Thursday, 17 March 2011

Restaurant Review: Chez Manny

Chez Manny is as homely as it sounds, leaving you feeling satisfied inspite of a few low points. Here's the full restaurant review originally written for my South London Press column.

Chez Manny doesn’t scream and shout about being a good restaurant. It just gets on with it. And it’s been doing so for around nine years.

The restaurant’s tucked away at the quiet end of Clapham Junction station on Battersea High Street. Though the road has a few noteworthy establishments, such as the excellent Galapagos deli, it’s fair to say it’s seen better days. Chez Manny stands out not only because it’s smarter than most of its neighbours, but because it looks so quaintly French with its overhanging canopy and a few outside tables.
Though there can’t be much by way of passing trade, on a weekday evening when all around is quiet, there’s a definite buzz about the place. The warm welcome we get by Manny on entering is no doubt key to this. He treats us like instant friends as we are seated and talked through the menu. Manny’s pre-restaurant background includes a successful career as a head butler serving the Queen amongst others, and his charm and attention to service is immediately apparent.

The menu is undeniably and proudly French, but as Manny points out, he simply puts on the menu what he wants to put on it – there’s no strict limitation to traditionally French dishes. A special of absinthe cured gravlax is a fine example of this.

We enjoy the fresh bread and butter provided as we await our starters, though notice the lack of side plates. The restaurant’s convivial, almost homely approach allows them to get away with it, and I imagine it’s a deliberate decision rather than an oversight, but it’s still far from ideal.

Thankfully there’s nothing lacking with the starters, though. The salmon gravlax (£5.50) comes in thick, meaty slices and benefits from a deep cure giving a salty kick that’s alleviated by the absinthe tang. It’s a unique take on a classic and it works very well, the absinthe giving a French wink to a Nordic staple. A terrine selection (£5.50) boasts a perfectly quaking, melt-in-the-mouth texture. An apricot studded pork variety is a highlight, though another suffers from an over-riding dried herb flavour which detracts from the superior meaty backbone.

A main billed as chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce (£13.50) is surprisingly un-creamy considering, but no poorer for it. An impressive selection of wild mushrooms are allowed to shine through, and make a refreshingly simple accompaniment to the chicken breast – which is a perfect example of why good quality ingredients should be left to speak for themselves.

Though there’s plenty to tempt on the menu, for me the ‘Chez Manny Cassoulet’ (£15.50) is an easy choice. Aside from the fact that it’s the king dish of French cooking, surely any dish which incorporates a restaurant’s name is going to be a good one. There’s no disappointment. Hefty chunks of ham hock, Toulouse sausage and confit duck nestle with white beans in a rich tomato sauce scented with rosemary and a little garlic. It’s a big bowlful, and we’re told that you have to be “as amazing as us” in order to finish it. I could go on about how succulent and meltingly tender the meat was, or how robustly flavoured the sauce was but to simply say there was none left at the end would probably suffice.

Desserts of chocolate profiteroles (£5), filled with ice-cream as is traditionally French, and a warm rosemary infused tarte tatin (£6.50) are a fitting end to the meal – as generous as the hospitality. Manny takes pleasure in recommending wines to accompany these and the other dishes. The matches are spot on and inexpensive, though the wine list covers the whole spectrum in terms of both style and price.

The food at Chez Manny is reason enough to visit, even if it may be a bit of a trek for many. What will make you keep going back again and again, though, is the warm welcome, convivial atmosphere and friendly service. It’s a proper local restaurant, even if you don’t actually live very locally at all.

Chez Manny, 145/149 Battersea High Street, SW11 3JS

>> originally published in South London Press

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