I was led by the nose to Manteca. Not my own nose, you understand, but a stuffed pig snout, beautifully glazed, fire-roasted, placed pertly on a plate and disseminated over the internet. A kind of gateway drug to nose-to-tail cooking and probably the most ’grammable dish of 2021. I arrived at this smart, new, bare-oak-and-white-brick shrine to modern Italian, bellied up to the bar and demanded the snout in a loud voice.
“Sorry. We’re getting them ready, but there are none this evening.” I had wanted so very badly to slip my tongue up its nostril and had allowed anticipation to build to a dangerously explosive level. But I’m not a man to hold a grudge.
I settled for the house-made mortadella with reasonably good grace. It arrived swiftly, draped over the plate like “The Death of Chatterton” executed in charcuterie. They sliced it as thin as lace. Nothing like the rubbery flaps you might buy in a supermarket.
It was soft, almost moussey, with tiny air bubbles. Aerated. Sort of sparkling spam. Also, it’s fair to say, a pretty good consolation prize when you can’t get a snout.
It looked lonely so I bought it some puntarelle alla Romana. This is a salad vegetable on the chicory/celery spectrum that’s shredded, soaked and then dressed with oil, garlic, anchovies and chilli, poured over like gravy. Nothing prepares a tongue trained in northern Europe for that kind of mugging. It’s absolutely outrageous. The vegetable element is fresh and light but, let’s face it, just a phenomenal transmission vector for garlic breath.
In a weak attempt to kettle my abdomen back into my trousers, I hadn’t consumed bread since Boxing Day, so I confess my judgment may have been warped, but it seemed to me that a small pillow of fresh flatbread might not be catastrophic. It turned up looking like one of those science-project volcanoes. Taller than one might expect, with a roughly thumbed-in caldera, spilling over with a hot magma of cream and chopped clams. I know, right? Cream and clams. It tasted like the reason why, something like 4,000 years ago, Neolithic humans invented bread. Maybe it was some sort of witticism by the chef to serve it on greaseproof paper. I wanted the grease. I should have packed a funnel.
There was pig-head fritti, like a panéed and deep-fried pig-face Mars bar, which was served with citrus-dressed celery leaves and pilacca hot sauce to cut the richness — a halfhearted attempt that failed brilliantly. I fell on it the second the plate hit the bar, bursting with boiling, fatty, cartilaginous oozings and a sure ticket to the Greed Ward.
As I was becoming uncalibrated and gross in my public pork lusts, the chef intervened with tortellini in brodo rather than a full pasta course, which would have seen me rolled out of the building on a gurney. In a small earthenware bowl, a scattering of handcrafted pasta belly buttons (look it up) in a broth so pure yet complex that I shall return to Manteca when I am near death that I may be cured.
Tortellini in brodo © Scott Grummett
I reached deep into my soul for the strength to pack in a main course and still believe I was wise to do so. It wasn’t just the Creedy Carver duck breast, seared au point and served with a fennelly sausage made of the remains of the creature, it was the jus — concentrated just enough and laced with shallots to counterpoint the meat. I’ve never experienced chervil root before either. It looks like a Jerusalem artichoke, roasts to a smushable paste and is so unexpectedly sweet that it dresses the rich meat as convincingly as a red currant jelly.
There were good-looking desserts, but the affogato allo zabaglione drew me. The young barman thought it was the naffest thing on the menu. I, however, remembered the restaurant I went to on that first, rain-slicked night I arrived in London. If you’re old enough to remember the Pollo Bar on Old Compton Street, you might also recall finishing with a ferocious pre-first-wave espresso and “zabaglione” made by cooking beaten egg and marsala under the steam wand of the coffee machine. I wandered out into the Shoreditch night, awash in joy, satiety and nostalgia.
I’m going back for the snout.
49-51 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3PT; 020 7033 6642; mantecarestaurant.co.uk
Follow Tim on Twitter @TimHayward and email him at email@example.com
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first.