I recently wrote about my idea of a restaurant, about how I most prize those few establishments where the head chef is actually doing most of the cooking, instead of relegating that responsibility to a team of line cooks who are poorly paid and anonymous to restaurant guests. This is usually a function of scale, with smaller BYOB restaurants more likely to have kitchens where the chef is actually cooking. For me, the best cooking is a reflection of the personality of a particular cook or chef.
And so I was delighted when I walked through the doors of Philly BYOB A Mano to find chef Michael Millon at the helm of the open kitchen.
I had high expectations, owing to Craig LaBan’s glowing review and the repeated recommendation of A Mano from good customers of ours from Philly.
I was not disappointed. The only aspect of the experience less than ideal was the rather deafening noise in the dining room, which made it difficult even to hear my server clearly. In every other way, the experience was one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in some time, and I will surely be back soon.
The menu is divided properly into antipasti, primi, and secondi, and I was delighted to learn that the portions were moderate enough to order all three, which is the intention of the restaurant. Excessive portion size is the hardest aspect of dining out these days, both in the US and even in Italy, and it makes multi-course dining challenging to say the least.
The meal began with well-made, classic focaccia, not unlike the style we make for the CSA and restaurant. More surprising was the olive oil infused butter served with it. I have always been a skeptic of mixing olive oil and butter, but I must admit it worked in this case. Every authentic Italian restaurant in America struggles with what to serve with bread, because in Italy bread appears at the table unaccompanied by butter or olive oil. Yet, in the US, guests are so accustomed to a condiment with bread that faithfulness to Italian tradition would come across as negligence. A Mano’s solution to this dilemma was a successful one.
I began with seared octopus with cockles, chorizo, and white beans. It’s a dish that might appear on menus all throughout the city, but I imagine few would have the balance and grace of Chef Millon’s. The flavors were simple enough to be clear, but rich and nuanced enough to surprise and interest through the last bite. Cockles, tiny and briny, are really the only clam in the US which resemble the Italian clam. Pastanecks, littlenecks, manilla clams, and all the rest in the US are simply too large and tough.
The lumachelle all’Amatriciana was an untraditional approach to a traditional Roman dish. Instead of the classic Roman pairing with spaghetti or rigatoni, chef Millon used house-made and house-extruded lumachelle. And instead of the traditional Roman pecorino cheese, Millon employed the Sardinian sheeps’ milk cheese fiore sardo. Finally, he incorporated majoram, which has never graced any plate of Amatriciana I’ve been served in Rome. But none of these innovations detracted from the dish, and none were done merely out of a sense of novelty or creativity. The combination simply worked.
However, for me the jury is still out on the nascent trend to serve house-extruded semolina pasta, a path blazed by iconic chef Marc Vetri. Unlike rolled egg pasta, which should always be made in-house, semolina pasta such as spaghetti and penne have been traditionally made on an industrial scale. I’m not sure if much is gained by doing in-house extruding rather than using high-quality imported pasta from Italy. But I have to give both Vetri and Millon credit for pushing outside of the comfortable and familiar and continuing to explore and grow.
In Italy, secondi are rarely the most memorable course of a meal. At our own restaurant, we struggle to serve secondi which are not eclipsed by the pasta that precedes them. Although my braised short rib with carrot puree and trumpet mushrooms was delicious, it too perhaps suffered just a bit from the excellence of what had come before. The rib was exquisitely tender and deeply flavorful, but the raw carrots, peppers, and greens on the plate felt just slightly perfunctory, slightly out of place, the only example the whole night of a dish which perhaps placed too much emphasis on plating. Still, it was delightful and a benchmark for how such a dish can be prepared, and any slight imperfections were dwarfed by the overall success of the dish.
A bunet is a sort of custard traditional in Piedmont. Often made with chocolate, Millon presented a version with almonds and espresso, one which could perhaps have evoked more powerfully than it did those two noble ingredients. Still, it’s a minor quibble, and the dessert was an excellent and light way to end an exquisite meal.
A Mano, which opened a little more than a year ago, is an excellent addition to Philadelphia’s wonderful dining scene. Michael Millon feels like a kindred spirit, and I’m looking forward to many more visits. I can only hope he stays in the kitchen and continues to produce dishes with character, depth, and personality.
Please note this is not a formal review. Among other things, a professional review is based on repeated visits to an establishment and eating through a larger portion of the menu. Instead, I simply offer some impressions of my first visit to A Mano.