Run by a team of Renee Erickson alums, Wallingford’s Manolin infuses the maritime delights of the Pacific Northwest with an island vibe.
When Rachel Johnson and Joe Sundberg were trying out names for a restaurant they envisioned opening, one with a beach-y feel and a seafood slant, inspired by a Yucatan vacation, a friend suggested Manolin, after Santiago’s loyal young acolyte in “The Old Man and The Sea.” It seemed predestined to Johnson, who has long had a thing for Ernest Hemingway. She’s read all the books and for a while as a kid, she even confused the famous writer with her own grandfather: both were called Papa.
3621 Stone Way N.
Reservations: not accepted
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: $$$ (small plates $4-$14)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; limited wine list is partial to Italy and France
Service: crisp, thoughtful and informed
Parking: on street
Who should go: ideal for an impromptu, easygoing supper; most amenable to singles, twosomes and foursomes
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Manolin (pronounced mahn-oh-LEEN) opened last December on the Fremont edge of Wallingford. Designed and built largely by Sundberg, the skylit space looks like a spiffed-up sea shanty. It has steampunk lighting, aqua tiles and whitewashed cinder-block walls arrayed with air plants. Salvaged church pews were converted into raised banquettes; recycled bowling-alley boards became high-top tables that are fixed to the floor and can be connected with custom-made leaves to accommodate groups of four or six. Outside blue-trimmed French doors, a patio will offer additional seating around a firepit when the weather cooperates.
For now, my favorite seat is at the sweeping curve of counter. Made of pale fir that looks as sleek as zinc, it embraces the bar, where minority partner and bartender-in-chief Patrick Thalasinos presides, and a show kitchen that is the domain of 24-year-old chef Alex Barkley.
Barkley cooked previously at The Walrus and the Carpenter, where Sundberg was general manager, and at The Whale Wins, where Johnson worked the front of the house. Thalasinos tended bar at both. Their combined experience in these Renee Erickson restaurants makes Manolin as polished as you’d expect. Despite the fried plantain chips and the Jimmy Buffett vibe, this isn’t Margaritaville.
That said, rum, cachaça, pisco and tequila do figure prominently in the cocktails. Nites Inn is a fruity pisco refresher with a whiskey backbone that would be a perfect surfside sip, though, like most of the drinks, it is named for an Aurora Avenue motel.
The menu lists roughly a dozen plates you could imagine eating in a bikini. Many involve seafood, all are small; two or three per person should suffice for dinner. They tend to arrive in slow progression because each is so fastidiously plated. One night I watched Barkley’s second in command, Alvin Tsao, assemble the wildly popular winter vegetable slaw over and over. He dressed the colorful bundle of raw beets, carrots and apple with chili-salt, lime juice and almond oil, every time tasting it for balance before adding sprigs of chervil and dill, a squeeze of lime crème fraîche and a pinch of fennel pollen. (I hope a spring version is in the offing.)
Vegetable slaw $9
Rockfish ceviche $10
Smoked arctic char $11
Grilled albacore $12
Grilled beef $14
Tsao took similar pains with a beautiful rockfish ceviche, scooping avocado from its skin to cradle bits of raw fish and cubes of poached sweet potato, sharp with lime and chilies, then carefully piling frizzled sweet potatoes alongside.
Tender tea-poached squid was part of another intricate collage that combined the sweetness of kumquat, the heat of jalapeño, the crackle of taro chips and the nutty, breadcrumb-like crunch of fried quinoa.
With the advent of spring, expect the parsnip-filled dumplings to exit the menu. Get them while you still can. Looking like origami swans, they floated among shaved radish, squash and cucumber in a delicate black trumpet mushroom broth bright with herbs.
By comparison, some dishes verge on the austere. Rubbery steamed sockeye paired with bitter walnut jam, sorrel and cucumber was the rare ensemble that had no chemistry whatsoever. Smoked arctic char, supported by an assertive gaggle of pickled turnips, mustard seeds, sour cream and chives, rocked it.
Fried salsify and tiny hedgehog mushrooms escorted grilled albacore. The vegetables were lovely, but the fish, cooked on the Argentine-style grill, teetered on the brink of dryness, rescued by cilantro aioli.
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Meat and potato fans will rejoice in a teres major steak, a tender cut, perfectly charred and gloriously sauced with butter and the Italian anchovy sauce, colatura. But be aware, particularly if you are sharing, that the portion is just 4 ounces of meat, a fingerling potato or two and some sautéed radishes ringing a swipe of lardo.
Fernet panna cotta, though not as fragile as it could be, made a pleasantly bitter finish. Other desserts were homier: Sweet roasted rhubarb nuzzled a perfect scone topped with ginger whipped cream; huckleberries embellished a tangy yogurt tart with a thick, crumbly shortbread crust.
Afterward, much like Hemingway in “A Moveable Feast,” “…I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy, and to make plans.”