After the success of the £17 Michelin star takeaway burger, and lobster rolls, Simon Martin Chef Patron of Mana in Ancoats, Manchester, is returning to his time spent cooking in Tulum to bring at-home diners a taste of Mexico, Michelin style.
It’s been a year of ‘at home’ meals and whilst I’ve missed (and I mean, sorely, heart-achingly missed) dining in restaurants, it’s been a treat to be able to eat restaurant quality food at home and we’ve had some brilliant meals from the likes of The Creameries, Almost Famous, Bundobust, Six by Nico, and Tostada, all of which have been cleverly crafted for those of us who mainly spend our weekends (and, let’s be honest, our wages) eating out.
For a chef who’s Noma trained and renowned for his Nordic style and influences, Tulum seems a world away from this but then the pandemic has been both a prohibiter in that it has forced the closure of restaurants to diners, and a liberator (not that you can really call what has happened to the industry ‘liberating’ as it has in many ways been crippling, I know) in that it has encouraged (or, more likely, forced) diversification, particularly for the restaurants that aren’t your Deliveroo usuals.
At £40 per person for the at home Mana meal it is a privilege and a treat and I wonder how Martin will put his Michelin spin on it.
The kit is collect only and we pick it up at the restaurant in Ancoats on Saturday afternoon. Walking in to see the open kitchen manned and chefs busy, the tables laid and candles lit induces a wave of nostalgia that I wasn’t quite prepared for. Once I’m in there, I don’t want to leave but I take a deep breath (as far as one can in a mask), thank the staff for opening the door for me and carry the cardboard box I’ve been handed out to the car.
What’s in the box?
Once home, I unpack the box with composure, equanimity even. It’s packed well. Colour coded ingredients are in plastic pots. There’s a lime, an avocado, a mason jar of Mezcal margarita and an envelope containing a postcard with a QR code for the instructions and a second one for a Spotify playlist, as is the trend with the at home kits of 2020-21.
How is it?
Preparing the dishes is easy, pleasing even taking a step back and looking at the end result. Unlike other at home kits that have required at least some cooking this was merely heating things up and assembling and the instructions and colour-coded labels make it all feel very achievable and enjoyable.
The food is undoubtedly restaurant standard and even my ham-fisted attempt at slicing cured cod doesn’t detract from this. Every morsel is marvelled at, appreciated and enjoyed.
Tostada: a crisp tortilla made from hand-pressed Ojotillo heirloom corn from Oaxaca warmed in the oven and then topped with serrano guacamole, tomato hearts, lacto tomato kelp and roscoff onions, cured cod, and lovage. Smokey and bright. Crunchy with the softness of the guacamole and cod.
Tacos: warmed tortillas (is there a better aroma on earth than this?) dressed with suckling pig, coriander seed salsa, habanero, avocado, lime and salt. Melting pork and vibrant, piquant sauces and perfectly ripe avocado; needless to say the tacos (sort of like the playlist that was inclusive of ‘Mambo No.5’ and ‘Gasolina’) didn’t last very long.
Plus: Mezcal Margaritas poured over ice into chilled glasses with chapuline (grasshopper, to you and I) salted rims. Punchy and refreshing – there is no other way I would rather wash down my tostadas and tacos than this.
All in all
I’ve travelled to (and loved) Mexico City but I know very little about Tulum and I think there was perhaps an opportunity missed to tell the story here: either the story of ingredients that we plated up (this is interesting and exciting to someone willing to pay fine dining prices, surely?) or that of Martin’s experience that inspired the dishes. Bundobust got this right in their Valentine’s at home kit: the instructions inside a Valentine’s card, incense to burn while cooking, a playlist that got us dancing in the kitchen and transported us to the bustling evening streets of New Delhi or Mumbai and even film suggestions – an honest acknowledgement that most people would be settling down with their curry in front of the tele. The relaxed Indian street food narrative was clear from start to finish.
Arguably, to transport a casual dining experience from restaurant to home is easier – at home is by its very nature casual so I suppose it’s an unfair comparison however with fine dining that storytelling is an integral component of what makes it worthwhile and it is expressed through the food, yes, but also through the setting and the dialogue between waiting staff (sometimes the chefs) and diner and it was that atmosphere, discourse and imparted knowledge that was missed. There was a brief moment when I arrived at Mana where the tables were laid and the candles were lit – it set the tone – but once we got home that flame had all but burnt out and, other than the food, there was little trace of it in the box.
I feel a duty to provide absolute clarity: I don’t mean this as a criticism of either Martin or the restaurant – Mana is, after all, Michelin worthy; it’s more of an ode to fine dining and everything that comes with it. If anything, this at-home kit has made me yearn for the 21st of June even more so when, all being well, we can return to restaurants and spend our hard-earned cash in the places we love the most. Mana, of course, being one of them. It’s an appreciation of all of the reasons we eat out. All of the reasons we need and want to have restaurants like Mana in our city. It’s why we bought the kit – we need Mana to be there when this is all over.
Martin doesn’t intend on keeping the takeaway option once restaurants reopen and is, unsurprisingly, quite emphatic about it however Mexican food is having somewhat of a moment in Manchester and when things do re-open you can expect a tirade of tacos elsewhere – we’ve already seen Mexican offerings from the likes of: Eddie Shepherd, Six by Nico, Wolf at the Door, Madre and Birria Brothers – who, by the way, had 3hr queues down Oldham St. last weekend – Manchester clearly has an appetite for it and since travel to Mexico is unlikely to happen anytime soon, I’m here for it.
Of course, I’ll continue buying at home kits until our restaurants open their doors and I’ll be the first to make a reservation at Mana the minute the booking lines open.