Manolin feels like a beach vacation—not the cheesy kind with blended drinks and fresh towels, but the kind of oasis you might discover at the end of a bumpy ride down a dusty road, where you take up residence in a palapa and subsist on fresh fruit, seafood, and warm tequila for weeks.
The restaurant on the Fremont/Wallingford border features lovely blue tiles the color of a crystal-clear ocean, cream cinder-block walls, high ceilings, skylights, and possibly the best bar in town—huge and horseshoe shaped, topped with a glossy wood counter that's stained pale gray. It faces the bustling open kitchen, the heart of which is a glowing, Argentine-style wood-fired grill. There are also personal touches: light fixtures made from salvaged wood and vintage glass insulators, an abundance of potted plants (one dangles from the top shelf of the bar, tickling bottles of tequila), and a charming message ("Baby Come Back!") printed on all of its receipts.
The restaurant was painstakingly built almost entirely by its primary owners, Joe Sundberg and Rachel Johnson. Patrick Thalasinos bartends (and is also a part owner), and the chef is Alex Barkley. All four are Pacific Northwest natives who forged their partnership while working at Renee Erickson's the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Whale Wins.
With that background, it's not surprising that Manolin is heavy on seafood and the seasonal bounty of the region. But while the menu is firmly rooted close to home, it holds just as many Latin American components that result in dishes and drinks that feel truly distinct and inspired.
The house cocktails (all $10) are a great example of this approach, as well as a great way to begin a meal. The Rainbow Falls is surprising and delicious—smoky tequila mixed with sweet carrot puree, balanced out with lemon. In the Grayland, the spice of dry curacao and the subtle heat of piment d'Espelette counter the sugars of rum and pineapple. Drinks go down easy here, as they do on vacation.
For food, you'll want to start with the rockfish ceviche ($10), a dish so lovingly described by our server (who later introduced himself as co-owner Joe Sundberg) that we couldn't resist: Soft pieces of the mild fish, marinated in plenty of lime juice and chili, tumble out of the buttery half avocado in which they are served (bless you, Manolin, for being so generous with your avocados). But what makes the dish wonderful are the cubes of sweet potato, poached gently in cinnamon oil, which provide a subtle, crucial layer of warmth and spice. A wild haystack of fried sweet potato strands adds a welcome crunch.
When, on my first visit, the first course of ceviche was painfully delayed, Sundberg handled the situation perfectly: Before we could say anything, a complimentary bowl of plantain chips ($4) was delivered with a sincere and succinct apology. The sweet chips are dusted with just the right amount of salt and pepper to make them an addictive drinking snack. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the chicharrones ($6), which, while beautifully airy and crackling, and served atop a fine Calabrian chili aioli, were so salty as to be almost inedible.
The tea-poached squid ($10) was good but had too many components: Sweet-and-sour kumquat, piquant jalapeño, fresh celery leaves, crispy lotus chips, and quinoa overwhelmed the tender bits of seafood and made it hard to detect the flavors of the tea in which it was cooked. A small plate of Arctic char ($11) fared better: Its fatty meat was imbued with smoke, accompanied by astringent pickled baby turnips and mustard seeds, sauced with sour cream, and dotted with chive oil and fresh dill.
My favorite dish currently on Manolin's menu might actually be a seemingly simple spring slaw ($9). It's a mountain of raw vegetables—fennel, shaved asparagus, sliced pea pods, sprigs of red watercress, and matchsticks of tart green apple—tossed in a light, creamy dressing and amplified with an abundance of fresh herbs, most notably shiso, the mint-like Japanese green. It's another example of the kitchen's small, surprising but impactful ways that really make you appreciate what Barkley and crew are doing.
I also love the smelt escabeche ($12) because there is absolutely nothing shy about it: three whole smelt, battered and deep-fried, then lightly bathed in vinegar and served with big pieces of pickled vegetables atop a single bracing mustard green.
As much as I enjoy the massive, warming presence of Manolin's grill, it seems like Barkley sometimes struggles with the temperature of the coals and the plancha on which he cooks. I ordered halibut with spring mole ($14) on two separate visits, in part because I liked the local take on the Mexican sauce made from rhubarb, nuts, chilies, and pumpkin seeds, but also because the first time I had it, the fish had been tragically overcooked. The second time the halibut was prepared much better: A crispy, golden exterior gave way to a plush, moist center, but only on one side—the cooking was still uneven.
Issues with the wood-fired grill aside, Manolin's flaws stem from overthinking. The ceviche mixto ($14)—scallops, geoduck, and octopus with tomatillo, cucumber, and sea beans—felt overwrought and discordant. While the scallops and geoduck were thinly sliced, perfect, and sweet, the baby octopuses seemed to have been cooked separately and didn't have the same delicacy or brightness. Instead, they were a little tough and bland and cut into cumbersome halves that felt awkwardly plunked into the serving bowl. And the pieces of cucumber—also cut into oddly large chunks, rather than being light and refreshing, were essentially sour pickles weighing down a dish that should have felt light and easy.
A plate of sliced Muscovy duck breast ($10), grilled to a lovely, pink-centered medium rare, with rhubarb and bitter endive to cut the meat's richness, verged on greatness, but blobs of rum butter, sticky-sweet and cloying as cake frosting, were both unnecessary and distracting.
Still, Sundberg and Johnson have managed to create something important. The couple drew much of their inspiration for Manolin during a trip through the Yucatan Peninsula. Upon returning, it would have been easy for them to fall back into everyday routines and lose sight of what they had experienced. Instead, amid the countless, long workdays, they've managed to turn a brief moment into a way of life.