Archive review: Manuel’s is now closed.
It’s coming up to high season on the Isle of Wight and its sailing capital in particular is due for an intense time as Cowes Week fever reaches its crescendo. This time of year all of the shops, bars and eateries are well-stocked and the town’s main thoroughfare is buzzing.
Hats off then to the proprietors of Manuel’s, Cowes’ Portuguese restaurant for establishing their venue in a most unprepossessing place.
Far from the main shopping area, in converted former industrial units next to an electricity substation and in the shadow of a housing development, squats Manuel’s. Laudable attempts have been made to make the exterior welcoming; a big area of decking and picture windows attempt to open up this little red brick building. Alas at the time of Matt and Cat’s visit, the exterior of Manuel’s was all but hidden by parked vehicles and any view of the restaurant’s interior was obscured by Venetian blinds pulled steadfastly down. However, the door was ajar and tantalising aromas wafted out. Stopping to examine the menu which was helpfully displayed outside, Matt and Cat strolled in.
The restaurant was not as empty as it appeared from the outside. A middle aged couple were sat at a corner table and two children were quietly staring at laptops at another. Offered a table by the bar, M and C sat down and studied the place to see if the interior managed to belie the venue’s origins. Set out in an open-plan style it displayed a kind of naked honesty. Patrons could watch their food being cooked, accompanied by the constant drone of an extractor fan – an experience normally denied one in a conventionally designed restaurant. According to Alex Prada, one of the four proprietors of Manuel’s:
We decided to import most of our furniture from Portugal including most of the tiled art on the walls, and the furniture inside and out is from Portugal.
Certainly some lovely ceramic decorations were on display but it seemed a little austere to Matt and Cat and certainly not intimate – perhaps an echo of its former industrial usage still lingered. At first glance, Manuel’s put Matt and Cat in mind of BLT cafe, a similarly unremarkable construction in the middle of Newport’s industrial estate. BLT cafe has an uncluttered interior presumably as it has a high turnover of patrons during busy weekday lunchtimes: but for an evening meal Matt and Cat prefer more comfortable surroundings.
Salmon steak £12.95
Prawn/chicken kebabs £11.95
Buoyed up by her pleasure in the grilled fish at The Waterfront, Cat decided to have grilled salmon, which was served with mixed vegetables or chips and drizzled with olive oil and fresh coriander. Choosing the veg, Cat also ordered a side dish of bread and balsamic to make up for the lack of carbohydrates. Like Pavarotti’s and Lugley’s, it seems that Manuel’s is disinclined to offer a proper balanced meal without resorting to selling one or other of the required components as added extras. Repeat after The Cat now – each main meal should have protein, carbohydrate and greens.
At this point in a review Matt and Cat like to build up the tension by describing the other patrons or gently mocking the piped music, of which in this instance only muted bass notes could be heard above the noise of the extractor fan. The place was certainly filling up though – people were coming in steadily, including one group of genuine yachties who lined up an impressive range of bottles on the table in front of them before even thinking about food. Obviously familiar to the venue, these guys were welcomed like old friends. The restaurant was more on the beaten track than at first thought – and the notable friendly service was extended to all.
Having assured M and C several times that the food was freshly cooked, the charming and chatty waitress then delivered it. Cat received grilled fish and bread and, for Matthew, chicken and king prawn skewers marinated Portuguese-style and served with home-made fries. Whilst Cat’s salmon steak was a mere sliver, Matt’s kebabs were so impressively long that they hung over the edge of his plate. Matt thought it looked great and it was fun to eat the meaty prawns on a long skewer. However, none of the kebabs’ speared cargo tasted marinaded. It was good, simple kebabbed meat, but Matt was looking forward to trying something exotic and Portuguese – maybe piri-piri? The chips were very nice though, definitely home-made and there were enough to share.
Swapping some of the bread for a handful of Matt’s chips, Cat set about eating her meal. Although the fish was grilled it was unexpectedly oily. In fact the whole plate was awash with the stuff. Although described in the menu as a drizzle it was more like a veritable downpour and certainly an unusual accompaniment to boiled potatoes. However, it was not opaque enough to disguise the state of the broccoli which was noticeably yellowed. Is there, perhaps just a single hard-pressed broccoli plant in Cowes? As Cat’s meal diminished with eating, the proportion of oil to food increased until Cat suddenly became overwhelmed and Matt had to finish off the fish. Even he remarked on the unusual oily dressing.
The ever-attentive waitress came over to their table as the cutlery clattered to a halt. She was gathering the plates and prawn shells as Cat’s internal voice chanted, “Don’t ask me if I enjoyed my meal” over and over again. “Did you enjoy your meal?” asked the waitress. Cat had to reply honestly, and in the negative. Normally she would have saved the comments for this website but when asked, she was compelled to speak up. Cat pointed out the grease lake and the remains of the tarnished broccoli. Reminded that the menu quite clearly stated that the dish would be drizzled with oil there ensued a tiny discussion about what constituted a drizzle. The waitress politely asserted that the broccoli was very fresh, and looked as it did because of the cooking process. An on-line cook book suggests that broccoli can take on a yellow-brown cast if overcooked. Readers can examine the photo and form their own view on that. By contrast, the carrots and potatoes were on the right side of al dente.
Refusing the offer of dessert and coffee Matt and Cat paid up and left. Manuel’s was just not quite what they’d been hoping for, and it was hard to say exactly why. The service is excellent and the friendly, family-run atmosphere is noticeable. The prices are not excessive, indeed for Cowes they’re pretty good value. The location is a courageous choice, but obviously plenty of happy diners are undeterred by it. The proprietors are proud of the way the kitchen and ‘workings’ of the venue are exposed for all to see, but this didn’t suit Cat much. Throughout her meal Cat faced the kitchen and a shelf well-stocked with bottles of ketchup. Fine for the BLT cafe but not for a restaurant that charges £13 a dish. Matt was facing the other way, and had a more conventional view of the other diners and the genial braying yachties. Perhaps they should have swapped. And finally the food. It was pleasant – except for the over-oiled fish – but generally seemed to be an opportunity missed. The diners were expecting something more exotic, more exciting, and, well, more Portuguese. Probably, given the provenance of the managers, this really is what they eat in Portugal; in which case a bit of creative interpretation might have helped.
Still, it’s the sort of business that deserves to succeed, run by the sort of people who do too. But that alone doesn’t make it a great restaurant. Matt and Cat hope it does succeed. Not least because last time they dared write anything other than fulsome praise about a restaurant in Cowes they got a good pasting from the locals. Doubtless this review will draw out a bit more of the same ire. Still, until wanton M & C finally learn their lesson, you can enjoy more frank honesty right here.
Archive review: Manuel’s is now closed.
Archive review: Manuel’s, Cowes