670 Montauk Hwy., Water Mill
AMBIENCE: Modest dining room meets elevated cooking
ESSENTIALS: Lunch and dinner, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily.; reservations, major credit cards, parking lot, indoor and outdoor seating, wheelchair accessible
Manna in Water Mill opened months before the official Hamptons season, a Mediterranean restaurant that’s now in full swing, providing sustenance to locals as well as visitors in search of surf, summer breezes, rest and relaxation. But it comes at a price.
With a seafood-focused menu that displays southern Italian influences, Manna comes from chef-owner Marco Barrila and his wife, Sheila Minkel Barrila, who run the catering company Insatiable EATS, established in Southampton in 2009. Before this, Barrila was at the helm of the short-lived Frutti Di Mare, a Mediterranean seafood and pasta shop in Hampton Bays. Years ago, he steered kitchens at several New York restaurants, including the now-closed Noi in Manhattan.
Like Mirko’s — the restaurant that occupied this location for decades — Manna resides in an understated spot that belies ambition in the kitchen. Dressed with white tablecloths and closed white curtains that cordon off the sidewalk view, the dining room is a little stifling. As alternatives, there are plenty of outdoor tables as well as an intimate bar nook.
The setting wouldn’t matter as much if Manna were performing at its best, but the restaurant has not yet reached its potential. The most successful dishes hail from Barrila’s native Sicily, while those that aren’t conjure country club cuisine. Here and there, details are left undone — like the stale focaccia I was served on one visit. But enough dishes display fine sourcing and cooking with soul.
A lobster bisque may surprise someone looking for convention. Served in a shallow bowl, generous pieces of lobster claw and tail are buoyed by velvety lobster stock garnished with a tangle of microgreens. I loved it, but my companion did not, since she craved a creamy puree in a less assertive presentation.
The octopus reigns as a standout starter, a formidable arm kissed with char, dressed with chimichurri. If beef or tuna carpaccio are on the menu, order it, since either is a simple and elegant appetizer. An eggplant timbal, layered with ricotta and mozzarella, is one of Barrila’s signature dishes that shows off the finest herbs and produce of the season. But a beet salad feels like a concession, though it is pretty: Mandolined moons of gold and red fan a plate centered by frisee topped with a palm-sized disc of fried goat cheese. Drizzled with balsamic, the salad would benefit from restraint.
Entrees glorify fish, though they’re sometimes diminished by an ingredient or a presentation. Take the seafood linguine listed as frutti di mare, a heap of beautiful local clams and sweet mussels atop too much pasta, well past al dente. I wouldn’t mind so much if uninteresting shrimp took up less real estate on the plate. It seems like a projection of What Diners Want as opposed to what resonates with the chef.
Another seafood dish, the halibut, is a toothless presentation, an overcooked fillet dressed in a lemon-caper sauce, served with a handful of fingerlings beside stems of green and white asparagus. The most stark contrast to this dish is the lusty veal chop entree, paired with sauteed mushrooms and garlic-roasted mashed potatoes. Truffles are the most noteworthy additions to the dish, since they’re the real deal from Umbria. At $39, it’s expensive, but a value for pricey meat and a luxurious adornment.
Service during the week needs tightening. While the staff is perfectly attentive, when I visited they didn’t know the menu. I was reminded of this during dessert, where the Sicilian choices are more beguiling than standard tiramisu or cannoli. But finding out exactly what those choices were mirrored a game of charades. Despite the mystery, we thought ricotta and pine nuts sounded interesting, and ended up with what turned out to be the cassata, a Sicilian ricotta cake laced with a whisper of orange flower water. Another option, gelato on brioche, is a southern Italian treat to please your inner child, yet it’s plated to please a discerning adult.
That the server hadn’t been briefed on the desserts — or some of the dishes for that matter — isn’t the biggest deal, except that diners are paying nearly $20 a plate for starters and $30 to $48 for entrees. These prices warrant polished service and suggest the restaurant doesn’t have systems in place. If the winter opening is any indication, Manna will be a year-round restaurant, which gives it the time beyond the tourist season to work out kinks.
But if you’re looking for quiet ambience in a restaurant with a chef who knows his way around an Italian kitchen — if you order right, Manna may be your Hamptons spot.