The chickens. The garden. The giant rose sculpture. The beautiful industrial space. These are the things you're likely to have heard about if anyone has told you about Manuela, the restaurant that opened in October in the Arts District downtown. "How's the food?" I asked a friend who was in the midst of explaining Manuela's live chicken enclosure, which is part of a bucolic, raised-bed organic garden adjacent to the restaurant.
"No one ever talks about the food," she said. This isn't a sign that the food is bad — if it were terrible, people probably would talk about it. Food is, perhaps, the least important thing about Manuela. There's so much else that's so perfectly right for its time and place that it barely matters what you're eating.
Manuela is the project of Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the Swiss art powerhouse couple who run a series of international galleries — with art collector and department store magnate Ursula Hauser — under the name Hauser & Wirth. They've partnered with chef Wes Whitsell, a Texas native who has worked at a number of Los Angeles and New York restaurants, including Osteria La Buca and Blair's in Silver Lake. Manuela is part of Hauser & Wirth's newest gallery project (here called Hauser Wirth & Schimmel thanks to a curatorial partnership with ex-MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel). It's located inside the restored Globe Mills flour processing plant, a series of late–19th and early–20th century buildings that have been transformed into a sprawling, mixed-use gallery complex.
There's something genuinely magical about stepping in off the street, into the antique warehouse and down a wide hallway, and discovering an expansive space, open to the sky, with Manuela on one end, spilling out into the courtyard. Through an arching open doorway on another side is the raised-bed organic garden and the chicken coop, which is nicer and bigger than many apartments in the area. Those are some lucky-ass chickens.
Manuela's glowy, tucked-away feel evokes New Orleans or Paris or another city that is much better at street life and hidden nooks, and the wondrous place where those two things meet. If you've ever wandered through an old wrought-iron gate in one of those cities, and come across a luminous bar full of effortlessly sophisticated people eating and drinking, well, Manuela has some of that same enchanted energy. It's kind of indoors, and kind of outdoors, and the floor around the brass-and-marble outer bar is made of old cobblestones. A nearby private dining room features a mural by Raymond Pettibon, best known for his album art for punk rockers Black Flag. In the middle of the open-air industrial courtyard, that giant metal rose sculpture made by artist Isa Genzken rises from the floor and stretches toward the sky. As the gallery's exhibitions change, you'll likely encounter other arresting works of art on your way to the hostess stand. It's all quite overwhelming and affecting. Did I mention there's a garden with rare-breed chickens?
So, what of the food? Well, there are $10 hushpuppies. They're served with molasses butter and are made from antebellum cornmeal that costs $5 a pound, and they're hot and crisp and taste of corn, but still. I've filed them away for joke fodder the next time I see my Southern in-laws: "Guess what the artsy folks in Los Angeles eat? Ten-dollar hushpuppies!"
There's a Southern accent on much of Whitsell's menu, and the restaurant is in some ways an ode to the chef's Texas upbringing. The best way to eat here is to graze on smaller things. Order the "redneck" platter, which includes biscuits and tangy pimento cheese and feathery country ham and something called "eggs aioli." (They're basically deviled eggs in cheat form: a hard-boiled egg with a dollop of tangy aioli on top, which conjures the taste of deviled eggs but is likely far easier to assemble.) The egg salad with thin sourdough toast crisps is quite lovely, and the vegetable side dishes, such as thin-cut delicata squash with brown butter, can be collected to round out a meal of nibbles.
One of the few almost-bargains available on this menu is the $14 stone crab claws, which come cracked just so, the tender chunky meat ready to be gobbled. An oyster fork or other implement to help pry the crab from its shell might have been helpful, but we made do with fingers.
I had less success with larger dishes, particularly a cornmeal-dusted catfish that was watery and bland and did nothing to relieve that fish from its soggy, muddy-tasting reputation. A bacon-wrapped elk loin was very rare and almost disconcertingly tender — I assumed it was the product of a sous vide preparation, given its uniform bloody softness, but the chef says there's no sous vide at play. I'd also like to take issue with the description on the dessert menu of apple and walnut "cobbler." If cobbler were just a bowl full of warm, cubed apple tossed with the crunchy bits that are found on top of fruit crisps, well, that would be sad. It tastes pretty good, but it ain't cobbler.
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Like many of the restaurants I've come across lately where the atmosphere is so perfectly engineered it's basically a work of art, service does not necessarily follow suit. You'll need to ask that your food be paced, otherwise your table will very quickly be crowded with everything you ordered, and the meal will feel rushed and short and expensive for such a brief experience. That is, unless the place is packed (it often is), in which case you can easily sit for long stretches without the wine you ordered, without your table being cleared, without much attention of any kind at all. These servers are smart and attractive and affable, but I'm not sure how well they're being managed. One night I spied our waitress, who was obviously in the weeds, tending to another table in the far corner of the dining room, as far from what should have been her section as possible. That's the stuff waitress stress dreams are made of. (I know because I still have them.) We finished our bottle of wine, which despite being ordered at the beginning of the meal hadn't been poured until after the entrees arrived, and tried to enjoy ourselves as the minutes crawled by. It wasn't too hard. Manuela is a pretty nice place to linger, even if you're doing so because no one is paying attention to your table.
And that's kind of the point, honestly. Whitsell has a lot of potential as a chef, and I'll be interested to see how his cooking progresses over time. But the fact is, Manuela is a mighty success despite the food and service issues. In fact, its biggest problem might be that the cocktails are too sweet, because it's the type of place you really want to come for drinks and bask in the glow of the incredible space and the hum of promise this restaurant delivers. It's the promise of what the Arts District is becoming, where magical spaces exist that combine art and food and drink and nightlife and architecture. And also chickens.
MANUELA | Two stars | 907 E. Third St., downtown | (323) 849-0480 | manuela-la.com | Lunch: Wed.-Fri., 11.30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Dinner: Wed.-Thu. & Sun., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. | Plates, $8-$43 | Full bar | Valet and street parking