A good Mani is (not) hard to find

Sometimes I annoy my friends by doing this:

That would be me, taking pictures of food in a restaurant. Luckily, most of my current group of friends is either A) used to this behavior and able to ignore it; or B) prone to doing the same thing. (Honestly, cabin girls, what did I do before you?!)

And when you are eating food as enjoyable as our recent pre-wine tasting meal at Mani Osteria and Bar, why wouldn’t you want to take pictures?

Mani is a new restaurant on Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor. While originally attracted to the idea of a good wood-fired pizza place, the small plates are what really caught my eye while looking over the menu online. The girls – my usual partners-in-crime Melissa, Riki, and Diane joined by the lovely Sandi and Sarah – were on the same wavelength, so we ordered a variety of small dishes for the table.

The first dish to arrive was a very generous portion of mussels in a white wine and garlic broth:

I swore after almost four years slinging mussels during happy hour at the Earle that I would NEVER order mussels in a restaurant again. I started down my slippery slope of mussel-ordering while dining at Dev’s in New London, CT. Candace and her crew made some mean mussels, and I realized that I really do enjoy eating them. *Sigh.* Mani’s were no disappointment, and were accompanied by some charred bread for dipping in the delicious broth.

Crispy pork belly soon followed;

We barely tapped this with a fork before it fell apart, it was so tender. It literally melted in the mouth, which was a great contrast with the crispy skin. The meat was so flavorful that the apricot relish served with it wasn’t necessary (but it was welcome).

Riki gasped in delight when she saw arancini on the menu:

The rest of us were unfamiliar, but the Rikster did not steer us wrong: these fried balls of rice, prosciutto and cheese served up with a tomato-ey sauce were a table favorite. We actually had to order more.

Fried artichokes came next. Unlike other fried artichokes I’ve had, they were not heavily battered – just lightly crisped and served with a lovely creamy lemon sauce:

Roasted olives came highly recommended by one of Melissa’s friends, so we ordered them. The presentation was adorable – they arrived in a small canning jar on a wooden serving board accompanied by more charred bread.

The olives were a revelation. First of all, they were warm – which was awesome. They were fragranced with herbs (rosemary, according to the menu) and were just rich and delicious.

Calamari seemed like a boring choice, but we like it so we ordered it anyway.

What a treat. Once again, very light batter, and instead of rings we were served a bowl of crispy tentacles (the best part). It was served with a sort of relish-like substance (tomato) which was a nice departure from a creamy sauce like you would get most places.

Almost as an afterthought, we ordered a pizza, a basic margherita.

It had a nice crispy crust and a slightly charred flavor. I could have used more basil, but the overall flavor was quite pleasant. I’d love to try more of the pizza varieties.

We enjoyed the atmosphere of Mani as well – lots of light wood, steel, and big windows in the bar area. We did note that as it filled up, the restaurant could get quite loud, but that’s a common problem.

I shouldn’t fail to mention that there is also a very creative specialty cocktail list featuring many things I am not at all familiar with. We ordered Roman Holidays, an extremely refreshing blend of an Italian sweet vermouth-type liquor (I can’t remember the name, and the drink menu isn’t on the website) mixed with fresh lemon juice and fresh mint. Like iced tea – only way better.

I’m anxious to get back to Mani and try more pizzas and pastas, but really, I am most excited to have such a nice small plates place in Ann Arbor. Good job, Mani – we can’t wait to come back.

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