Breathtaking. It’s generally a pretty superfluous, hyperbole of a word. But strangely enough, it’s the first that springs to mind when we take our table at Manta Restaurant and Bar.
Sydney has really put it on. The Woolloomooloo harbour is glistening, the sky is bright, it’s mid-summer and there’s a breeze to keep the outdoor diners cool. And rumour has it Liz Hurley is wandering the fingerwharf (the paps in their flak jackets certainly seem to suggest it’s true). What’s not to like?
I think we have the best table in the place, a long-standing fave and, I’d argue, one of Sydney’s best restaurants. That our seating is very quickly followed by an ice-cold glass of Veuve really makes me think I’m going to make this long lunch as long as possible.
Manta’s menu is nothing if not extensive. The location and selection would have you thinking it’s over-the-top expensive but there are certainly reasonable choices. And, as everything proves to be cooked to perfection, the value is undeniable.
Same goes with the wine. There’s an extensive array of local and international vinos, with an emphasis on the best Australia has to offer. You could choose to go all-out (a drop of Penfolds ‘Bin 95’ Grange with your eye fillet perhaps) but equally, it’s not essential to spend a bomb to sample a tasty drop. Considering we’re there to gorge predominately on Manta’s famed seafood, we choose the crisp, dry Clare Valley Skillogalee Reisling ($49 bottle).
By the time we’ve really started tackling the food menu (instead of just salivating over the potential of every listing) it is 2.30pm and as most diners around us are onto mains or dessert we’re starting to have major food envy. Each new dish delivered to a nearby table by a smiling waiter causes more confusion. ‘At this rate, we’ll be ordering the entire Pacific Ocean,’ my dining-partner-in-crime quips. Turns out he’s not too far off.
Our fabulous waiter Jack couldn’t be more patient or accommodating. When Himself can’t choose between the appetizers, Jack suggests a single tasting plate of them all – sorted! By the time I’ve devoured my oysters (Sydney Rock from Pambula, $4 each, being the standout) and reach out to try some of the tasting plate there’s naught but a scrap of ‘Smoked Ocean Trout with Pickled Fennel’ left. Smoked in-house, it is a fresh and tangy taste sensation. But I’m assured the ‘san daniele prosciutto’ ($16 as single appetizer), ‘Fried Clarence River Calamari with rocket and aioli’ ($16) and ‘Pumpkin, Pine Nut and Goats Cheese Arancini’ were all as good.
For entré, it’s Manta’s ‘raw’ selection for me. Head chef Daniel Hughes says it’s a focus of his to work with local suppliers to produce exceptional-quality raw seafood. The ‘Snapper Carpaccio with Sicilian Capers, Shaved Fennel, Radish and Orange’ ($19) is fresh, tart and a tasty combination of flavours (though I have to say I preferred the combo of Ocean Trout and shaved fennel).
Himself agonises over the ‘Hand made Taglierini, Crystal Bay Prawns, Leeks, Chives and White Truffle Butter’ ($32, “I just know it would be amazing”) and the ‘Seared Atlantic Scallops, Jerusalem Artichoke, Crispy Pork Belly, Oyster Mushrooms and Chestnuts’ ($28). The scallops win out. Cooked to moist-on-the-inside-crispy-on-the-out perfection, the unusual aggregation of flavours elevates this beyond a standard scallop dish.
Main is the big battle. Fish (and so much!), crustaceans, beef – oh the choices! After much negotiation (normally quite refined, Himself declares a desire for ‘surf and turf’), we settle on the ‘Eye Fillet, garlic, parsley and Primo extra virgin olive oil, $58) for him and grilled lobster for me. Just to spice things up, we ask Jack if we can do half the lobster with tomato, chilli and basil (hold the garlic, I’m one of the rare people who can’t stand it!) and the other half with bottarga, parley and lemon butter (which normally accompanies the steamed mud crab). Again, our request isn’t a problem.
With our eyes bigger than our bellies, we figure we’d better order sides of these ‘Manta Angel Chips with Truffle Oil and Parmesan’ ($15.50) that we’d heard people rave about.
Every bit as delectable as it’s built up to be, the food (once half the lobster is pinched from my plate to make up that craved ‘surf and turf’) is consumed with hardly a word spoken. Except for me to say that I wouldn’t mind eating lobster every day of my life.
One of the great things about Manta is you’re not rushed. Take as long as you like to peruse the menu (a second, or seventh time!), ponder how much you can really fit in or just sit and sip your wine.
It’s now around 4.30pm and, very proud of ensuring I lived up to my promise that this’d be a long lunch indeed, I profess to Jack that we may just stay for dinner. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, he says. And he should know. He’s had the boats of Woolloomooloo as his ‘office window’ for six years. Seems Manta’s pretty appealing for its staff, not just its diners.
Though we desperately want to savour the delights of pastry chef John Ralley (who incidentally is in Europe right now competing in the World Pastry Championships), we are, quite simply, stuffed. Manta prides itself on serving “world renowned Amedel Chocolate from Tuscany” and a ‘Textures of Amedel Dark Chocolate and Piemonte Hazelnut’ dish ($18) sounded most appealing.
We literally hear the table of ladies next to us gasp when their ‘Warm Chocolate Fondant Amarena Cherries, Vanilla Bean and Cherry Ice-cream’ ($18) arrives. And we look on with gluttonous envy as a loved-up couple share a ‘Vanilla Crème Brulee, Citrus and Cinnamon Poached Corella Pear Compote’ ($16). *We know what they’re eating as we quiz Jack.
Manta’s also a bar and, this late into the afternoon on a sunny summer Thursday it is pumping with cool tunes. We join the throng for a final drop – a sherry, why not? We opt for a ‘Hidalgo Olorosso Seco ($11) from Spain – neither of us wanting the afternoon to end.