Manteca: London’s most exciting new restaurant opening

·6 min read
 (Molly Codyre)
(Molly Codyre)

I realised at the end of our meal at Manteca that one half of the duo behind this amazing restaurant was David Carter of Smokestak fame. Suddenly, everything about Manteca made sense. Not necessarily because there’s any culinary overlap (Smokestak is an American-leaning BBQ restaurant while Manteca is Italian with contributing wider European influences), but rather because both restaurants confidently fill two gastronomic gaps in London.

Manteca began as a pop up of sorts, with temporary stints throughout Central London, before taking over this former Pizza Express site. You wouldn’t guess at the location’s former life churning out sub-par pizza lauded by the masses and Prince Andrew. They’ve done a wonderful job of the fit out, embracing a muted, largely blonde-wood colour palette that brings the focus central - letting the kitchen take centre stage and leaving the rest of the space almost entirely impersonal. Although, they could have kept the original decor, not changed things a dime and I still think this place would be swamped on a Saturday lunchtime because, really, you’re not here for a schooling in interior design. You’re here for the damn good food.

Manteca has influences from other London restaurants - there’s a bit of St John in the nose-to-tail approach, there’s a dash of Trullo in there, a hint of Brawn - but it feels largely individual and very much itself. This is Italian food for people who like to complain that Italian food is boring. Especially because I wouldn’t really call it Italian. I would say Manteca makes Italian-accented London food. It is exciting, it’s innovative, the menu features a selection of impeccable pasta (more on that later) but it doesn’t take it too seriously, and that’s what ultimately impresses.

The restaurant is also, in many ways, an exercise in oxymorons. The menu feels long yet short, meat-heavy yet vegetarian-friendly, playful but serious. There are multiple courses that all seem to dance around the pasta section - preceding it, following it, but inevitably designed to complement it. All of the charcuterie is made in-house - I was dining with a pescetarian friend so sadly didn’t get to try any this time, but from what I saw around me, it’s a riotous success. This is recommended to be ordered with the focaccia which I had already been eyeing up as big slabs of it were marched about the place, and it certainly lived up to expectations; pillowy, dense, slathered in olive oil and salt, this is one of the best in town.

There is a lengthy selection of small plates, filled with the kind of things you’d want to eat immediately. The puntarelle alla romana puts every other green to shame - partly thanks to the vinaigrette it was slathered in. The crunchy stalks are thinly sliced and seemingly bathing in a creamy, lip-smackingly acidic sauce pepped up thanks to the addition of a few punchy anchovies. I have recently come to the conclusion that acid is one of my favourite flavour profiles, and this plate of food well and truly sang a siren song to this part of me. It was also refreshingly simple, celebrating good produce and undeniably simple flavour combinations. I had to slight my pescetarian dining partner on one element; the pig skin ragu. Having read about it before I arrived, I couldn’t look past it on the menu, and boy did it deliver. The product of a desire to take advantage of every part of the animal, the ragu is infused with the fatty richness of the skin, but balanced thanks, in part, to the acidity of the tomatoes. An aerated canoe of pig skin on top was almost comically large, but made the perfect vessel for the deep umami of the ragu.

Pig skin ragu (Molly Codyre)
Pig skin ragu (Molly Codyre)

Back to meat-free options; there was a crostino covered in house-made ricotta, juicy wedges of citrus and olive oil that was an absolute knockout. It’s one of those dishes you order and assume it will be nice but don’t expect it to hit any special notes - this one did. There were other items not ordered but lusted after; nduja steamed mussels, fennel sausage with quince mostarda (this one in particular will be first on my list when I return with someone a little more carnivorous) and pig head fritti which seems like necessary consumption if not just due to the bust of its cousin hanging outside the front door.

Some people might think pasta is overrated, I personally am a big fan of the stuff. I also agree it can be hard to make pasta particularly exciting, so when someone manages to do that it feels even better. I could say Manteca comes into its own in the pasta dishes, but this wouldn’t be entirely true, because I would have been absolutely content eating my way through the small plates and not tasting the pasta at all. But that would be a shame when it’s this good. The brown crab cacio e pepe takes London’s favourite pasta dish and remixes it. There’s an extra hit of depth, a dash of additional saltiness, a moreishness to the sauce that will have you scraping up every last drop. The duck ragu was flawless; the sauce fitting itself into every little crevice and fold of the silky fazzoletti, while duck fat pangrattato offered a satisfying crunch. Christ, even the salad was good; salty, lemony, a little dash of olive oil. It seems almost rude to make a leaf taste that lovely.

Brown crab cacio e pepe (Molly Codyre)
Brown crab cacio e pepe (Molly Codyre)

Carter’s Smokestak experience and Chris Leach’s time at Pitt Cue are most prominently seen in the final selection of dishes - the finale, if you will. There is grilled shorthorn beef, and pork chop with an almost incinerated cabbage. We had to stop after the pasta having gotten far too excited by the first two courses (and also, the aforementioned pescetarian), but that seems to be the beauty about eating here and that oxymoron of a menu - I could come back and have an entirely different meal, but one that would feel no less wonderful, or no less synchronised with what I ate this time around. There’s also a chocolate tart I have been regretting not ordering ever since I visited.

What struck me about Manteca is it felt like I was eating at a restaurant that I didn’t even realise I was missing. It seems to have almost manifested itself as the exact representation of all the tiny things I find lacking in other places. I can see myself stopping by for a weekend lunch with visiting friends, booking a larger table for special occasions or simply sidling in for a plate of that cacio e pepe when I happen to be in the area. And that, when you get down to it, is what makes this restaurant so good; I’m sure it’s about to be written into the list of London classics.