Diner: Get Down Home

Comfort food in a jazzy atmosphere at Manhattan West

Apr 8, 1999 at 2:06 pm

The name Manhattan West may conjure visions of a chic, urbane cafe, serving nothing heartier than focaccia sandwiches and attracting a black-clad, cappuccino-sipping, too-hip-for-life crowd. Manhattan West in Pleasant Ridge is anything but.

Rather, this brightly lit, boxy restaurant looks more like a sit-down cafeteria from 1920s Harlem, when upper Manhattan was a hotbed of culture, pulsing with the music of Louis Armstrong and the verse of Zora Neale Hurston.

Though the ambiance of this 8-month-old restaurant still needs development, paintings of Jazz musicians hanging from the rust-colored walls, and free-standing black African sculptures have begun to provide an appropriate backdrop for Manhattan West's historically rich cuisine.

The applicable culinary term is "soul food," which has been around since the 1600s, when slaves created rich, home-cooked meals from scant ingredients. The menu tells the story: "It is the power of love and strength that has created a style of cooking called soul food."

This cuisine, which boasts Fried Pork Chops and Georgia Peach Cobbler, is obviously heartier fare than focaccia. Indeed, surveying the menu, I experience a moment of vegetarian terror. If I were a carnivore, like my regular dining companion, my mouth would have been watering over Baked Ham ($8.95) and Baby Back Ribs ($15.95), or on the lighter side, Grilled Chicken Breast ($10.95) and Cajun Barbecued Shrimp ($13.95). I relax when I detect the vegetable sides (each $2.50) including Mashed Potatoes, Green Beans, Okra and Candied Yams which offer a veritable Thanksgiving dinner, sans turkey.

No more than five minutes pass before a server arrives at our booth to take our drink order. My friend orders a Bass Ale ($3.50), while I stick to iced tea ($1). Drinks arrive quickly, and we order our dinners. I opt for the only vegetarian dish, Veggie Delight ($7.50), a choice of four veggie sides and cornbread, cinnamon muffins or rolls. I choose green beans, candied yams, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and cornbread, even as I secretly fear a starch attack. My guest decides on the Blackened Salmon ($12.95), okra, candied yams and cornbread. We order no appetizers since none are offered on the menu.

But appetizers prove unnecessary, as our dinners arrive within 15 minutes. Unfortu-nately, my green beans contain ham (which I didn't know because the menu doesn't provide much description). I exchange the beans for corn, which appears shortly.

The rest of my meal deserves the description "soul food." In my experience, soul food is anything which tastes like something my mother feeds me on Thanksgiving, although I'm certainly not saying that this food is as good as my mother's (all restaurant reviewers have their prejudices). The candied yams are truly "candied," warm and sweetly baked with apples, cinnamon and nutmeg, qualifying as a dessert. The thick, cheese-laden macaroni and cheese and the warm, authentically lumpy mashed potatoes are distinctly homemade. The slightly sweet, fluffy, buttermilk cornbread will enliven even those palates normally apathetic toward this basic.

Although my partner has been playing with his steamed okra as much as he's been eating it — apparently fascinated with that sticky substance found in all okra which he deems "okra slime" — he remarks on the vegetable's fresh tenderness. The okra literally melts in your mouth. The salmon, on the other hand, is a little dry. Although "overcooking" is the point of blackening, the meat should still remain moist inside. Also, the Cajun coating, which generally sets the mouth afire with garlic, onions, chiles and black pepper, lacks kick.

You don't leave a restaurant like Manhattan West without dessert, especially when sweet and sensual names like Custard-style Sweet Potato Pie ($3) and Down Home Banana Puddin' ($3.75) beckon from the menu. We — finally — decide on the latter and Luscious Apple Crisp ($3.45), because they're out of Georgia Peach Cobbler.

The Puddin' is everything we hoped it would be — a sweet, banana-rich mix of custard and cream. The Apple Crisp's crust is flaky and strudel-like, and the warm, cinnamon sweet filling will address anyone's need for home cooking. Even if you're out for nothing more than dessert and coffee, and don't love down-home food, keep Manhattan West in mind. And when you are in the mood for comfort food, drop in and take part in the restaurant's efficient, friendly service and genuine home cooking.

Go: 6041 Montgomery Rd., Pleasant Ridge

Call: 531—7222

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.

Prices: Reasonable

Payment: Visa, Master Card and Diner's Club accepted.

Vegetarian Friendliness: Nine vegetable side dishes to choose from.