Flatiron Steak with Pommes Frites, Whole Crispy Striped Bass, Traditional Cuban Flan
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Maria Manso World Cuisine
Reviewed Maria Manso World Cuisine: Friday, August 25, 2006
Maria and Yo are in a very quiet tree-lined area of San Rafael. There is always street parking nearby, and it’s a nice ride over the bridge. (You can take tourist friends to the Golden Gate Bridge overlook on the way back.) Yo is always exceptionally welcoming and the entire staff is very friendly. Yo loves to create infusions of various liquors and fruit, often from their own organic garden. Maria does wonders from a smallish kitchen. It is a great place for a relaxed and savory, creative meal. Maria, like my partner (The Cuban Wonder), is from Cuba originally and takes some family recipes, adds her considerable experience, and extrapolates into a cohesive and original menu. Her Asia de Cuba roots show, but so does her unique perspective with food.
Unlike our other visits, we went over on a Friday night. We had no trouble getting there and parking was a breeze. True, from San Francisco we had to pay the toll for the “admission fee” on the bridge back to the city, but it is still less than most parking garages in the city. It was just warm enough that we were able to sit outside. That’s a very romantic and charming environment for dinner. I really think it must be great for lunch on a warm day.
Our dinner was at a very relaxed pace. This is not a restaurant to rush through. That night we learned that there had been a major calamity with the kitchen staff on their way to work, and Maria was alone in the kitchen. How she did it, I’ll never know, but she did! The food’s generally not quite as labor-intensive as Asia de Cuba’s, but it was all delicious and it speaks to Maria’s skill level and organization that she was able to go it alone that night.
Occupation: Part-time Caterer
Location: Walnut Creek
Favorite Restaurant: El Jarro
Reviewed Maria Manso World Cuisine: Saturday, September 16, 2006
Maria Manso’s International Cuisine in San Rafael is the restaurant I’ve been searching for. When we stepped through the door we immediately felt at home. The warm wall colors flow with the colors of the floor, tables are pristinely set, and the light glows softly from the wall sconces and the candles on the tables. Simple elegance.
And although warm and inviting, nothing could compare to the greeting we received from Alejandro. It truly was like coming home to see family. We were immediately seated, served water, and allowed time to peruse the menu and wine and drinks list. In the meantime, Alejandro delivered fried tortilla strips and fresh green olive tapenade. Our food server arrived with another friendly greeting. My guest ordered a beer and since I couldn’t decide between two wines, our server left and came back with a sample of each. Nice touch.
We started with the Louisiana Crab Cake with Avocado Remoulade on Arugula with Lemon Oil and the Saffron Shrimp Timbale with saffron aioli. The crab cake was nice and brown on the outside with a wonderful crunchy texture, the inside was moist and flavorful and the remoulade finished it off perfectly. The timbale arrived as more a mound of shrimp. And although the shrimp was chopped into nice bite-sized pieces, it was very tough. My guess is it was overcooked. The flavor was nice; the texture was not. The bed of salad greens was enough that I didn’t need to order a salad; however, a quick rinse of the greens would have removed the old black pieces I found on my plate. For our next course we ordered the flatiron steak with pommes frites and the pan-seared ahi tuna with a candied ginger sauce and sesame mashed potatoes. I am not a meat eater but the steak was perfectly seasoned and cooked. The pommes frites were very thin shoestring potatoes presented in a big pile. Trying to put them on your fork with a knife as we observed another guest attempting to do was tricky. We decided to make them finger food. They didn’t complement the wonderful steak. While the ahi tuna was seared perfectly, it was served a little colder than I’m used to and I didn’t taste a candied ginger sauce. We thought it tasted more like a teriyaki and soy sauce blend. The mashed potatoes were warm but bland and didn’t work well with the tuna. The two textures were so similar, I think I would have enjoyed the Asian Slaw or something with crunch with the tuna.
Dessert is something we rarely eat, but we decided to indulge. Turns out it was our first experience in gluttony. We ordered the dessert platter: Coconut Sorbet, Flourless Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Coulis, and Maria’s Grandmother’s Secret Flan Recipe. The sorbet was excellent -- not too sweet, very refreshing. The cake was disappointing; it lacked a good chocolate flavor and it was missing a nice creamy texture. The flan, usually one of our least favorite desserts, is the best-kept secret of all. It was excellent -- the texture, the sweetness, and the caramel sauce all worked well together. Worth the five-mile run we had to do the next day. Since I’m not likely to travel to San Rafael very often, if Maria Manso would like to open a restaurant in our neighborhood I would welcome her with open arms. Just make sure to bring Alejandro with you.
The ambiance, the Latin music in the background, the ability to linger over dinner and drinks and have a nice conversation without loud distractions were well worth any inconsistencies in food. The food wasn’t awful, it was enjoyable, there were just a couple of glitches. If you live in the area, definitely stop in for dinner, I would.
Occupation: Radio Personality
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Mecca
Reviewed Maria Manso World Cuisine: Thursday, September 28, 2006
Nestled between other local businesses on a cute street in an even cuter town, Maria Manso World Cuisine in San Rafael reminded me of some of the places I have visited in the small German towns of my native Texas. On our drive there, we were redirected because of a town street festival that we all wished we had more time to attend. The bouncy house at the end of the street let us know it was a family affair that probably had a little something for everyone. Unfortunately, it was a weeknight, so we needed to devote our time to dinner and to Maria Manso’s, so we skipped the fair.
Walking into the restaurant was like going home. Although definitely a fine dining establishment, you won’t find an ounce of pretension at this establishment. There is an air of sophistication with soft tones and lighting against perfectly dressed tables. For San Francisco standards, this was a slow Thursday night in this quaint restaurant. When we walked in, we were greeted by Maria herself and then taken to our table by our hostess for the night, Yo. I call her a hostess rather than a server because she treated us like she had known us for years. She was extra attentive and extremely knowledgeable of the extensive menu. I was so happy to be at the restaurant with a group of five close friends because we were treated so well that it was an experience that I was glad to share. I can’t imagine finding customer service like this at any other restaurant in the City.
One of the most interesting things about Maria Manso is the specialty drink selection. Instead of vodka, they use a specialty liquor called soju. The restaurant had an extensive list of soju mixed drinks including ten or so martinis, as well as other drinks on the rocks. Strange combinations and exotic treats such as the Lychee Nut and Juniper Berry Martini are one of the things that make this place so special. What was also great was the non-alcoholic specialty drink menu that included a delicious Violet Soda. To quote Yo, “Just because you don’t drink alcohol doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a special drink.”
With a group of five, we enjoyed a number of appetizers and entrees with the highlights being the Maui Dumplings and the Whole Crispy Fish. The fried striped bass had a presentation so unique, it is indescribable. They don’t call it the most photographed fish in Marin for nothing. The combination of flavors from all over the world were a delight and although I definitely enjoyed some dishes more than others, the selection and uniqueness of each dish made this restaurant different than any other that I have been too.
But the service is set apart. It was so spectacular that one of my friends leaned over to me and whispered, “Are you sure they don’t know you are reviewing the restaurant?” With the way we were treated, you would think they had been tipped off, but they couldn’t have had a clue. This is a special place, run by special people who are obviously more than just employees. It is worth every minute of the thirty-minute drive from The City.