East End Eats: The Critic and Her Critic

We decided to meet at Manna, a new Italian restaurant in the old Mirko’s space in Water Mill
Lobster risotto at Manna Morgan McGivern

Manna
670 Montauk Highway
Water Mill
631-726-4444
Lunch and dinner, seven days

Kurt Vonnegut once said of critics: “He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or banana split.” As a restaurant reviewer, my job is to literally attack that hot fudge sundae or banana split. And then to analyze it, take into account my guests’ opinions of it, deconstruct its components, contemplate its freshness, price, presentation, and finally to praise or criticize it.

One of the best features of this newspaper is the Letters to the Editor section. All letters are printed as long as they are legitimate, not anonymous, and not libelous. If you are a loyal reader of this section, you may have noticed that some folks use it as their weekly forum. It was through one of these letters that I met the “critic’s critic,” Joe Policano. 

He disagreed with one of my reviews, and we began a correspondence. I asked my editors if I could invite Mr. Policano along for a review. The idea was approved years ago but temporarily forgotten. I would get the occasional email from him reminding me that I had made this offer, letting me know his food preferences, when and if he would be in town, and what he thought of such-and-such restaurant that he and his wife had just had the displeasure of dining at. Pierre’s. Lunch. Too expensive.

We decided to meet at Manna, a new Italian restaurant in the old Mirko’s space in Water Mill. “We’ll be the interracial couple in their 80s,” he informed me. “Remind me to tell you about the time I had dinner with Craig Claiborne” was another tantalizing tidbit he threw my way before our meeting.

The Mirko’s space remains the same but is due for renovations in the near future. The entrance has a tiny, cozy bar to the left, and a small dining room to the right with a fireplace, pale blue walls, and an old, low, acoustic-tile ceiling. Some striking artworks by Gil Ferrer, a hair salon owner, adorn the walls, large oil paintings in shades of blue and green punctuated with gazillions of seashells.

When Joe and Kathy arrived, dapper and pretty, respectively, we ordered some Gavi wine and enjoyed the tabletop offering of a dish of ricotta, olives, and sun-dried tomato tapenade to go with some sourdough rolls. They told me they met their first day at Brooklyn College 58 years ago. Joe worked in P.R., running his own firm; Kathy was a teacher. When he retired in 1985, they traveled through Europe for a year.

“Where did Joe’s interest in food come from?” I asked as an amuse bouche of little meatballs arrived. He used to cook a lot and even took Chinese cooking lessons, one time serving a 16-course meal to friends. “We ate Chinese food for two years straight,” Kathy reminisced, somewhat fondly. The meatballs were delicious, light and fluffy, with a mild tomato sauce.

Joe and Kathy raised their children in Queens and spent winters in Puerto Rico until 1990 when they moved to East Hampton year round. His meeting with Craig Claiborne came about when his P.R. company was representing the Czechoslovakian Tourism Office in Washington, D.C. He invited Mr. Claiborne to attend a dinner there, and he did. He then reciprocated by inviting Joe to join him as he reviewed a restaurant in New York City, Trattoria Gatti. Mr. Claiborne didn’t think much of the place, neither did Joe, and Mr. Claiborne confided in him that he really didn’t much like reviewing restaurants at all.

For first courses we ordered eggplant timbale, duck spring rolls, and grilled octopus. The eggplant timbale was a huge portion: roasted slices of eggplant piled high and filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and some mozzarella and topped with tomato sauce. The eggplant was tender and delicious. The duck spring roll appetizer was four small rolls topped with a porcini glaze and micro greens and sitting on an absolutely delicious sauce of parsley, basil, and garlic. 

The octopus salad was a pretty presentation: thin slices of nicely charred octopus, some olive chimichurri, an edible orchid, and more micro greens. I was finding it difficult to interview my guests and pay attention to the food at the same time. Did Joe like his eggplant? “It’s nice.”

I tried to get a sense of what kinds of foods they like and why my critic disagrees with some of my reviews. At this point he tried to tell me he doesn’t recall ever criticizing my reviews and says they’re the first thing he reads in The Star. I ask Joe and Kathy what their favorite restaurants are on the East End. They loved Della Femina’s (“but not his politics!”). They adored Gordon’s in Amagansett, and miss the ambiance of John Duck’s in Southampton. Cafe Max is nice, La Parmagiana in Southampton is considered a good value, and Tweeds in Riverhead is a favorite. I began to realize that we probably have completely different tastes in restaurants, but I appreciated their opinions.

For entrees we tried the swordfish, veal chop, and short rib pappardelle. When Joe got his swordfish, he lamented having ordered two dishes in a row smothered in tomato sauce. Also, his couscous was cold, he informed our waiter, Ricky. Ricky consulted the chef and returned to tell Joe that it is meant to be room temperature. So that’s that. The fish was tasty, and the sauce borders on a puttanesca, full of red onions and olives.

Kathy’s short rib pappardelle was a big hit. We all agreed it was flavorful and the meat tender. I enjoyed my veal chop, for two days actually. It was huge, seasoned and cooked perfectly, and served with truffled wild mushrooms and mashed potatoes and garnished with a few black truffle slices and rosemary sprigs.

The service on the night of our visit was very good but slow. I would attribute this more to the fact that Manna was packed, and the restaurant is brand new. Prices are expensive: Appetizers are $15 to $26, entrees are $22 to $48, sides are $10 to $15, and desserts are $12 to $14. There was no hard liquor license at the time of our visit, but the wine and beer selections are reasonable.

As the Policanos didn’t care for dessert, and we’d been at Manna for three hours by that point, I ordered two to go, the berry Napoleon and deconstructed cannoli. The deconstructed cannoli was pretty good. A few shards of crisp cannoli shell were embedded in ricotta filling with chocolate chips, some berries, and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. The berry Napoleon was absolutely delicious. It was several crisp rounds of puff pastry layered with an excellent vanilla pastry cream and chock full of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. The top had a crackling layer of caramelized sugar, and it even remained crisp through the following day.

So the fur didn’t fly, blood wasn’t let, and no glasses were broken at the meeting of the critic and her critic. Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut should have taken his armored critics out for a meal and tried to find common ground. As for me, I’m pretty sure my tastes will always differ from the Policanos’, but we have already made plans for a field trip to their favorite Italian restaurant, Baby Moon in Westhampton Beach. 

I like my critics, I like differences of opinion, and I like to hear people’s stories.

Marco Barilla, the chef and owner of Manna in Water Mill, is clearly proud of his ingredients. Laura Donnelly