Most days when I’m craving for something other than the usual American, Chinese, Japanese and Italian, it amazes me how the food landscape in Manila has changed and expanded. Used to be that restaurants need only come up with a menu’s worth of the classics, but with more Filipinos traveling around the world and learning that there is more to food and cuisine than cheeseburgers and fries, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the sheer number of dining spots offering the more “foreign” fares of Thailand, Indo-Pakistan, the Mediterranean and the many flavors of the Middle East. And don’t even bring up fusion, because that’s another article in itself. Fact of the matter is this: if you’re as much the foodie as I am, then Manila’s a great place to find yourself in.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by Philip Mazloum to sample the new dishes of Mana-ish & More, a Middle Eastern restaurant whose unique selling proposition is its thin-crust namesake—the mana-ish, a popular local delicacy in the Middle East. According to Mazloum who hails from Syria, the mana-ish is as famous in the Middle East as pandesal is in the Philippines.
“The mana-ish is like a Middle Eastern pizza,” shares Mazloum. “It’s a famous snack in countries like the U.A.E., Lebanon, and the gulf area. We’re the first to offer it here in Manila. While other restaurants have the same appetizers as we do, the mana-ish is something you can only find here.”
As if on cue, Mazloum brought out the Magnificent 6 Mana-ish (P200) to break our fast. A sampler of six different toppings, namely the Muhamara, Soujuk,Blanche, Zatar, Esfiha and Jebneh, the dish serves as the best way for you to figure out a favorite. While I found the jebneh a little too rich for my palate (it’s made of soft white cheese and has a mild salty taste), I enjoyed how the different crushed spices of the zatar danced in my mouth. And as I like my food hot and spiked with chili, the muhamara, the spiciest of the toppings, was heaven.
The good thing about Mana-ish is that what you see is what you’ll get. Mazloum really made sure that the authenticity of the cuisine is preserved. “While some Middle Eastern restaurants have taken to altering the dishes to cater to Filipino taste, right from the start, the plan was really to do it authentic,” says Mazloum. “We do not want to change the authentic flavors. We import most of our ingredients from Damascus, and we even have a chef from Damascus who trains our cooks how to achieve the right taste. The challenge was really on how to present this food for local customers.”
Mana-ish’s menu is a mix of the comfortable and the foreign. They have common Middle Eastern appetizers like the Hummos (P138), Moutabal (P158) andBaba Ghanouj (P158), which I always find myself ordering in Middle Eastern restaurants because, heck, you can never go wrong with these starters. TheTabouleh (P170), a refreshing parsley grain salad, cleanses the palate and I’ve taken to eating it in between dishes. According to Mazloum, tabouleh is best eaten fresh.That way, you get to experience the full flavors of the herbs.
Of course, a Middle Eastern meal would not be complete without the kebab. And if you’re on a mission to “kebab” the night away, Mana-ish has a variety of skewers that will satisfy your cravings. The Shish Tawook (P100), skewered chicken breast marinated in a blend of herbs, is quite savory; as is the fork-tender herb-marinated Shish Lamb Kebab (P120). The Beef Koufta (P85), with its blend of ground beef, lamb, parsley, onions and tomatoes, is a delectable assortment of flavors. All kebabs are served with the saj bread, but if you want it with rice, try the saffron or vermicelli.
If you’re looking to eat something unforgettable, I suggest—implore—you try Mana-ish’s delightful selection of fatteh, an Arab dish that uses pieces of toasted pita as a foundation upon which various ingredients are added on top. Every time I visit Mana-ish, I never leave without sampling my favorite: the Eggplant Fatteh (P325). It’s the best hunger buster with its delicious combo of boiled chickpeas, ground meat, toasted pita and vermicelli rice, topped with fried eggplant, buttered cashew nuts and tahini sauce. It is sublime. Another variation is the Bone Marrow Fatteh, which has mostly the same ingredients but oozing with deliriously good bone marrow.
Needless to say, by the time I finished inhaling all the food served that day, I found myself in the midst of a food coma. I literally could not move. Good thing Mana-ish has got a casual, friendly vibe that invites you to linger. “I’ve always envisioned this to be a family place—a friendly place,” says Mazloum. “When I decided to open the restaurant, I envision a full place where the crowd enjoys and stays on even after they’ve finished the meal.”