Why I say goodbye to star ratings in my restaurant reviews
Hoping to emphasize Manina’s cuisine, “we didn’t want the interior to be too busy,” says the chef, who credits his wife with looking understated but thoughtful. Piedmont blues, the main background music, contributes to a sense of place.
You’ll want a drink. Benkert owns the Bluebird Cocktail Room in Baltimore and previously served as bar manager at the soon-to-reopen Woodberry Kitchen, also in Charm City. Part of Manina’s history, the part about promoting local ingredients, is revealed in some of the spirits on display. Appalachian Daisy, which drinks like a mezcal margarita, relies on smoked apple brandy from Baltimore Spirits Co. While the elegant Bee’s Knees gin is Barr Hill from Vermont, the honey for the sweetener comes from a queen breeder in Baltimore.
You’ll also want something “quick and small”, depending on the menu, to go with the liquid treats. Vegetables and dip sounds like a routine, but it makes such an impression that one of us is trying to recreate the board for his book club next week. Baby scarlet carrots, leafy cucumber slices, and bright red Jimmy Nardello peppers tickle you with their colors, and the dip — fermented ricotta swirled with minced shallots and rosemary — encourages you to finish your veggies.
A more spectacular example of region and season brings together a cornucopia of earthy beets, sliced apples, Italian plums, red bell peppers, clouds of ricotta – a farmer’s market, really – and hints of thanks to micro-cilantro, all the more brilliant for a lemon vinaigrette. Citrus in the Mid-Atlantic? The chef, who remembers customers bringing their own lemons to the uncompromising Woodberry Kitchen, makes concessions when it makes sense.
Why Manina? For one thing, the Benkerts already have a bar—something for adults. The couple, parents of two young children, felt something more family-friendly suited their lives in 2022. The chef says “manina” is also a nickname for “a small child who helps in the kitchen”.
The same charming waiter who directs you to something sublime in a Nick and Nora glass also tells you that “much of what we serve comes from our oven” fueled with cherry and oak wood. This includes fish cakes. “Crab is overpriced,” says Benkert, 33, a Rockville native whose restaurant career has mostly found it front of house. The chef, at the forefront of the hearth, loves the idea of serving up abundant, overbearing and delicious Chesapeake blue catfish.
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Her recipe starts with fillets poached in buttermilk and butter and gains flavor with sweet onion, cilantro and home-baked breadcrumbs. The end product is a couple of delicate fish patties, crispy on the bottom and served with a tartar sauce that gets its sparkle from chopped bread and butter pickles. Try the small plate with a petinay from the Wine Collective in Baltimore, a beautiful marriage of petit manseng and chardonnay. (What isn’t Maryland or Virginia on the wine list is from Italy.)
The menu’s Italian accents are a nod to Caroline Benkert’s Sicilian heritage. The owners intended to open the restaurant primarily as a pizzeria; the pandemic and the lack of manpower have changed the notion, explains Paul Benkert.
Pizzas made from local flour come in half a dozen flavors, ‘coppa and watercress’ leading the pack with grease-streaked, house-dried meat and peppery greens on a base that doesn’t subscribe to a philosophy of pizza. Even his staff asked Benkert what style they served. “We make our own pizza,” he says. If you like a hand-rolled crust that’s thin, crispy but also chewy, this is where you want to park.
The menu is short. Besides the pizza, there are only two main dishes, the chicken and the lasagna, both aptly offered in half and full portions. The chicken is air-dried for a day before roasting in a cast-iron skillet, resulting in blistered skin that crackles at the touch of a knife. A cilantro gremolata turns the starter into something special. The lasagna is constructed from hand-rolled pasta, ricotta, mozzarella and crushed tomatoes: a simple comforter finished with chopped basil.
Not all dishes set off charm alarms. Deviled eggs are simple to eat despite the bacon chow chow poured over them, and the clever combination of smoked wild swordfish, grated onions and whipped ricotta on a pizza plays up the cheese at the expense of what’s meant to be. a game over a lox bagel. The slices sag from the weight of too much ricotta. Manina also opened without a phone number, a detail the owners say they want to change.
Except for its cool interior, however, the restaurant gives the impression that the Alta Strada has merged with the Dabney. It’s a farm-to-table retreat that doesn’t find it necessary to blast the theme with a long staff spiel or pitchfork on the wall.
As Benkert says of the area where he cooks, “there’s so much good stuff there now.”
Tart! So few restaurants offer it. Manina is the happy exception. A week is raspberry, a jammy pleasure. More recently, sliced apples have lifted the tender roof of whole wheat bread flour and butter. Benkert primarily uses sorghum to sweeten the filling and give the cooking spice feel. (Your mind might register the cinnamon, though there’s none in the pie, served with lavender whipped cream.) Similarly, the maple butterscotch pudding relies on maple syrup. maple for its deep flavor. The kitchen spruces up the confectionery with jewel-like raspberries and a chewy granola bar that’s not much more than oats and maple syrup and is very good on its own.
With a few dinners under my belt, Manina isn’t as hard to anchor as I thought. Lovely nails just about everything.
3290 Bennett Creek Ave., Frederick, Md. No phone. maninaurbana.com. Open: indoor and outdoor dining and takeout (limited) for lunch from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Price: Appetizers $8 to $26 (for three homemade deli meats), pizzas and entrees $19 to $60 (for whole chicken). Sound control: 68 decibels / Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers to entry/ADA compliant restrooms. Pandemic Protocols: Staff are not required to wear masks or be vaccinated.