In Tapa Form

W hen Ana De Los Angeles first visited New Haven seven years ago, a commercial space on the corner of West Rock and Whalley Avenues in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood gave her that tingly ‘this is the one’ feeling. She was living in New York at the time and had an accomplished 20-year career as a pastry chef. But she had always dreamed of opening her own pastry shop, and, somehow, Westville just felt like home.

In July 2009, De Los Angeles opened Manjares—“food of the gods” in Spanish—which, she says, her late father whispered to her in a dream. Manjares’s menu is no less inspired, influenced by her roots in the Dominican Republic, traditional Spanish tapas, and the occasional French technique and sauces.

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For the first year, Manjares focused on coffee and pastries such as croissants baked fresh daily, guava and cheese pastries (one of their bestsellers and Ana’s personal favorite) and ginger scones—“everybody loves them!” Ana says. As business grew, so did her business plan, and after a year she expanded the concept and hours with a tapas menu available Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

That’s the menu we tried on a recent visit, starting with a ham and sausage plate and a cheese plate featuring four cheeses, all Spanish, from a potent, creamy blue cheese mix of sheep, cow, and goat’s milk to the classic Manchego, a hard cheese from sheep’s milk. Bread slices were served warm, just toasted, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar on each table.

From there we sampled the Tortilla Española—think potatoes au gratin in an omelet, served like a piece of quiche—and the Gambas a la Naranja—three huge grilled shrimp, with the heads on, drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar with orange extract and dill and parsley. Of the Pintxos Mar y Tierra—three skewers of grilled beef, chicken, and shrimp in a passion fruit sauce (pictured above)—the beef was the standout, tender and juicy.

The Gambas Criollas, grilled shrimp over green plantains, tasted like a Latin American version of an elegant pot pie, savory, with plaintains as crust, a hint of sweetness from the mango chutney, but natural, never cloying or artificial in flavor. Stacks of green beans adorn each tapas plate, cut like lumberjack logs and arranged in bright pyramids.

Desserts are all made in-house, like the daily flan special, the chocolate cake, and the one we tasted: the Tres Leches cake, which was dense, moist and rich.

The breakfast and lunch menu are also expansive, with a dozen sandwich options and several salads like Sergei’s Russian Salad of roasted potatoes, carrots and beets seasoned with dill. There are omelets, breakfast burritos, French Toast (with homemade challah bread), the Paglia (a pancake sandwich stuffed with bacon, egg and cheese) and their Manjares Eggs, served any style with a Caribbean twist, accompanied by mangu (boiled plaintains), yucca and arepas (corn patties).

The maple syrup and many of the vegetables are sourced locally, and the eggs are farm fresh, some coming from the Sunday farmer’s markets just across the street.

That local feeling is a part of the Manjares experience. Ana rents the space frequently, for private parties or public events; neighbors walking by the shop on any given day might encounter a yoga class, a guitar lesson or a Zumba workout in full swing. Jazz performances are featured once a month.

A little girl’s birthday party was in full frenzy during brunch one recent Sunday, some partygoers spilling onto the sidewalk café tables in the midst of an intense game of tag, the birthday girl bouncing in her seat, licking the pink icing from a cupcake just plucked from the impressive cupcake stand Ana had created.

Unlike those kids, no one on staff ever seems to be in a rush at Manjares. Whether you come for a weekend brunch, an early morning coffee and croissant, or Friday night tapas and wine, the vibe is always relaxed.

Some might say too much so. “We’ve had customers come up to us and say the service is not fast enough, complaining: ‘Where’s the coffee?’” says Stephanie, Ana’s daughter, who helps out with managing the front of the house. “We’re not a franchise,” Stephanie adds, suggesting Dunkin’ Donuts might be a better fit for customers with a rushed schedule. “We’ll sit down and talk with you,” she says, “and some people don’t like that. But we’re more like a family, and we want you to feel at home here.”

838 Whalley Avenue, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sun 7am-3pm, Thurs-Sat 5:30-10pm
(203) 389-4489

Written by Jane Rushmore.

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Jane Rushmore specializes in travel stories and food reviews. She’s published articles on topics across the globe, such as palaces in Thailand, mineral spas in the Czech Republic, and opera festivals in Northern Italy. After brief periods living in London and Australia, she is happy to call New Haven home for the past decade.

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