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Southern Comfort

BY Lesley Balla | December 27, 2016 | Feature Features National

Chef Wes Whitsell's Texas roots shine through at the Arts District's newest restaurant, Manuela.
A look inside Wes Whitsell's new eatery, Manuela

In its essence, really good pimento cheese is as decadent as caviar. It is not high-brow food, and it’s all the more glorious for it. The spread—a staple found in just about any state below the Mason-Dixon Line—is typically made with American or cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and red peppers or pimentos. At Manuela, the snazzy new restaurant at the Hauser Wirth & Schimmel contemporary art compound, chef Wes Whitsell makes his with a bit of jalapeno, but it’s not spicy. Order The Redneck platter and scoop the stuff on a buttery biscuit—it makes life literally worth living. It’s as good as the best Ossetra on soft blinis. Set in the former Globe Mills complex, a collection of interconnected buildings that once served as a main grain mill from the late 19th century until the 1960s, Manuela is hard to find but makes a statement. If you didn’t know any better, you might walk by the restaurant thinking it was an art installation. The industrial bones of the entire structure—big sliding doors, steel beams, brick walkways and lots of concrete—seamlessly blend with the rustic warmth created by designer Matt Winter. Walled by windows, the dining room is open and still cozy, with the kitchen front and center. Pops of warm blues, brick, natural woods, marble and brass give the space a homey vibe; contemporary art on the walls adds some edge. Outside, a wraparound patio looks out to the sculpture garden. It’s in the open air, but it’s covered by the building—so it feels as if the tables are outside, but they really aren’t. Everything’s an illusion.

Whitsell grew up in deep Texas, which is why things like pimento cheese with biscuits, deviled eggs and ham, smoked meats, pickles and wood-grilled everything show up on this menu. He was cooking at Soho House in New York when Manuela’s partners discovered him, and then he cooked at a few spots around town, including at Osteria La Buca. With Manuela, he’s found a haven for Southern-inspired fare with SoCal nuances (or maybe it’s the other way around) and a chance to showcase it via the best of our local bounty. There’s even an on-site garden and chicken coop that he utilizes for the kitchen. Urban farmsteading with a dash of contemporary cool. How very L.A.

I love that the menu lists “Supper,” rather than dinner (there’s also brunch, lunch and cocktails). Somehow that folksy gesture doesn’t feel misplaced or contrived. Maybe it’s because the down-homeness courses through Whitsell’s veins, and so it fits comfortably on the menu. Sure, there’s ceviche and crudo and even oysters for appetizers—things you’ll see just about everywhere. But there’s also elk tartare with smoked jalapeno and capers. Raw and pickled vegetables come with ranch dressing, sort of the chef ’s ode to crudités. And I can’t think of one other restaurant with a deer burger.

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