Classic dishes and service reign at Manhattan

There’s a reason why restaurant owner P.J. Macaluso and his partner Bill Wolf named their La Jolla restaurant Manhattan more than 21 years ago. They wanted to create a dining establishment like the Manhattan steakhouses of the 1940s and ‘50s - when tableside service and classic dishes reigned supreme.

You don’t find many restaurants still striving for those traditions. In fact, Old-World service by experienced waiters in black tie is almost non-existent in the chic new eateries - even in New York. The same is true of classics like oysters Rockefeller, veal Oscar, and chateaubriand.

That’s what makes Manhattan of La Jolla, a local landmark hidden behind the lobby of the Empress Hotel, unique. It’s also why you’ll find the sophisticated international crowd dining in La Jolla’s own Manhattan restaurant.

Just try to book a table during racing season, when the high rollers and others in the racing crowd want an unforgettable meal. You can also check the Zagat Survey, which dubbed this restaurant’s outstanding veal chops the best in the world. That’s high praise, indeed.

The ambiance is true to its Manhattan name as well. Brick walls, huge aquariums, soft lighting, photos of old New York on the walls, and plush round booths provide the perfect backdrop for culinary offerings that are more than a cut above. But it’s easy to drive right past the place. Only a small sign and a skyline logo on the corner of the building hints at what awaits you on the inside.

There have been some changes lately, but they only add to the restaurant’s uniqueness. On Friday and Saturday nights, the restaurant features live jazz. Tokeli (nominated 2007 Album of the Year by the San Diego Music Awards) performs every Saturday at 9 p.m., and she’s red hot.

Manhattan serves dinner every night, and lunch Tuesday through Friday. The lunch menu may be a little less expensive than the dinners, but the quality is still the same. In fact, some of the best seafood dishes (including scampi P.J., scallops au gratin, and scampi fra diavolo) show up to make lunch as special as dinner.

There are so many wonderful ways to begin a Manhattan dinner, but most diners want to savor a tableside preparation, like the flaming spinach salad ($16.95 for two). It’s incredible. Likewise for the traditional Caesar ($16.95 for two). If you opt for oysters Rockefeller ($14.95), you won’t be sorry, and what could be better for eggplant fanciers than the eggplant caponata, marinated in tomato sauce ($9.95)!

Steak is a top seller, and all the beef is aged Black Angus. The inspiration behind this restaurant comes from New York’s Delmonico’s - a legendary steak house that had its heyday in the 1940s, as Macaluso explained. There are seven steak dishes on the dinner menu, including chateaubriand for two ($65) and a Frank Sinatra favorite (Steak Sinatra, served over fettuccine in pomodoro sauce, $29.95).

As Macaluso explained, “This place is an extension of my kitchen. We even make our own breads and ice cream.”

What else is cooking in Manhattan’s gourmet kitchen? Pastas are taken to new heights here. Take the classic diavolo with vermicelli (available with shrimp or scallops). You can opt for mild, hot or very hot sauce in this Roman dish, priced at $26.95. We loved it with shrimp.

Veal lovers are in luck at Manhattan, where Wisconsin milk-fed veal is cooked to perfection. Veal scaloppini piccata with capers and wine ($25.95), veal chop Milanese ($34.95), and veal Oscar ($32.95) are just a few of the veal offerings on the menu. The 32-ounce double veal chop ($52.95) will challenge even the heartiest appetites, but it’s great if you take home the leftovers for another meal.

Chicken doesn’t always get the appreciation it deserves - both from the chefs and diners. But Manhattan’s Pollo alla Jean ($19.95) is everything a chicken fancier could want. The boneless breast is sauteed with white wine and then baked under a blanket of spinach and mozzarella cheese - and it is heavenly.

Of course, a restaurant of this caliber must feature a wine list worthy of the cuisine, and Manhattan goes the extra mile to provide outstanding wines. You’ll see the wine bottles stored all around the restaurant in cases and atop the booths. The bar can mix any drink you like as well.

Home-made New York-style cheesecake ($7), white chocolate ice cream with berries and Chambord liqueur ($7) and several other fabulous desserts finish off your world-class meal at Manhattan. Who needs to visit the Big Apple to capture the flavor of New York? It doesn’t get any better than the cuisine and ambiance at Manhattan.

Manhattan of La Jolla is located at 7766 Fay Ave. For more information contact them at 459-0700.