“Brunch is brunch…” according to chef Kris Tominaga at Manuela. That is unless it comes from his kitchen and is then delivered straight to your door.
Manuela has been a Downtown star in the Arts District’s massive and rambling gallery complex at Hauser & Wirth since its opening in September 2016.
Since its inception, the operation benefits from an expansive outdoor patio that accommodates 70% of the venue’s dining capacity, particularly helpful now that outdoor hospitality is the only mandated option. Brunch has always been a part of the weekly service at Manuela, but takeout and delivery for the weekend ritual just started this month.
As Tominaga explained, the “rustic” nature of the dishes make them ideal for transport. The only item on the regular brunch menu that is not available for delivery or takeout is raw oyster. Not to worry, though; the grilled version travels just fine.
Manuela earned immediate and well-deserved accolades when it opened, originally under the direction of chef Wes Whitsell. A native of North Texas, the menu has always been informed by a “Southern” influence. While Whitsell emphasized his Texas roots, Tominaga trends to low-country, Charleston-style takes with more focus on fresh seafood. That said, since Tominaga took over the stoves here, the real emphasis is on freshness. Those oysters? “The best oysters in California. They’re from a super-sustainable oyster farm in Morro Bay. They’re pretty magical.”
The commitment to fresh ingredients is most evident in the nine raised garden beds that are cultivated in the gallery’s courtyard by staff gardener Safa Hayes. Twelve chickens roost on the premises as well. Most of the rest of the produce used in Manuela’s menu offerings is sourced from local farmers markets.
Tominaga, 38, grew up in the West Valley and graduated from Calabasas High. After matriculating from the culinary and gastronomy programs at Boston University, he returned to Los Angeles for a stint in the kitchen at Joe’s Restaurant in Venice Beach, where he met Brian Dunsmoor (most recently at Hatchet Hall). The two launched a successful pop-up, which led to their restaurant The Hart & The Hunter in the Pali Hotel on Melrose in West Hollywood. After a brief tenure at the nouveau bistro Cadet in Santa Monica, he returned to run the Pali Group’s hotel hospitality division.
As he explained, he wasn’t looking for new opportunities when he was approached to replace Whitsell at Manuela in April 2018.
“I wasn’t looking for another job,” he said. “I was happy where I was, but I always thought Manuela was a magic space. They did a great job with the kitchen. It’s a chef’s dream kitchen. It was an opportunity to come back to cooking. It was an opportunity to get back in, get my hands dirty and touch the food a little bit more and be a little more dynamic.”
And all to the benefit and pleasure of Arts District diners.
When the weekend looms, brunch should be planned. When asked for guidance on the menu, Tominaga quickly points to the popover benedict ($19). It’s a benedict that employs smoked “preacher ham” in place of Canadian bacon and is served on a popover; the recipe is derived from the legendary Black godmother of “Southern” cooking, Edna Lewis. Lewis’ unabashed influence should certify Tominaga’s credentials for any aficionados doubting the authenticity of his regional inspirations.
The mention of the popover recipe underscores the presence of another original menu item that is ubiquitous across all service at the restaurant: the biscuit. Served in various iterations, depending on the meal, it’s a four-ingredient recipe calibration that Tominaga continues to tweak. “I started working on that biscuit in 2005.”
Listed on the brunch menu as cream biscuits ($11) and served with Steen’s butter and strawberry pluot jam, it’s time to taste what all the fuss is about. Other brunch highlights include the aforementioned barbecued oysters ($15) in a serving of four with smoked olive butter, breadcrumbs and parmesan, and a Gulf pink shrimp bruschetta ($18) with cherry tomatoes, basil and fennel served on garlic toast. There are three salads, including blistered wax beans and nectarine salad ($15) with red-skinned peanuts and a chili vinaigrette. Besides the benedict, other entrees will tempt, like shrimp and rice grits ($24) with fresh hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, bacon and parsley, or Cherokee tomato toast ($20) served with Dungeness crab dressing, benne seeds, fresh dill and chives, all on a toasted housemade brioche. A popular and notorious denizen of Whitsell’s original menu—the venison burger ($23) served on brioche with a pickled green tomato slice and fried leeks—remains a popular choice at brunch here as well.
If brunch is being delivered to your door and no driving is required, consider one of the takeaway drinks on offer. Curated by Manuela’s beverage director Niki Kotantoulas, the list encourages a diversion from the overworked, usual brunch suspects: mimosas and bloody marys. Among the options are a traditional old-fashioned using Evan Williams bourbon, as well as red or white sangria. These orders serve two and are priced at $28. More exotic brunch cocktail choices here include: the Archie featuring beet rested Loft & Bear vodka, oro blanco and lemon; the Florida man with blueberry-infused mezcal, sweet vermouth and fresh lemon; the nightshade composed of milagro blanco tequila, yellow bell pepper, heat and lemon; and a whiskey Pimm’s cup employing Monkey Shoulder scotch whiskey and housemade Pimm’s. These takeaway cocktails serve two to three people and are priced at $40.
The menu items change more or less seasonally, at Tominaga’s whim, according to what’s available at the markets and sprouting from the raised garden beds. There are weekly “one-off” specials, and generally there are five to six menu changes every couple of weeks. Aside from the new Brunch-To-Go program, Tominaga recently introduced a traditional Nashville-style “Meat and 3” dinner menu, rotating nightly, for takeout and delivery only.
Referring to this latest turn, Tominaga aptly sums up the spirit of his menus and culinary inspirations: “Soulful food for the people.”
With that in mind, start the weekend at home, with Manuela at your door.