Mother and son restaurateurs Rosalyn and Nat Dance are banking on it. They’ve renovated the building at 112 N. Fifth St. (right across the street from the John Marshall) into Manhattans, one of Richmond’s newest and most elegant dining rooms. Starched white tablecloths and napkins, tuxedo-clad waiters and uptown jazz create a cosmopolitan atmosphere and a certain level of expectation where the food is concerned.
Though Manhattans is a great venue to hear live jazz (local talent every Friday and Saturday night), Rosalyn Dance is quick to point out that at Manhattans the focus is, indeed, on the food.
Executive chef Shawn Scott honed his talents at several local eateries, including a stint at the helm of Rivah Bistro. On his menu you will find an eclectic sampling of French, Northern Italian and Mediterranean flavors, as well as a hint of the Old Dominion, in his dishes.
The lunch menu offers everything from entree salads and homemade soups, to sandwiches, fresh seafood and steak. We started with the fried green tomatoes and fresh mango chutney ($5.95). Nicely seasoned and crispy golden brown, the sweetness of the chutney nicely offset the tart green tomato. The portion was easily enough for two people to share. Next came the white seafood chili ($7.95), a refreshingly original dish that alone is worth the trip. The freshest crab, mussels, shrimp and calamari were beautifully melded with a piquant sherry-accented béchamel.
The basil crepes ($8.95), stuffed with spinach and mushrooms and paired with a warm lemon sauce, were light with a depth of flavor that kept me anticipating the next bite, but I was disappointed in the grilled tuna sandwich ($8.95). It was served with limp, fresh-cut fries and a roasted red pepper aioli that lacked complementary flavor, and the presentation was stark.
Yet dinner is what Manhattans is really about. The presence of live music energized a room that had seemed lifeless at lunch. The service was snappy and dapper, the patrons happy and boisterous.
We started with an assortment of appetizers. The frog legs ($8.95) were breaded and fried to perfection, complemented by a sweet corn custard and red pepper coulis. Sweet potato mezzaluna ($8.95) was topped with lump crab. The walnut-brown butter sauce on the latter was a bit oily, but the presentation of all the appetizers was fresh and colorful.
Unfortunately, the entrees’ arrival was met by a noticeable sigh of disappointment. All of the dishes blended onto their yellow fiesta ware, and at this price I’m looking for the “wow factor.”
We tucked into our meals, and around the table our reaction was the same. The entrees were delicious, but side dishes were lacking. The pan-seared duck breast ($22.95) was paired with a deep and complex fig-marsala sauce, but overcomplicated with saltimbocca-style whole-wheat pasta. The New York strip ($23.95) was perfectly cooked and featured a port wine reduction, but was accompanied by sweet potato gnocchi that were overpowered with nutmeg. The special, free-range chicken breast ($19.95) stuffed with black truffles and served atop pine-nut risotto with a balsamic reduction, was perhaps the least appealing visually, but juicy with a good match of flavors.
Manhattans’ desserts are pretty traditional. We sampled the Bailey’s cheesecake ($6.95) — good, but complemented by a dribble of chocolate sauce and a raspberry smear that seemed like an afterthought. The double-chocolate Napoleon ($5.95) was tasty, but a few bites in I got bored. The creme caramel ($6.95) however, was dazzling. Rich and creamy, resplendent with caramel sauce and accented with fresh fruit. This is what we had been looking for.
If Manhattans can work out some of the details, it is set to become a destination for casual fine dining downtown. Much like downtown itself, many of the pieces are there, and only time will tell how well they come together. S
Manhattans ($$$) 112 N. Fifth St. 644-5777 Lunch: Monday-Friday 11a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
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