Friday, April 30, 2010

Main Street’s Manchego Going Strong

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on Machego on Santa Monica's Main Street.

Main Street’s Manchego Going Strong

Upon entering Manchego restaurant the first thing that strikes you is the contrast between the bright Santa Monica sky and the dark exotic mystery that is housed inside. Manchego, located on Main Street right off of Oceanpark, serves Spanish food including hot and cold tapas, sandwiches, salads, and a multitude of imported Spanish cheeses.  The atmosphere is deep reds, chocolate browns, and charcoal blacks.   Red silk curtains hang in the windows; the wooden tables, chairs, and bar are deep in color.  You would definitely feel that you had stepped into Don Quixote or Carmen, except for the fact that Radiohead’s In Rainbows is playing on the CD player.  

During the year and a half that this Spanish restaurant has been open, its small space has evolved.   The bar seating has moved from the center of the restaurant to the side, which now allows for better flow for seating and social interaction. Although the Feng Shui as changed, the philosophy of the food has stayed the same. “Keep it fresh, keep it simple, and listen to the customers,” Ash puts in plain words. All of which are driving needs of a small restaurant.  Yes Manchego is small, but those who know my opinions know how I love this in a restaurant (allowing ability to control the menu and having it feel more like an extension of someone’s home).   Luckily it turns out Ash Amir, owner of the restaurant, holds the same opinion.  “Big restaurants always look empty,” he notes, “while a small restaurant always are more homey.”

Ash is an L.A. transplant, like everyone else in this city, but his location of origin is tad more exotic than Kansas.   Ash was born and was raised in Iran, save one year in 1990 when his family moved to Santa Monica. In 1999, almost a decade later, Ash decided he wanted to return to the United States and remembered Santa Monica with its famous Pier, and homeless population.  Once in California Ash studied Finance and Business, first at Santa Monica College and later at Cal. State Northridge.  During these six and half years he worked as a lifeguard for LA County.

Ash’s old roommate Javier designed Manchego’s menu.   “He’s from Spain.  We met on an airplane and became friends.   Later we went to Cal State Northridge and became roommates.”   After school Javier moved back to Madrid and Ash decided to visit his old roommate’s country.   While there he traveled extensively visiting locales such as Madrid, Ibiza, and Malaga.   

It was during his time traveling in Espana that Ash had an epiphany; he should do the thing he always wanted to do, and that was open a restaurant.  “I don’t know why, but I always liked the restaurant thing,” he says smiling with a slight look of wonderment.  “It’s definitely not in my blood, I’m from a family of accountants.”

But regardless of the why, after that moment of enlightenment, Manchego began to fall into place, naturally with the help of some good old fashioned elbow grease.   When the restaurant was starting Ash had his old friend Javier come over to the States to help out in the vision of Manchego.  Authenticity was guaranteed by having someone of Spanish background design the menu.  A year later Javier’s still in the picture, “he still consults for me from Madrid,” notes Ash.

Ash’s food philosophies are all over Manchego’s menu.   Everything is definitely fresh, simple, and authentic.  “All you have to do is look at the size of my kitchen to realize that the food will always be fresh, there’s no space for it not to be,” he explains.  The dishes range from lighter fare like the Gazpacho Andauz, a traditional cold Spanish soup, that is chocked full of vegetables. “It’s got lots of fresh garlic, along with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers.”  The soup is charming, heavily blended giving it almost a fluffy texture. 
Another fresh dish on Manchego’s menu is the Castilla Lechuga.   A salad comprised of aged Manchego cheese, avocado, cherry tomato, romaine lettuce, Spanish green olives, extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice topped with saffron chicken breast.  A great contrast to some of the richer items on the menu.

But don’t worry there are richer classic Spanish dishes like Grilled zucchini, feta cheese and caramelized pecans.  The Feta is really creamy, not having the salty bite that some people associate with this cheese.  Ash notes that this has to do with the quality of the cheese.  “There’s cheap Feta, and then there’s really good Feta.”  The Calamares con tostado tapas is a delight.   The black calamari with artichoke hearts and garlic on bread is absolute fulfillment.  Warm and soft in my mouth, there’s definitely depth to the flavor.  I have to admit out of all of the dishes, this was the one I made sure to finish completely. The goat cheese tostado with a blackberry and sliced strawberry on top.  It’s crispy and smooth with a sweet finish; you might want to even sample it as an after dinner sampling.

Displayed on the South wall of Manchego is a massive dramatic picture of a bull, one of the greatest symbols of Spanish identity.  Nestled next to this red hued picture is a smaller doppelganger version of it.   These identical images serve as Manchego’s logo.   “My sister painted the smaller version,” explains Ash, “the larger version is a blown up version of it.”   Maybe its because he’s a Taurus, but Ash has always had a strong connection with this beast. When asked if he’s visited one of Spain’s famous bullfights, he dismisses the notion. “I couldn’t imagine going to one.  I think they’re the most beautiful animal.”

And you can definitely find some of the stubborn bull tendencies in Ash Amir. Since opening Manchego, one of the most important changes that has occurred is the change in the hours it’s open.   Manchego now is only open for dinner; its hours are from five to ten in the evening.  This is a direct result of Main Street Sunday Farmers Market.   Sunday is the most popular day to go out for lunch.  But, if you look up and down Main Street the restaurants are empty because of the market.  That’s the main reason we’re not opened for lunch right now.”  For this reason Ash is working hard along with other Main Street merchants to get their restaurants into the food vendor part of the Sunday Farmers market.  

“Yes, we should support the farmers.  But it doesn’t make any sense to support restaurants that aren’t even local to this area, that are located an hour away from Santa Monica.”  And Ash is up to the challenge.  “It’s not easy catering to the size of the market, but I could handle it.   I average about three parties a week varying from thirty to two hundred in size.  Whatever the challenges we need to allow the Main Street merchants the opportunity.”  And who would argue that Jamon wrapped dates with cheese and a red wine sauce and Prosciutto stuffed with goat cheese and dried cranberries wouldn’t be perfect bite size additions to the market. 

“Really, I don’t care how much money you spend.  I’d rather have you spend $5 and have a smile on your face, than $500 and be unhappy.   And that’s why we’ve been really successful since we’ve opened,” explains Ash. “That’s the thing I love most about owning a restaurant being able to put a smile on people’s face while they are eating.”  And that’s something to be stubborn about.  

Kat Thomas is a writer in Santa Monica who is always up for an international food adventure.  

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