Manuela (at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel)
907 East 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Having been a child at one point or another, you probably have at least a glancing familiarity with the indolence of the righteous. Remember? It would strike after you raked the leaves in the garden without being asked, you took out the trash sua sponte, you cleaned your plate and excused yourself to wash everyone else’s plates. In that situation, if you were like a great many of us (I suppose I’m not speaking to the self-anointed paragons of virtue here, but then, I rarely am), you would perform that task with relish. When your work was done and your good deed was discovered by an authority figure or other beneficiary, you would bask in the inevitable grateful praise was showered upon you. What a thoughtful thing to have done!
But after that, if you were anything like me, a sense of self-satisfied complacency would set in. You had done a good deed, and you realized that the performance of such a deed insulated you against criticism for a time. So you might stretch the rules regarding bedtime, or the brushing of teeth, or the cleaning of one’s room, or one of the other chores or tasks which customarily were expected of you. And if, say, your mother reminded of these other obligations, you might not say anything, but you would be stunned that more could be expected of you. You might think, or even grumble under your breath, “That trash didn’t take itself out, you know.”
Sometimes, going above and beyond the call of duty breeds a sense in many children (and an alarmingly high proportion of adults, actually, come to think of it) that they’ve established a line of credit, that they’ve been given a measure of goodwill, which they can use to counterbalance a certain measure of nonfeasance (or even malfeasance, depending on the optimistic boldness of the child in question). Not, I suppose, unlike the adult who justifies three slices of pizza and a milkshake with twenty minutes at the gym.
I’ll get back to that in a minute. In the meantime, let’s talk about Manuela.
Manuela is an airy, indoor-outdoor space in the sprawling new Arts District gallery, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, helmed by Soho House luminary Wes Whitsell. Manuela’s cuisine is a curious blend of cuisines. If you press me, I’ll tell you Manuela is fundamentally a southern restaurant (the presence of pimiento cheese, biscuits and gravy, grits, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and Carolina gold rice renders that conclusion inescapable), but with heavy touches of Tex-Mex (see, e.g., beet tostada and chilaquiles) and Californian influence (as evidenced by the general seasonally driven, farm-to-table vibe, and the food first / technique second simplicity of the dishes).
For a medium-term denizen of the American Southeast with a strong lingering affection therefor, I was drawn to the menu by its southern flair, which gave me a big-time kick of nostalgia. But one of the most universally eye-catching items on the menu has got to be the deer burger. It is that item that ultimately really commanded my attention. Kelsey and I went to check it out.
The Order: Deer Burger, medium rare
The Price: $16.00
The deer burger advertises itself as coming with “all the fixins” (seriously). That means it’s an all-deer patty with strips of lettuce, beefy and deep-red tomato, and a healthy dollop of a sauce consisting of roughly equal parts mayonnaise and dijon mustard. On the side are a couple rings of raw red onion and two pieces of pickle which aren’t long enough defensibly to be called “spears,” so think of them as “daggers.” The burger is served on a milk bun (more on that later).
Right off the bat, there are two pretty remarkable – and unexpected – things in play here. First, the patty is deer. That gives it a gamey, richly marbled texture, and a musky, sweet roundness of flavor that beef could never provide. They recommend it medium-rare, and for a patty of this size, that is the perfect recommendation. This patty is substantial, pink, bloody enough, and genuinely complex and flavorful. It is a stellar centerpiece. I approached this dish with a suspicion that the deer patty may be a gimmick. It may be, but it is a delicious one.
The second lovely oddity in play here is the bun. A milk bun is a kind of roll native to Japan (Hokkaido, specifically). Roux is used as a starter, and these things have the heft of brioche but consistency of cotton candy. The poppyseed-dusted crust of the thing will look familiar enough, but the gossamer, cloudlike sweetness awaiting you after the first bite will surprise and delight you, I promise.
So, in giving us a succulent deer patty and a delicious and unique bun, Wes Whitsell took out the trash and washed the dishes without being asked. Sadly, that’s where the virtue of this burger ends. The sauce, an uninspired mustard-mayo combination, is pedestrian on the tongue. The tomato is wilted and chewy, rather than fresh and juicy. The lettuce is merely there, cut into wide strips and arranged thoughtlessly beneath the patty.
It is thus that Manuela’s burger, an offering with so much promise, falls victim to the indolence of the righteous. By presenting a strong patty and an estimable bun, this burger expects us to forgive its shortcomings in every other respect. Few would. The garnishes don’t disappoint in a vacuum; they adversely affect the overall quality of the burger, giving the palate little in the way of evolution or longevity. Each bite is a stagnant experience, failing to develop or provide the eater with any arc. You’ll taste bun and meat, and then you’ll be left wondering what might have been if the garnishes were on par with the basics.
Manuela’s burger is a thing of almost staggering potential, but like so many promising but lazy children, it fails to live up to that potential. Instead, it stands as a stark reminder that overachieving in some areas does not excuse shiftlessness in others.
Flavor: 8.10 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 7.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.80 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.30 / 10.00
Bun: 10.00 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.90 / 10.00
Balance: 7.60 / 10.00
Total: 79.70 / 100.00