It wasn't Chef Dani Garcia that attracted me to Manzanilla, estimable a reputation though he has. I had read about this arbero di coles di bruseles: a whole brussels sprouts stalk deep-fried and served with romesco. But aside from that conversation-piece of a dish, most of the food at Manzanilla was underwhelming. The restaurant dubs itself a pan-Spanish "brasserie", and the room boasts an impressive geometric design them, creating a space both lofty and grand. It demands food with a little more chutzpah than it presented, aside from the brussels. But more on them later.
For the most part, the food was disproportionately starchy or fried, and lacked the lusty, buxom flavors I long for in good Spanish cuisine. One that wasn't - a novel octopus stew with cauliflower, both sliced raw florets and pureed into pap- was nebulous monochromatic but for a dice of wan tomato. Interesting for two bites, it might've worked as an amuse bouche, but a whole bowl became tedious. Tostas are hefty slabs of crusty bread, but the two we tried (crabmeat with avocado and a "tartar" of tomato) didn't go much beyond that simple description.
Really yummy-sounding montaditos rabo di toro were two spongey little buns that overwhelmed their daub of short rib filling. Plus, these dishes presented themselves like having a palate-cleanser of small sandwiches in the middle of a multi-course menu, and their flavors didn't justify the amount of appetite-space they took up.
Some vegetable dishes helped loosen up the heft of the menu. Roasted broccoli was a study in brassica textures, featuring crispy, blackened florets budding from tender, toothsome stalks, with slices of crisp, bitey radish and a scattering of chili flakes to add zip. Sauteed mushrooms were soundly cooked, but didn't reach much beyond a basic plate of sauteed mushrooms.
And speaking of vegetables, there was those brussels sprouts. The stalk arrives in its entirety, impaled on a spike attached to a wooden plank, as if it had committed some heinous crime. Your punitive occupation is facilitated by a sharp steak knife, with with you can sever each bulbous little cabbage and then use to smear a dab of the zesty romesco sauce which accompanies. The sprouts are fried so their charred outer leaves coddle their butter-soft innards, vegetal and earthy. They're just as good with the romesco as without, so alternate bites. Until we got to dessert, it's the most interesting dish we had.
Of these, neither of the ones we chose included the alluring green-apple cotton candy, but a casual request was greeted with enthusiasm, and they provided the fluffy orbs of sugar perched on a small vertical branch along with our other choices. There's nothing not fun about cotton candy, and the tangy pulverization dissolved into the sweet poofs to a festive end. The caramelized apple served as a plush, spiced pillow of fruit underneath a fanciful half-pipe of delicate tuile surrounding a knob of creme fraiche ice cream. It was superior to the red-wine poached pear, which was more impressive in its garnet hue than its flavor, anchored in a hazelnut mousse and granola-y crumble, the plate painted with a thick smear of fudge.
Paired with a strong cup of La Colombe, any, either or all still make for a satisfying end.
And an end it was laborious bringing about: getting our check, and throughout the meal, our waitstaff seemed absolutely content to stand around in proud observation of the sparsely populated room. Several attempts had to be made to flag down any server at all, let alone our own, who, avoiding any eye contact, would confoundingly strut past our table without noticing my school-girl raised hand. Luckily, none of our questions were urgent, as the food wasn't complicated enough to require babysitting, and it came out in a fluid and timely fashion. Which is probably one of restaurant's strong points. That, and a fried tree on a spike.