Restaurant Reviews

Manna from Sugar Land

I must confess that my interest in Sugar Land has been, until now, strictly ethnographic. I wondered at the exactitude with which the chilly, affluent suburbs of North Dallas seem to have replicated on the coastal prairies of Fort Bend County; I speculated on the Nouveau Sugar Land lifestyles of such notables as Vernon Maxwell, Jeff and Shaune Bagwell, Hakeem Olajuwon and the late Lady Walker (flamboyant onetime consort of Anna Nicole Smith's ancient hubby, T. Howard Marshall).

Of culinary curiosity, I had none. The Swinging Door barbecue joint was about as far southwest as I was willing to venture in search of interesting eats. Now the gifted Swedish baker and chef Magnus Hansson has changed my mind: the mere thought of his amazing pancakes, creative sandwiches and strangely elegant migas makes driving 25 miles to the Biblically named Manna Bread Company -- located just across the street from his house -- seem almost reasonable.

Anyone who has rummaged through the breadbaskets at the Daily Review or the brand-new Baci has already sampled Hansson's wares. He made his Houston reputation as star baker at the fancy Seekers grocery after wearing the chef's toque at Evan's during the last two months of that ambitious Montrose restaurant's life. And he has a Michelin star to his credit: he won it in 1990 for his "eclectic fusion" food at a restaurant in his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden's second largest city.

Eclectic fusion (a style drawn from Hansson's stints in Italy, France, Thailand and California) may take some getting used to in the conservative, young-money wilds of Sugar Land, where Outback and Carrabba's reign. Hansson is already thinking expansion -- as in weekend dinner service and a Houston location that would concentrate more on food -- but for now, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Sugar Land gentry have access to breakfasts and lunches as provocative and accomplished as anything inside the Loop.

The warmth and casual charm of the place belies its obscure shopping-strip location. Mottled butter-yellow walls, pretty birch cabinetry and foursquare oak tables, all hand-done by Hansson and his family, give it the air of a Scandinavian kitchen. (A few faux-brick frescoes seem to have sneaked in from a pseudo-Tuscan eatery, but that's the '90s for you.) The service is semi -- as in order up front -- and the menu's more home-style than the fine-dining repertoire Hansson has pursued for much of his cooking career.

Not that this is kitchen-table food. "These taste like a winter mountain morning," marveled a friend when confronted with a heroic stack of Hansson's whole grain wheatberry pancakes. Thick and tangibly wheaten, they are permeated with the evocative flavor of wood smoke -- a benefit of having been cooked on the same griddle that fried the accompanying apple-smoked bacon. Pure magic. Manna's raspberry-tinged maple syrup adds its own spin. Are there better pancakes in the Greater Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area? I doubt it.

The Big Texas Eater at my elbow doubted that there were better migas to be had, either. At first he was skeptical: perched on a slab of grilled sun-dried tomato bread, flanked by a smooth, cooked salsa and asprout with leafy cilantro, they looked more like a photo stylist's dream than an iconic regional breakfast. But he was won over by crisp ribbons of fried tortilla; by garlic chives that gave dimension to the pico de gallo threaded through the scrambled eggs; by the suave smoked-tomato ranchero sauce with its bracing tang of jalapeno and rice vinegar. Smart, unorthodox and long on flavor, this dish makes a persuasive case for the city's culinary melting pot.

Hansson returns to his roots with the Swedish breakfast, a simple plate of wafery smoked ham and turkey, holey Swiss cheese and sweet butter that function as accessories for his formidable breads. His trademark is the kind of substantial texture and chewy crust that turns bread consumption into a participatory sport, and the small rolls underpinning the Swedish breakfast maximize the crust factor, displaying Hansson's skills at their uncompromising best. Did I wish that my $5.75 had bought more than one skimpy variety of cheese? Yes. Was I happy anyway? Yes again. And the strong, clean-tasting Swedish coffee that Manna pours made me even happier.

If Hansson has a weakness, it is that his predilection for dense, substantial textures occasionally weighs down his wares. His muffins, for example, have a specific gravity that seems unduly high; the cranberry-banana version was far too wet and doughy to be appealing. His scones sound interesting but taste too healthy for their own good; a raspberry-lime version was aggressively wheat-y, more like a bread than a comforting biscuit. And croissant purists may find Hansson's too hefty, their opulent butter quotient notwithstanding. (The chocolate croissant, though, hides enough potent, bittersweet chocolate to bring on a helpless swoon. I actually saw it happen.)

When it comes to sandwiches, substance pays off. Grilled, Hansson's understated peasant sourdough makes a hugely satisfying platform for the thinnest shards of roasted zucchini, yellow squash and eggplant, all interlaced with marinated red peppers and a discreet melt of salty goat cheese. What elevates this sandwich past its peers is a tangle of caramelized, sweet-sour onions and thready Parmesan that sits on top of the bread -- messy, inconvenient and thoroughly wonderful.

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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Alison Cook