Ironbound On A Roll
Manuâ€™s Kitchen and Sushi Lounge
By Andy Clurfeld
Photos by Daryl Stone
Manuâ€™s swings at this post-work hour, a mid-week evening that finds folks feeding the hunger beast with neckties loosened and jackets slung on chair backs, colorful drinks dotting tabletops and even more colorful platters of sushi rolls being delivered at regular intervals to practically everyone in this anomaly in the Ironbound.
Manuâ€™s is properly Manuâ€™s Kitchen and Sushi Lounge, but it is decidedly not just Japanese; itâ€™s Iberian-strong Mediterranean as well. The menu is a mash-up, and those can be dangerous to both navigate and execute: What are diners coming here to eat? How do chefs focus? Whatâ€™s the purpose of a restaurant thatâ€™s not fusion, but fuses disparate food cultures?
Manuâ€™s manages well, thank you, though we do find strength in the Eastern end of the menu. From the looks of things, so do our fellow diners, who are there in force after the close of business till about 8, 8:30 p.m., when itâ€™s as though they all heed the call of a distant train and dash to Penn Station. We then enjoy the relative quiet, as our server grins and whispers, â€śThereâ€™s a late crowd on weekends.â€ť Understandable.
They come to this multi-level space sporting a sort-of also-fused dĂ©cor of comfy-wood old-school tavern with posh-modern touches for a melange of tapas and sushi appetizers that weave the traditional with the original in more than slap-dash ways.
Pert little beef sliders, for instance, are lined with prosciutto, a feisty chili-powered ketchup and lightly pickled red onions to up the ante on a current classic. Thereâ€™s a terrific octopus salad, its thin skin crisp and its interior moist, deftly cloaked in smoky pimenton with a brush of fresh lemon. There are potato chips, dusted in Sicilian sea salt, that you can get all to themselves as a huge starter, and worth it they are, but we took as a side to one of my new favorite dishes: a wrap cosseting shrimp, leaves of mint, batons of cucumber and carrot, julienned greens and a riveting pungent peanut sauce that united the elements. A winner that made me long for what I chose it overâ€”another wrap, with crab and Japanese basil. Next time.
I watch my dear friend Atsuko as the platters of sushi arrive. A certified chef in Japan, sheâ€™s joined our dining party for the evening. She knows her fish. Sheâ€™s curious about some of the more involved rolls, as I am, so we score a couple. Spice Girl Roll, a mosaic of spicy salmon and spicy tuna, avocado and cucumber, is tautly packed and balanced; the rice is a smidgen crunchy, but itâ€™s moist and seasoned. Pretty Girl Roll is built around spicy white tuna, a rich fish that, in this curious roll, plays off slices of tart strawberry and nibs of sweet mango. Itâ€™s wrapped in soy paper and given a swirl of a caramel sauce that, if dipped quickly in soy sauce, works.
Green Dragon Roll stays the common take-out sushi course, with layers of avocado crowning a roll of tuna, cucumbers and pockets of crunch; Spicy King Crab Roll takes crab salad, avocado and cucumber and gives it a wash of eel sauce. Theyâ€™re both destined to please fans of the genre. Meanwhile, the sashimi we sample is straightforward: I wouldnâ€™t rank the sushi chef teamâ€™s knife skills as A-plus, for the salmon is off-grain, but the scallops are cleanly and properly sliced.
Fluke isnâ€™t available for the usuzukuri we crave, so we go with the kitchenâ€™s choice of yellowtail as a substitute: Itâ€™s not as light, not leaning ethereal as top-notch fluke would, but itâ€™s happy in the bright ponzu sauce and plays off the thin discs of scallion and peppy sprigs of radish.
The most loved of the sushi apps? The aged dashi tofu, fried cubes of luscious bean curd flecked with bonito. There was the subtle presence of tempura sauce, nothing overwhelming or daring the diner to mask the purity of the tofu, but just the right touch of a condiment. It was a stunningly fine dish. Aged dashi tofu, hitting on all cylindersâ€”in the Ironbound! Who knew?
We divided our choices of entrees into both Manu camps. Lamb chops, dusted in a pistachio-mustard crust and plated with a mound of mashed sweet potatoes, was modern-American-Med. Good, solid, nicely cooked medium-rare. Beef tilting Portugueseâ€”â€śPicanha on the stoneâ€ťâ€”served with rock salt, peppers and lots of lemon wedges for squirting, was easy-eating and delicious; good, flavorful steak.
Chicken in miso, with greens and nibs of orange, was disastrously overcooked. Dry as cotton and flavorless, there was nothing the sauce and sides could do to save the focus of the dish. The classic sesame-crusted tuna, however, was seared to showcase the quality of the fish and served with a lovely stack of baby boy choy. Simple, and on point.
Desserts arenâ€™t the thing here at Manuâ€™s; Iâ€™d love to see a couple of originals, or at least more tempting sweets than tiramisu-cheesecake-Key lime pie. But the tiramisu was a balanced rendition and the custard cake a pleasant finale.
I wanted seconds of the aged dashi tofu. With a to-go bag of the shrimp-mint wrap.
Manuâ€™s, in other words, offers dishes uncommon in this vibrant part of town. More importantly, Manuâ€™s best plates are thoughtfully conceived and skillfully turned out. No secret, obviously, to the pros cutting out of work and looking for a couple of hours of happy feeding at the end of the day.Â
90 Ferry St., Newark â€˘ 973-465-5600
Reservations accepted and advised: 973-465-5600.
Hours: Sunday, Monday and Tuesday from 11:45 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, 11:45 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:45 to 12:30 a.m. All major credit cards accepted. Note: Located in the northern Ironbound, itâ€™s a tad easier to find street parking, both on Ferry and the side streets, than it might be a few blocks away.
Manuâ€™s Kitchen and Sushi Lounge offers spirited beverages of all stripes, but the cocktail-chef craze hasnâ€™t yet reached its lively bar. Iâ€™d say itâ€™s ripe for the picking by an ambitious young mixologist.