“I´ll be back!” Words I repeat with good intentions each time I happily conclude a first-visit dining experience. However, it´s most often like making new acquaintances. You promise to call next week or at least stay in touch, but drift back into your routine, and months later the experience has dwindled into some random contact information drowning in a messy drawer of small coins and matchbooks.
Well this time I meant it, and I´ve added this place to my appetite´s speed dial. I said I´d be back, and the way I see it, I have no other choice but to incorporate Manni´s Pakistani delights into my weekly—or at least bi-weekly—routine. Authentic and oh-wow inexpensive, it´s my favorite kind of favorite find, so, too, because it´s small, outside of the tourist-oozing center, and provides a versatile, favorite-pair-of-jeans atmosphere where I could comfortably pop in hung over and haggard or sassed out as a prelude to my night out.
It´s Pakistani cuisine, honest and true to form. It´s the kind of place you selfishly hope doesn´t grow too popular for fear that you´ll lose your favorite table, have to start making reservations at lunch, or have to drop more cash for the same meal in a few months´ time. Alas, yours truly, the Big Mouth. Besides, the steady flow of patron traffic I witnessed at Manni last Tuesday evening suggested that the word is already getting out, and that I am perhaps a bit late in the know. And the fact that the restaurant has scheduled a major make-over, as well as a new sister location coming soon, confirms that it´s on its way to stardom. I suggest making reservations if you plan on a Friday or Saturday night dinner.
Let´s hope Manni sticks to its origins, which I was told were not even initially profit-driven, but flourished into the quaint cranny of Žižkov as the aroma of real spices lured in local business diners one by one. It really did grow from a small seed, perhaps a coriander seed. It´s a formula that works: straight up native recipes with authentic ingredients, genuine and unaltered, and with a menu absent of dumplings and goulash (phew). No frills. You want honest Pakistani fare without the common cultural veneer many ethnic restaurants use to compensate for subpar ingredients? That´s what Manni is about. And nothing more. No, really. If a chic atmosphere is part of your goal, you won´t find that here. The quality of the food compensates for the modest interior.
Pakistani cuisine shares many commonalities with Indian fare, and although there are regional variations, the food is about dressing up breads and meats (though there are plenty of vegetarian crowd pleasers) with rich flavors and spices, ranging from mild to suhm-mokin´. Manni´s menu seems lengthy, but it´s straightforward like everything else, and my dining companion and I were grateful to have been given excellent, knowledgeable recommendations by our server/host/manager/bartender, who, during my elaborate order, pointed out two dishes all too similar and suggested alternatives. A long-time fan of the tasty treats from this region, I wanted to swim in the familiar robust sauces, and also venture into the unknown. From start to finish, Manni didn´t wobble or stagger.
We began with traditional starters, accompanied by one mint-based and one bitter flavored sauce, both thinly providing a cool backdrop to each bite of the deep-fried basics. The point is to start with the more subdued flavors, so as to work your palette up a spicy hill. Pakora, one of the most popular South Asian snacks, emerged potato-based in a gentle batter, offering little to the taste buds but a velvety-textured center, a serving of four half-fist sized pieces for—get this—35CZK. The onion bhaji starter appears identical to the pakora, and was only slightly less shy. Soft and an optical illusion in weight, the sheekh kebabs make a nice prelude to the heavier dishes to come.
So we ordered a lot, and I usually know exactly how I want the itinerary of deliverables to go. But I was lost and indecisive this time as to how to begin the sampling, unsure that the sequence mattered much (the same kind of feeling I have now, as I write this). Fortunately, the reigns were taken from me by the kitchen staff, and thank goodness they provided that kind of relief felt when you just give your hairstylist the gist and he or she incorporates it with the necessary expertise, taking some weight off your shoulders. Just bring on the naan, I thought, so I could use it as the warm, soft steering wheel for the evening. The sequence of dishes guided us down a road that began with the rich, creamy, and mildly spiced Pakistani pleasures, such as the lentil-based and earthy dal masala, toward the sharper, gustier presentations that culminate in thirst.
Every main course offers the option of lamb, chicken, beef, prawns, vegetable, or tikka style preparation, so I changed it up according to the recommendations offered, finding that the meat, generously distributed, was secondary in quality to its full-bodied blankets of sauces.
The soft spinach paneer and garlic-and-ginger laced keema karahi were just a warm up for the ultimate degree of intensity in the world of rich and creamy. The spinach korma, in its entire buttery, glistening greenness was my favorite dish of the evening, thick and heavy, like the best fudge experience, except I could withstand much more of it.
I preferred the dopiaza to the madras for its lush consistency, although it was the oiliest of the main courses, a sparkling orange puddle in the bottom of the bowl. The heavy chunks of lamb and fried onions swimming in tomatoes with seasoned ginger, coriander, and Indian spices offered a more filling alternative to the much thinner madras, which swung in with a hotter, more distinct flavor due to the chilli and lemon juice combo, but bored me with its drippy, puree preparation. The bright red hue of the madras is daunting, but it´s not as spicy as it appears, nor is it “sour” as written on its description.
The beef okra was specially recommended off the “mixed dishes” section of the menu, which selects an array of specialties cooked with freshly ground spices. The smooth lady fingers, diverse chunks of vegetables, and hefty cubes of beef were enjoyable by fork, sans the naan. Finally, I left the ultimate spice climax, the bright red vindaloo, to my companion, who gives it a thumbs-up, but remarks that it isn´t as spicy as he expected, and that he could´ve handled more. What a bad ass. A conversation about different chillies from around the world unfolded between he and our server/the manager/host/bartender, which would be the first of several conversations they had through out our dinner while I nodded, chewed, and nursed a beer.
Nothing was disappointing at Manni, except during my arrival, when the main dining room was still empty, and we were seated in a full-on draft-target right next to the door, and my request for a better table was denied. Instead a bulky portable heater was aimed towards my goose bumps. At least my food cooled down quickly each time someone came and went. The manager later apologized for the seating multiple times, and explained something about it, but I don´t know, whatever. Ultimately, I appreciated his warmth (contrary to mine in the literal sense) and enthusiasm to elaborate on the kitchen´s offerings, make suggestions, ask us for feedback, chat about the future plans of the restaurant, and care enough to converse with not just us, but all of the guests that evening. He even insisted that the kitchen re-prepare the madras with prawns after he remembered that the beef madras he was about to deliver was an erroneous communication.
I do suggest topping off the experience with these sweet and simple Pakistani desserts: Kulfi is an uncomplicated take on ice cream, and gulab jamum is a wet-cookie mixture of milk, sugar and cream. The gulab jamum surprised me with its hot temperature, so if you order both of these desserts (why not? they´re less than 50CZK each) then watch your teeth in the transition.
It´s all about what you prefer from the Pakistani recipe list, really, myself opting for the thicker, milder sauces, while my companion sought the thinner consistencies, more distinct and spicy flavors to dip and drip from pieces of garlic naan. The portions are pleasing as well, particularly the biryani, so plentiful it could easily be shared between two people—and for 150CZK. I had a lot to take home, and
** I was psyched to see plastic to-go containers instead of Styrofoam. **
Seifertova 573/11, Prague 3
+420 222 511 660
Disclaimer: All stars are relative to an establishment´s context.
Jessica Rose can be reached at email@example.com