As foodies and health neurotics will tell you, manuka is a kind of super-honey, honey with magical healing properties. There was a buzz of excitement about it four years ago, when it was claimed that its antiviral and antibacterial wonderfulness meant it can heal flesh wounds: when you've finished spreading it on your toast you can smear it on your hurt finger. It comes from a single source – the bees that pollinate manuka trees in New Zealand's East Cape region – and costs a bloody fortune.
At Manuka Kitchen, I expected to see the stuff all over the menu. But apart from a single appearance on the crème brûlée, manuka honey doesn't feature at all. The owners seem to have chosen the name simply to suggest a) Kiwi influences in the kitchen, b) some healing effects and c) a hefty outlay of money. The chef, Tyler Martin, is indeed a Kiwi, from New Plymouth on the north island, and the restaurant that he and his Lebanese business partner, Joseph Antippa, have just opened does bring balm to the soul – but without it costing the earth.
It's situated in Fulham, close to Stamford Bridge FC: excellent, of course, for the passing trade on Saturday afternoons when Chelsea are playing at home, although Tyler's rabbit-and-venison-sausage rigatoni is unlikely to attract rank-and-file football fans. Maybe just as well since they have only 22 covers. The décor is minimal: tiny wood tables, terracotta tiles, plain white walls with dangling green lamps. You can see into the kitchen, which is the same size as the dining area and isn't a pretty sight: dirty white tiles, messy sink, too much greasy realism. But Tyler and Joseph are on a tight budget. They've opened their restaurant with their own funds and without bank or City loans, so the 'minimalism' and grubbiness aren't style choices but the product of financial necessity.
The menu, by contrast, radiates richness. There are All-Day plates (corn fritters with bacon and cream, fabulous eggs Benedict, tortilla with goat's cheese) and cheap Hot Rolls (meatballs with cheddar and jalapenos, 'steak sarnie', roasted pork with pickles and red cabbage, all £5 or £6) and Small and Large sharing plates, served with artistry and style. Bone marrow and saffron arancini are a beautiful sight, the risotto rice subtly flavourful, the crumb-coating miraculously light. Crispy squid came with nam jim sauce, a name that's fatally redolent of pyjamas but tastes delicious – a blend of soy and Thai nam pla with lime, chilli, garlic and ginger, that floods the squid flesh and legs with Pacific rim flavours. Steamed mussels with tomato and sweet potato were handsomely presented in a dramatic black iron skillet; a nice change from the usual mountain of shells, and the liquid's good enough to dip your bread in.
Mussels turned up again in Angie's main-course chicken breast with curry potato, cucumber and lettuce – an odd, unseasonal dish that just about came off. Chicken with mussels isn't an obvious combination (surf and farmyard?) but the salty brininess of the shellfish gave the nicely cooked poultry a touch of excitement. I had an array of beef, done three ways. I've seen a trio of pork, I'm frankly over-familiar with the troika of lamb (rump, shoulder and sweetbreads) but beef? This dish offered a standard sirloin, with beef tartare and a beef croquette, served with Parmentier potatoes. The steak was fabulous, medium-rare, broiled to perfection, juicy. The croquette was a complicated piece of cheffy showing-off: brisket, roasted for four hours, then shredded, rolled with a mirepoix, wrapped in clingfilm until it sets, then re-cooked and sliced. It was very tasty, but seemed a lot of trouble to go to just to be eclipsed by the steak. The tiny beef tartare was tepid and unexciting, like the underfed runt of a meaty family.
Puddings were complex and beautiful objets d'art. Raspberry Lamington was a Victoria sponge dusted with coconut and mostly overwhelmed by raspberry coulis. A slice of pavlova came with passionfruit sauce that cut through the meringue and bore the tastebuds off in triumph. It seemed rude not to try the manuka honey and saffron crème brûlée. I'm sorry to report, after all the anticipation, that it was frighteningly sweet and didn't do much for the crème brûlée. Another time I'll grab the blue-cheese-and-honeycomb option.
The service was warm and friendly throughout, the joint owners chatted like loquacious neighbours and supper passed in a convivial glow; so it was rather a pain to be told that the restaurant didn't take plastic cards, only cash, and I had to venture out into the freezing night in search of a cashpoint. This annoyance will be addressed soon, the owners say. It's a small black mark for this attractive and flavoursome addition to the gastroscape. As with the décor and the look of the kitchen, it needs just a small injection of money to make it bonzer.
Manuka Kitchen, 510 Fulham Road, London SW6 (020-7736 7588). Around £80 for two with wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge. All tips go to the staff"
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