Manna from Sugar Land

Magnus Hansson's new bakery-cafe is worth an expedition

An open-faced heap of house-cured gravlax -- the salmon rosy, salty, silky and alive with fresh dill -- spoke to the Swedish DNA in me; ordinarily, I might turn up my nose at the slight sweetness of the translucent honey-mustard dill sauce that escorted the salmon, but in the context of this sandwich, it seemed ... well, awfully Swedish. I'm not sure what my cousins in the Old Country would make of Hansson's pastrami-and-Swiss sandwich with sour cabbage, roasted chipotle chiles and citrus cole slaw, but the sight of it on Manna's menu amused this half-Swede to no end. Thank providence that Hansson married a Corpus Christi girl and did time as a private chef in San Antonio.

His sojourn in Italy appears to have done him good, too. Manna's daily pasta specials, brought forth in comfortable, steaming bowls, yield the likes of bow ties tossed with olive oil, Roma tomatoes, garlic, winy olives and roasted peppers -- a sunny-tasting, superbly balanced dish that shows how good a simple noodle dish can be. No goopy cheese. No trendy ingredients. In a town crawling with overembellished pasta dishes that can't break through their essential dullness, this one bucks the trend.

And it makes me long for the day when Hansson opens a Houston outpost. He's been looking at three different locations, two of them within the Loop, and he seems to have a knack for hiring people who can execute his ideas (his Sugar Land kitchen man, Steve Vanderpool, is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Vermont's answer to the Culinary Institute of America). Until then, I intend to make my Sugar Land journeys count, loading up on $3.50 domes of sourdough and rolls of many persuasions, taking home springy globes of house-made mozzarella, buying Hansson's short-textured Swedish cookies by the handful. Not to mention savoring the spectacle of Swedish meatballs cohabiting with Middle Eastern hummus in Manna's deli case, which makes a peculiarly Houstonian brand of sense.

Travelers' alert: take 59 south to Highway 6; turn left and proceed several miles to Dulles; turn left and proceed several blocks to the Pecan Plaza shopping center on your right. Stay-at-homes can purchase Manna breads at the upscale new Kroger Signature Stores in town.

Manna Bread Company, 2865 Dulles, Missouri City, 499-2924.

Manna Bread Company: wheatberry pancakes, $5.25; Magnus' migas, $4.85; roasted vegetable sandwich, $5.95.

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