Thursday, June 15, 2017
The food is great at Manuela. No question about that, but besides great food, there’s a cool, easy vibe in the bar, dining room and outdoor patio.
Manuela’s casual atmosphere was created by chef Wes Whitsell. The restaurant, like his look, is hip-country urban. His t-shirt, jeans, a turned backwards baseball cap and an apron fits easily with his hip version of a country café and bar, LA style. Outside the restaurant, he built an organic herb and produce garden to supply the kitchen. He left room for a chicken coop, with a dozen+ chickens whose eggs are served in the restaurant.
With as many as fifty items divided between Raw, Cured & Pickled, Supper and Vegetables, the food at Manuela draws on many traditions but the beating heart of the menu is country. Pimento cheese, country ham, chow-chow, biscuits, deviled eggs, cast iron cornbread, hushpuppies, collard greens, pork sliders, fries and mashed potatoes with gravy are a through line. If you had a picnic, you would do very well to bring Whitsell’s food to your afternoon at the beach.
This is country cooking with healthy, quality ingredients and fine dining execution. Having lived in Lebanon and France and cooked in some of LA’s most noteworthy restaurants (Gjelina, Blair’s and Osteria La Buca), Whitsell informs his cooking with his superior palate. Take a bite of almost any dish and you’ll experience a pairing of savory, sweet and heat. He cultivates relationships with farmers, dairies, fishermen and ranchers. Follow him on Instagram (manueladtla) and you’ll see how much he loves high quality ingredients and how far he will go to procure them.
Whitsell elevates familiar dishes and ingredients by adding an unexpected element. He takes the comfort-food-familiar flavors of a baked potato, sour cream and chives to another level when he flavors fingerling potatoes with freshly grated horseradish, crème fraiche and dill.
He is a master of meat (chicken, elk, pork ribs), seafood (Santa Barbara spot prawns, ahi tuna, California king salmon) and vegetables (beans, peas, cauliflower, turnips, carrots, kale and potatoes). Jars and crocks line the kitchen shelves because he loves pickling and fermenting. He serves plates of pickled vegetables and uses fermented elements (jalapeno, mustard seeds, radicchio) to spice up his dishes.
Rough textured greens like collards and Savoy cabbage that most chefs roast or boil, Whitsell serves raw. He massages them with kosher salt to coax a softness from their otherwise stiff leaves. To make his Cole slaw, he puts shredded savoy cabbage leaves into a bowl and sprinkles on kosher salt. His fingers go to work, pressing and squeezing the leaves together with the firmness of a Swedish masseuse. In a matter of minutes, those stress-stiffened leaves have relaxed enough to accept some friendly seasoning. He adds a sprinkling of red onions, pickled jalapenos and mustard seeds, shredded carrots and a hit of apple cider vinegar. Delicious.
The skillet and the bubbles
For his video, Whitsell shows the step-by-step process of making crispy fried chicken. His favorite and mine.
Two essentials to making great fried chicken: a heavy duty cast iron pan (and, in my opinion, a carbon steel pan made by de Buyer) and getting the cooking oil the correct temperature.
The tricky part of the process is cooking the chicken not too fast and not too slow. If the oil is too hot, then the outside will be crispy and the inside will be uncooked. That is why Whitsell recommends making a test piece to help you gauge the heat and the time it takes to cook the chicken properly.
Pour 1” of oil into the skillet, which should reach half way up the side of the chicken pieces. Heat for about 5 minutes. When the test piece is placed in the oil, the bubbles should come up the sides but not over the top. If the bubbles envelop the piece, the oil is too hot. On the video, Whitsell shows exactly the bubbles he looks for.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Spicy Honey Butter
Whitsell prefers on-the-bone dark meat to breast meat because he says it tastes better.
Taste the brine. It should taste like ocean water.
Given the time it takes to brine and dry the chicken in the refrigerator, do all the prep a day or two ahead. Bread and fry the chicken just before serving.
For Whitsell, quality ingredients are essential. That’s why he tracks down Sonoma flour from Grist and Toll, a local mill, and organic buttermilk from Clover Sonoma because he likes their taste and believes they are healthier.
Put each chicken piece into the pan slowly to avoid hot oil splatters.
Make sure there is a lot of space between the pieces in the frying pan and move the pieces around as they cook for even browning. Work in batches.
Brining & Drying Time: overnight - 2 nights
Prep Time: 15 minutes if using pre-cut chicken, 30 minutes if cutting up a whole chicken
Cooking Time: 20 minutes
Resting Time: 10 - 15 minutes
Total Time: 45 - 65 minutes + Brining/Drying Time: overnight - 2 nights
Yield: 4 servings
1 whole chicken or 1 whole chicken cut up, washed, pat dried
¼ cup kosher salt (for brine) + 2 tablespoons (for the flour dredge)
2 cups buttermilk, preferably from Clover Sonoma
2 cups all-purpose white flour or, preferably, Sonora flour milled by Grist and Toll
1 teaspoon freshly ground cracked black pepper
4-6 cups peanut oil depending on size of cast iron pan
Brine whole chicken overnight or 6 hours for cut up chicken.
Remove from brine, pat dry.
If using a whole chicken, after brining, cut off legs, thighs and wings. Filet the breasts off the bones and cut each breast in half. Wash and pat dry each piece. Reserve the bones to make stock or freeze if not using immediately.
Lay the chicken pieces skin side up on a piece of parchment or non-stick paper on the bottom of a cooking pan or baking sheet. Do not cover. Refrigerate overnight.
Mix together flour with kosher salt and freshly ground, cracked black pepper.
Put 1 inch of oil into the cast iron or carbon steel pan. The oil should reach half way up the chicken pieces. If needed, add more oil. Place on a medium to a medium-high heat for about five minutes.
Place the chicken pieces into the buttermilk or work in batches.
Take one piece of chicken at a time out of the buttermilk. Shake to remove excess liquid.
Place each piece into the seasoned flour. Pat seasoned flour over the entire surface, making sure all the meat is covered.
Shake each piece to remove excess flour. Lay onto a clean cooking tray or baking sheet.
As the dredging progresses, “flakes” will appear in the flour. That is a good thing. The flakes will add crispiness to the chicken.
Use one piece of chicken to test the oil’s temperature. Chef Whitsell suggests using a quarter of a breast.
As you slowly lower the test piece into the oil, the bubbles will rise up onto the chicken. The bubbles should not envelop the piece. If that is what happens, lower the heat a small amount.
Once you have browned the test piece successfully, start frying your chicken.
As you add pieces to the pan, the temperature of the oil will lower. Raise the heat to compensate.
Work in batches. Don’t crowd the pieces. Leave an inch or two between each piece and the sides of the pan so they cook evenly.
As the pieces are frying, move them around in the skillet for even cooking. Be careful not to knock off any of the crust.
Roughly speaking, each side should brown and cook through in 5-6 minutes, so that’s a total cooking time of 10-12 minutes.
After the pieces are browned and cooked through, let the chicken pieces drain on a wire rack, which is on top of a baking sheet for easy clean up.
The chicken should rest uncovered 10-15 minutes so all the oil drains off and the juices collect back inside.
Spicy Honey Butter
As Whitsell says, “As if fried chicken wasn’t rich enough,” he adds a layer of sweet-heat by drizzling spicy honey butter on each piece.
While the chicken is resting, make the honey butter.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
½ stick sweet butter
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large thyme sprig
3 whole dried cayenne peppers
Drizzle honey onto sweet butter in a small skillet over low heat. Season with salt, dried thyme and cayenne pepper.
Stir frequently to prevent burning.
Just before serving, pour melted honey butter over chicken pieces.