If you’ve been searching in vain for the perfect date night restaurant, consider your quest fulfilled with the re-opening of Manchego on Santa Monica’s Main Street.
A scant two blocks from the ocean, the new Manchego feels welcoming and warm with dark brown furnishings and a gorgeous blue-tiled wall. Candles alight in dramatic wrought iron light fixtures, fresh yellow flowers and a general charm all conspire to put you in relaxation mode.
Serving Spanish tapas, owner and executive chef Ash Amir found a great love for the food and culture of Spain when he learned to cook there as a young man. The love translates directly into the food and wine list, which nearly thrums with passion.
The menu’s little plates are so enticing on the page that it’s difficult to decide what to order. Luckily, our waitress, Ashley Kaikkonen, talked us through with personal favorites and tips from Amir. I definitely recommend going with a few people so you can try lots of things and hang out on the cozy patio, which is open on weekends.
I went with two friends, and we started with the grilled zucchini, feta cheese and caramelized pecan appetizer. The lightly charred zucchini, speared and stuffed with the other two ingredients, worked perfectly. The slight cinnamon aftertaste was unique, with a nod to North African cuisine that I registered throughout the evening.
Another great small plate was the goat cheese en pan tostado with honey, figs and truffle oil. The play of flavors, from sweet and salty to the truffle's muskiness, was a terrific amuse-bouche.
Perhaps the favorite of the tapas ended up being the crispy prosciutto topped burrata, fig jam tostado. Amir makes the burrata in house with his chef Viviana Hernandez, and it is remarkable. While technically a mozzarella, fresh burrata is nothing like the string cheese we Americans are used to. The Manchego version is as creamy as a soft goat cheese with a mild, yet slightly tangy flavor that is completely addictive.
The mozzarella wasn’t the only dish we fought over, however; the calamari had an extremely unusual (at least to me) flavor profile, combining tender pieces of meat with a savory ink sauce, avocado and basil. Bread was definitely in order to sop up every drop of the gravy.
Also amazing are the Brussels sprouts (that’s right!). Cooked to perfection with mushrooms, bacon and a vinagre de jerez (sherry vinegar), even those with little affection for the famously disliked vegetable will have a hard time eating them at a moderate pace. The leaves are a little crispy, and the acidic sauce brightens the whole dish.
You can’t eat Spanish food without wine, and Manchego’s options are splendid. There are fruity red and white sangrias, refreshing on a warm night. There are also Spanish wines on offer, like the Pago de los Capellanos (red) and the Fillaboa Alberino (white). Both are moderately priced by the glass or bottle and round out a complete Mediterranean experience.
Oh, and don’t forget the churros. Hot and crispy, the pastry comes with a dark chocolate dipping sauce and is de-licious!
Savor the memory of the meal as you take a stroll on the nearby sand and contemplate the sea. It may be the closest you get to a European vacation all summer, and it might just be sufficient.
Manchego is located at 2510 Main Street, #B in Santa Monica. For more information call 310.450.3900 or visit manchegosm.com.