On the banks of the Savannah River in the developer-planned neighborhood of Hammonds Ferry, lovely tree-shaded streets converge on a commercial crossroads that is home to Manuel’s Bread Café. Like its synthetic community, which really is quite charming but has negligible cultural roots, the restaurant serves appealing food that seems strangely unconnected to culinary bedrock.
“In the tradition of a true French bistro,” the café describes itself, and that pose is well-reflected in an insouciant bill of fare that ranges from crème brulée French toast in the morning to Reubens and French dips at lunch to steak au poivre for two at dinner. Weekend brunch is a happy time to visit, especially popular when weather allows al fresco sidewalk dining.
What with shrimp and grits for breakfast and pulled pork barbecue and burgers for lunch and veggies straight from Manuel’s nearby garden, the menu is as much local and all-American as it is French (boeuf bourguignon) and even a bit French-Canadian (iconoclastic poutine topped with andouille sausage, gravy, and Gruyere cheese). French onion soup, a dish that was traditionally French until American gourmets made it ours back in the 1960s, is always on the menu: a slightly sweet broth with al dente strips of onion and croutons floating under an isle of melted cheese.
There is no clear gastronomic pigeonhole for Manuel’s salmon cake, but it is hard not to like. The fish is not really ground up; it is more pulled, so the patty includes good-size pieces of moist pink meat that taste like they just flaked off a salmon steak, interspersed with bits of crisp vegetable. The cake is pan-seared enough to give it a crisp edge and served on a ciabatta roll with roasted red pepper aioli. The roll is unimpressive; on two separate occasions it seemed day-old. Likewise, the length of wheat hoagie roll enclosing blackened trout was forgettable enough that I simply ignored it and forked up yummy pieces of the brightly-seasoned fish.
One sure winner from the regular menu is Manuel’s grilled vegetable sandwich, which features what’s in season. One Spring day it is slim stalks of asparagus, a disk or two of beet, onions, chevre, and olive tapenade singing a happy tune between two slices of crisp, multi-grain toast.
As you enter the restaurant, a glass cake to the left holds many handsome desserts, among them cheesecake, chocolate mousse, hummingbird cake, salty-sweet chocolate cake, white chocolate lemon cake, carrot cake, crème brûlée and Godiva chocolate crème brûlée. Pound cakes are wonderful, including sweet-potato pound cake topped with sticky pecan glaze and 5-flavor pound cake in which orange, lemon, pineapple, coconut, and rum swirl together to make something at once complex, intriguing, and tremendously satisfying.