I found my favorite position statement buried in a discussion thread on Chowhound:
“…This fallacious nonsense has been foisted on the restaurant-going public. There is no such thing as "Southern" or "Northern" Italian cuisine. At best there is the cuisine of a particular Region in Italy (of which there are 20). In fact many so-called cuisines of Italy may be--and probably are--Province related--or even small areas of a particular Province. …The preponderance of "Italian" cuisine we find in NYC, even the best, can be described the cuisine of the "21st" Region, "NewYorkevese"
Yea - What she said. For the record, Mani is pretty eclectic-nouveau Italian with dishes representing many different Provinces. Now, to review the menu…
As soon as you meet your server instruct them to put in an order of pickled tomatoes and meatballs post haste. Both have quickly become hallmark dishes. The tomatoes are served with whipped ricotta, tapenade and sliced rustic toast. They combine to create a perfect, hearty amuse-bouche. The meatballs are epic. Small, single-bite “glory morsels” dressed in a passion-inducing tomato and pine nut gravy. Their warmth is in perfectly balanced contrast to the vinegar-based tomatoes. And like all meatballs should be, these baby’s are pork and beef.
Stage 2: At this point in the meal I’d suggest another hot dish. There are three in my standard rotation; the Pork Belly, newly added Brisket Stracatto or Cauliflower Soup. The pork belly and brisket are easy to imagine, but the Cauliflower Soup – you need to taste it to understand the depth of its flavor. It’s surprising and stunning. Alternatively, when dining with those who enjoy octopus, the charred Mani interpretation with arugula and lemon is top shelf [when it’s not over cooked].
Next stop – balance out that protein with some more vegetables. There are two strong options; Beets & Fennel or Prosciutto and Fig Salad served on a bed of spinach. Both rock – and while I will forever be a meat-eater, you can never get enough vegetables.
The centerpiece of the establishment is clearly the pizza. It’s a moral obligation. Though, to be honest, calling these dishes pizzas feels limiting. It doesn’t capture the magnitude of glory that the chefs have created. This is “Mario Batali Does Pizza.” The dough is light with a hint of sea salt but it’s not truly magic until it hits the wood-fired oven. The hot stone toasts the crust to an airy masterpiece with just the right bite. I’m such a fan of the pizza dough that the toppings seem like a second thought – though they too are amazing. I encourage you to sample many. If you need suggestions, try one of my three favorites: Red Onion & Pistachio, Prosciutto & Arugula or Buratta & Balsamic.
You need to understand I grew up in a family that frowned on ordering pasta at restaurants. We had pasta three nights a week. Why would you waste your dining opportunity on something that pedestrian? Still, I’ve now sampled every Mani pasta with exception of the Garganelli. These are not pedestrian pasta dishes and they stand on their own next to the masterpiece pizzas. If asked for a favorite I wouldn’t even hesitate. It’s the Papparadella, a broad fettucini style fresh noodle, married with Mani’s version of a meaty Bologenese. Brilliant in it’s execution.
OK – after all that fawning over the menu let me admit that there are a few items I do not encourage. Had either one been given a different name I’d be telling you how creative they are, but I struggle with their representation of sacred recipes.
Arancini: By definition arancini are rice-balls, covered in breadcrumbs and baked or fried. 90% of the arancini that I’ve encountered in life have a meatball center, or a uniform rice-meat interior. Most definitely a Sicilian invention, Arancini were a part of my youth. I was once told that the name comes from their shape, resembling an orange. Therein lies the problem. The arancini served at Mani are peas. Tiny, fried risotto balls. Are they tasty? Yes. Do they satisfy my expectation for arancini? Not even close. Don’t drop them, just rename them palline di riso. Then challenge the chef to create a truly impressive Arancini, served one per dish.
Caesar: The Mani interpretation of a Caesar Salad arrives with a cracked “farm egg” resting on top. The romaine, finely chopped, is drenched in young Parmesan. The farm egg is essentially a scotch egg and the runny yolk creates a unique, albeit non-Caesar dressing. I know someone who thinks it’s the quintessential Mani salad. I’m not impressed with it. All that said, any day you get to eat a white anchovy is a good day.
Here’s where I’m going to take a stand. The deserts at Mani, what few exist, are completely inadequate. I get the intention, and yes, their gelato is good – but some occasions warrant more than a scoop of gelato. Which brings us to the only other dessert – the Cannoli. In a restaurant that prides itself on authenticity, why do they serve the Epcot version of Cannoli? I like the small size, now find some real filling.
The meals at Mani meander through fields of glorious flavor. Why short-change the sweet ending? I watch other tables. It sure looks like no one’s ordering dessert. Which do you prefer, faster table turns or higher tickets? Here’s a thought – hire some young, hungry pastry chef. Have them create a signature almond cookie and automatically serve it with every cup of coffee you pour. Then find celebrated and sharable items like sfinci or pizzelles and make them spectacular.
Final thought on dessert…can we all agree that Tiramisu is gross? Who wants to eat soggy anything? Thank you Mani for leaving Tiramisu to the Olive Garden crowd.
You can’t have a great meal without great drink and Mani does not disappoint.
Wine: The name Osteria implies a place of wine and simple food. One would expect the wine list at such an establishment to stand on it’s own – and Mani’s does. I applaud the restraint in scope. Mani is efficient at providing rich choice without creating optional paralysis. Now for the apology, I’m horrible at remembering vintages. If you’re looking for suggestions ask your server. They’re entirely capable. I can tell you that I’ve had a tannin-rich Borolo, a passionately dark Sonoma Cab and archetypal Chianti. And while I did not partake, I once witnessed two friends relish their Pinot Grigio.
Now stop for one minute and consider this…is it possible for an ‘A Scene’ restaurant to survive serving only wine? If it were, Mani is the place with Cojones to pull it off. Alas, this is the Midwest and the homies need their beer and cocktails. Ergo…
Beer: I’ll be frank – this is one part of Mani I simply don’t get. The draft list is a disjointed collection of confused intentions. I’ve always been able to find something drinkable, but in a state that ranks #3 in the nation for craft brewers, why not leverage the local expertise. And Budweiser in bottles? What distributor forced you into that? Clearly this is no beer garden, but may I suggest Mani become the downtown showcase for Wolverine Brewing? The premium lager is a universal pleaser and the more charactered varietals are stunning. Imagine pairing a brown lager with the Cauliflower Soup. Think about it.
Cocktails: Here’s an area for development as Mani matures. First the compliments…straight pours ordered on the “rocks” are sometimes served on a single impressive “rock,” a 2-inch square of ice. It’s cleaver and stylish. Kudos too for stocking fine versions of Lemoncello and Grappa. Now the constructive critique… I find the signature cocktails reaching, heavy on alcohol and light on flavor. Your bartenders are skilled. If you’re going to make a name for yourself with the mixologist community let me suggest you focus on drinks you’d be served on the Amalfi Coast, perhaps find a way to make Campari appealing.
So there you have it. My mediation on Mani Osteria. Ann Arbor’s newest “it” scene. Did I get it right? Before I leave allow me to pass on one last piece of advise about Mani…Bo Schembechler had a very clear position on athletes going out at night. He said, “nothing good happens after 11:00 [PM].” After my last trip to Mani I’ve adapted Bo’s advice to this, “nothing good happens after two bottles.” You may, hypothetically, fall in Love with a beautiful Cabernet. You may, again hypothetically, indulge that love generously. Head my advice. Don’t order a third. And for god’s sake – if you do, don’t chase said third bottle with grappa. Nothing good happens after two bottles.
But I digress. What’cha think? Have you been to Mani? Are you the Mayor? Did I nail it on the head – or totally inflate mediocrity? Hit the comment button and type something – damn it!