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Review: Breaking Brunch at Atelier Manna

With ambitious zero-proof drinks and a game-changing Spanish French toast, the Leucadia restaurant is the secret and sober star of SD's daytime food scene
Photo Credit: James Tran

The girl who greets you at Atelier Manna is staring through you. I mean, probably. Hard to tell, since she’s wearing a blindfold, with mandalas painted where her eyes would be. This oracle kid doesn’t need eyes to see the universe in its entirety. She’s wearing a crown that appears at least partially made of cilantro. Hovering above her outstretched hands is an anatomically correct heart. Maybe it’s her own, which she’s offering as a vulnerable gesture of goodwill and hospitality. Or it’s some other person’s that this eerie kid separated from their previously alive body.

Crapshoot either way.

I don’t know anything about this art piece and I don’t want to. Art is whatever the seer is seeing. And personally, I see the story of Manna and chef-owner Andrew Bachelier. The youth represents an unfatigued optimism, maybe less sophisticated but also more pure (just like Manna’s kitchen, which is about one square foot, and the chefs’ tools are glorified camping gear, tasting spoons, and a healthy dose of F-it).

Mural art at Atelier Manna in Leaucadia designed by Rory Morison
Photo Credit: James Tran
Local mixed-media artist and musician Rory Morison is the mind behind the mural of a cilantro-crowned kid that welcomes guests to Atelier Manna.

The blindfold represents the “see with your gut” risk Bachelier took when he left Carlsbad’s Jeune et Jolie, the kind of restaurant he’d worked his whole life to helm (it’s partially named after his daughter, and it would win a Michelin star a year after his departure, a nod he no doubt deserves partial credit for). And the heart is why he stepped away from a career apex—to be with his three daughters and wife during the pandemic.

Manna is Bachelier’s return, and it is a hell of a return. It’s less a restaurant than a very lovely porch on the side of Highway 101 in Leucadia. A nothing-but-brunch alcove that feels like the restaurant version of glamping. Bachelier and his wife designed the whole thing using materials from restaurants whose time on this earth has passed. Estate-sale chic, with some paint splotches on one wall. (“We just started throwing paint at it after a couple beers one night,” chef says.)

This is a brunch restaurant without booze, which feels about as natural as a sober cruise ship or doing body shots of gingko biloba in the rave tent. Day-drinking and general enthusiasm for excess is the coin of the brunch realm. The brunch industry is irresponsibility as a group project—a social stiff-arm to household chores, magically turning to-dos into to-don’ts.

Greek yogurt panna cotta from Atelier Manna restaurant in Leucadia, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran
The Greek yogurt panna cotta comes with a layer of guava tapioca on top.

Email an investor your idea for a nonalcoholic brunch restaurant, and any self-respecting spam filter would intervene on behalf of that person’s money. And yet, there is seemingly always a line at Manna. Because of the food. Like their albacore tostada—raw cubes of line-caught tuna, marinated like a traditional poke (white soy, sesame oil), then criss-crossed with jalapeño crema (fermented for 14 days, emulsified with avocado and cilantro) and pickled Hungarian pepper sauce. Looks like a pack of Fruit Stripe gum, tastes like you’re making quality life decisions.

Back to the drinks, because I have misled you into thinking the beverages here were somehow fraudulent sans alcohol’s benevolent toxicity. Without the breakfast charms of Champagne, they have created one of the most ambitious zero-proof drink rosters in the city.

On their “vitality tonic” menu, the “Bronze” is coffee from Carlsbad roaster Steady State with five-spice, fenugreek (it’s like nature’s bitters), and lemon, clarified with milk and poured over a single giant ice cube. Give it a few minutes to dilute (it’s a tad thick on the pour), and it’s one of the better iced coffee riffs around.

Bartender at Atelier Manna in Leucadia, San Diego making a non-alcoholic cocktail beverage
Photo Credit: James Tran
Zero-proof sips—so often an afterthought—get a bartender’s care here.

They also have three wellness shots. To make their fire cider, they treat organic apple cider vinegar like a whiskey, aging and fermenting it for a month. Then it’s steeped with alliums (which, according to the National Institutes of Health, have “antioxidant, anticancer, hypolipidemic, anti-diabetic, cardioprotective, neuroprotective, and antimicrobial activities”), lavender, rosemary, jalapeño, clover sprout, and honey.

Drinking hippie bartender vinegar is the new Frenet. The server warns me it’s intense, and he’s right, but it’s also delicious, and, placebo or not, I can feel recent iniquities leave my body.

Light jazz plays on the overhead speakers. My server (who was with Bachelier at Jeune et Jolie, as a few other members of the team were) is wearing a Panama hat, and his beard is so wild he will one day not have to shave it, but clear-cut it. The couple next to me are wearing Lycra. Not the Kardashian kind, the bicycle kind.

North County’s biking scene is very, very serious, and so Manna may one day become the first Michelin-starred restaurant where the dress code is shorts with crotch pads and sheeny shirts with so many logos the diners look like NASCAR drivers.

Beef tartare from Atelier Manna restaurant in Leucadia, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran
Manna’s Asian-inspired beef tartare.

They serve a çilbir, which you don’t see often. It’s a Turkish specialty whose magic is spiced butter (much like Ethiopian niter kibbeh). Poached eggs come atop herbed yogurt, a pile of torn herbs, and that sassy butter. Mix it all up and use the Prager Brothers toast as your edible utensil.

Their beef tartare gets an Asian spin, with black garlic, Asian pear, and nori combining for a deeply rich, lightly sweet-spicy note next to the natural sauce of a quail egg.

Humble porridge is getting velvet-roped in San Diego right now. Kingfisher’s killer congee has been one of the city’s must-try dishes for a couple years now. And Manna’s bowl of beautiful grain sludge is a knockout—toasted buckwheat cooked in mushroom stock, then served with foraged mushrooms, deeply caramelized brown miso, seared Hokkaido scallops, an egg yolk, and herbed cheese. Putting sautéed mushrooms with miso is almost unfair; the only thing that could unlock more flavor is if you braised the whole dish in a slurry of truffles and MSG. It eats like a risotto-paella.

Spanish French toast aka butterscotch custard-stuffed torrija at Atelier Manna restaurant in Leucadia, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran
Manna’s butterscotch custard–stuffed torrija, or Spanish French toast.

Of course, no brunch is complete without a couple dishes that spike your insulin, and Manna’s star is the torrija—Spanish French toast. It’s a two- to three-day process. They start by making a butterscotch custard, then they cut huge chunks of sourdough, pipe that custard into the bread, and let it set for at least a day so that it’s not too mushy. It’s served with hunks of applewood-smoked bacon in maple syrup. Cut through, and the inside is like a butterscotch tres leches.

Bachelier’s arrival is smelling salts for Leucadia’s food culture, and Manna’s just the start. Soon, if various gods and city regulatory boards finally deign to offer their blessing, he’ll be opening the fried chicken sandwich concept Chick & Hawk with local icon Tony Hawk (who is secretly one of the biggest restaurateurs in the city).

If my napkin math is correct, that will be the economic driver that will allow Bachelier and his crew to do something truly irresponsible and open a Michelin-star-gobbling dinner thing. I’ll Lycra up and go on that ride.

Exterior of Atelier Manna restaurant in Leucadia, San Diego a popular spot for local  bikers
Photo Credit: James Tran
Lycra at the brunch table is a common sight in cycling-obsessed Leucadia.
Chefs in the kitchen at Atelier Manna restaurant in Leucadia, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran
The Bronze non-alcoholic cocktail at Atelier Manna in Leucadia, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran
The “Bronze” is a milk-clarified iced coffee that drinks like a cocktail.
Outdoor patio at Atelier Manna restaurant in Leucadia, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran
Bachelier and his wife handled the restaurant’s design themselves.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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