Burning for more

. May 18, 2012.

Adam Baru’s original plan was to open a pizzeria, with a high-powered wood-fired oven and a small selection of cold antipasti.  That plan didn’t survive contact with his wood-burning oven experts.  “100 seats?  You’ll kill yourselves.  There’s a reason pizzerias like that are 50 seats, tops.”  Having already signed a lease on the building, Baru had to change his plans drastically.  He went with two wood-burning ovens (the second one kept at a lower temperature and used for non-pizza items, but capable of being fired up if there’s a huge pizza demand) and a much more extensive menu so the load on the pizza infrastructure wasn’t so high.  This is what tech startups call a “pivot,” a fast change in direction to accommodate changing circumstances, and we should be glad it happened – because if it hadn’t, a lot of our favorite dishes wouldn’t be there.

A veteran of Chefs Morimoto and Garces (both familiar to Iron Chef fans), Baru had lived on the East Coast and in Chicago before he and his wife decided to move back to Ann Arbor to be closer to family.  Though his restaurant experience was high-end Japanese and Mexican, he’d fallen in love with Italy’s food on his visits there – especially the pizza, made in wood-burning ovens.  He wanted to open the kind of place he’d love to go to every day, and felt that going high-end in today’s economy wasn’t the way to do it in Ann Arbor.  While Mani certainly isn’t low-end, “you can have a pizza and a beer for under $20, and that’s not bad,” Baru points out.  In fairness, though, you can also spend a lot more.

Part of what distinguishes Mani from other restaurants is the fact that everything’s handmade; items they don’t make in-house (e.g. preserved meats, bread, gelato, and cannoli shells) are sourced from other small producers.  Another distinguishing factor, though, are those 900°F ovens.  This is extreme cooking; things can char on the outside before they’re done on the inside, and chefs have to learn timing (as well as not to wear metal bracelets if they’re reaching into the oven).  That heat lets you do things you otherwise couldn’t,  like rapidly cook a big pot of mussels to perfect tenderness, or char octopus chunks while keeping them tender, and finishing many non-pasta dishes.

At the helm of the kitchen is talented local chef Brendan McCall, whose last restaurant venture was the sadly lamented Everyday Lunch.  While Mani’s menu is a lot more stable than Everyday Lunch (where the menu was different each day), we can expect it to evolve with the seasons, based on customer feedback (they’ve already increased portions) and whenever they come up with new and exciting ideas to try.

The setting is simple and sparse, with a big-city vibe.  It continues in the big-city vein by also being, even with the recent sound abatement measures, pretty loud.  But what’s really important is the food, so here are some of our favorites:

Antipasti

Pickled tomatoes – These whole skinned cherry tomatoes, lightly pickled in a perfectly-balanced blend of vinegar, spices, and herbs, are as delicious as they are beautiful. This item’s made enough of a splash that posters to a local food email list were trying to reverse engineer it. While Chef Brendan swore us to secrecy on specifics (and didn’t say anything about proportions), we can tell you that the ingredient list is more complex than you probably think.
 

Chicken Liver Mousse – Rich and smooth, a treat for paté lovers. Topped with a bit of chopped pistachio and served with mellow roasted garlic purée that is delicious all by itself.  You’ll need extra grilled bread with this one.
Salmon Crudo – Delicate raw salmon served with fava beans and preserved lemon, suprêmed orange, and chiffonaded mint. Salmon and citrus are a great pair, and the addition of the unusual preserved lemon adds a fresh twist.

Pork belly – This cut is very “in” right now, so you’d be forgiven for passing this by on the assumption that it’s just a nod to the trend.  You’d also be missing out. It’s served perfectly cooked with a sweet marmalade sauce in a rectangular cast iron tray.

Charred Octopus – Fresh octopus (and they work hard to find sources for fresh octopus) charred on the outside and tender in the middle, with lemon and arugula offering a subtle counterpoint. Joe’s favorite.

Mussels – A cast iron pot filled with mussels in a white wine and garlic sauce and served with toasted house bread for mopping up the sauce. The sauce was very balanced, with neither the wine, garlic, or citrus flavors over powering the other. And since they’re baked in that unusually hot wood-fired oven, they’re very tender. 

Salads
 

Seafood Panzanella – Cucumber, onion, red cabbage, and fennel toasted croutons tossed with little tiny squid and mussels, dressed with an orange citronette. Marvelously light. The fennel lovers in our group really enjoyed this one!  

Pizzas

Unsurprisingly, Mani offers a range of toppings on their wood-fired pizzas.  On all the pizzas, the dough is light, creating an airy crust with beautiful char spots from the oven.  If there are only a few of you, and you know you’re ordering pizza, it’s fun to sit at the counter so you can watch them being made.

Sausage and Peppers – The sausage and peppers pizza comes with smoked scamorza cheese and a tangy chile pesto sauce, and the heat of the oven keeps everything seared instead of mushy.  Some in our group really liked this, while others found it on the ordinary side.

Tartufo – The Tartufo pizza wowed everyone. Rich, chewy truffles, with an earthy flavor even better than meat, blended with Taleggio cheese and with a soft cooked egg baked on top.  Smash and smear the egg across the top of the pizza to add a glaze that ties the whole thing together. To die for.

Large Plates

Whole Roasted Branzino (European seabass) – The extraordinarily hot oven roasts the skin to a crisp, lightly-charred perfection quickly enough to leave the inside moist and tender. It was de-boned (so we could enjoy the simple pleasure of the fish without having to disarm it first), split lengthwise, and stuffed with a generous mix of lightly pickled onion, fennel, and fresh herbs.

Pastas

Mani Osteria makes all their pasta in-house everyday and cooks it to a perfect al dente. The pastas are very rich, hearty, and flavorful, so in some cases the small portion will be just right, especially when accompanied by appetizers.

Garganelli – Mushroom lovers will enjoy this mushroom ragu over tubular pasta with brussels sprouts (not too many!), caramelized onions, a hint of garlic and fresh herbs. Deep mushroom flavor, and outstanding presentation.  The pasta’s made every morning by wrapping thin sheets around a dowel.

Fiondette – Morsels of pork combined with asparagus and wild mushrooms. A bit of lemon peel brightens the flavor. One of our group called this dish “pork concentrate” because each tiny morsel of pork had such a strong flavor that every bite had as much “essence of pork” as an entire chop.

Tagliatelle – With trumpet mushrooms and pancetta in a carbonara sauce, this dish split our group; it was so rich that not everyone liked it.  Those who did, however, enjoyed the generous portion of trumpet mushrooms and excellent pancetta.  This one is best in the smaller size, but as they say, if this is the kind of thing you like, you’ll like this a lot.

Desserts

The dessert cannoli plate is a nice finish, but ask about specials. On the night we visited, we were all wowed by the Peach Crespelle, crepes topped with peaches pan-roasted in a bit of butter and wine and with sherry whipped cream and chiffonade mint.  As one put it, “Do not share this dessert; everyone must have their own to maintain peace.”

Lisa and Joe have been blogging about food in the Ann Arbor area (and points beyond)since 2004. Check them out at www.kitchenchick.com.

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