Manhattan7766 Fay Ave. (in the Empress Hotel)La Jolla858-459-0700
Certain restaurants seem to inhabit their own little time warp with never-changing menus that are impervious to trends. La Jolla's Manhattan, located on the ground floor of the Empress Hotel at the corner of Fay and Silverado, is one such restaurant. My parents took the family there for dinner when I was 15, and the menu now is much the same as it was those 19 years ago.
Admittedly, some things have changed in that time even if the menu has not. For example, you are no longer greeted at the door by a tray displaying the varied appetizers, and the previously teeming aquariums are now curiously devoid of fish. Still, Manhattan has maintained an old-world atmosphere with tuxedoed waiters that sing in Italian and super-comfortable dimly lit booths that have likely heard discussion of countless shady development deals.
Manhattan offers a menu described as a mix of Italian and New York cuisine with some of the dishes being clearly Italian, such as shrimp scampi and veal parmigiana, and others being decidedly Italian-by-way-of-New York, such as dishes like Steak Syracuse and Steak Sinatra, luxurious veal dishes like Veal Oscar and old-school appetizers like Oysters Rockefeller. In addition to meat dishes, Manhattan has an extensive selection of pasta, seafood and poultry, including daily specials.
I took the girl there the other night as a mea culpa for our lousy El Torito experience [See "City Eat," Aug. 18]. She'd never had an authentic Caesar salad prepared tableside, so we started with that. A cart is wheeled to the table, on which the waiter assembles Caesar Cardini's classic recipe of garlic, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, egg yolk and olive oil, pouring it over a generous quantity of fresh romaine lettuce and croutons. The whole thing is then tossed before being snowed under with parmesan cheese. Manhattan's Caesar salad is a textbook example of this dish, with a wonderfully tart flavor and silky texture, the tableside preparation ensuring crisp greens. Highly recommended.
Just as we were finishing our salad, the waiter returned with the entrées. You gotta love that kind of timing. We'd opted for the Veal Oscar and the Steak Fiorentina, the former designated on the menu as a family favorite via the ubiquitous heart icon, which is a little confusing if you're used to seeing it used to denote "heart healthy" dining. Rest assured that at Manhattan, none of the items would qualify for that designation. Even the vegetables that came with our entrees were liberally coated with garlic butter.
The first thing you notice about the plates is the absurd size of the portions. The Veal Oscar is a massive slab of tender and flavorful veal, sautéed in wine and lemon and topped with a generous amount of crabmeat, asparagus and béarnaise sauce, giving new meaning to the notion of gilding the lily. It's extremely rich, yet light, with a sublime interplay between the veal and the topping.
The Steak Fiorentina is a large, dry, aged New York strip steak, charcoal-broiled and topped with loads of fresh garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and Italian parsley. I ordered it medium, which is how they cooked it, but it left me wishing I'd ordered it medium rare. Meat this good needs to be a little bloody. Nonetheless, it's a great steak-the audaciously garlicky sauce offering a counterpoint to the charcoal flavor.
Even though we were full after eating half our entrées, I felt I'd be remiss in my duty if we skipped dessert. Though Manhattan offers a number of enticing desserts, one in particular really jumped out at us: P.J.'s Banana Royale, consisting of bananas, vanilla ice cream, raspberry purée, rum and brown sugar topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds. As we ate it, my girl commented, "Wow, this is a lot of fun." She also described it as the best dessert she'd had in a while, and I can't disagree.
There are many things Manhattan is not. It's not cutting-edge. It's not hip. It's not going to bowl you over with wild and unique cuisine. What it does offer, though, is timeless fare and service that makes you feel pampered from start to finish. Naturally, such pampering doesn't come cheap-Manhattan is a spendy place. A meal for two with shared dessert and no wine will take you over a hundred bucks with tax and tip. However, if you want to take someone special out for a romantic dinner, there are few places in San Diego that offer this kind of warm and luxurious experience.