From The New Jewish Table to the Museum of the Bible, it’s been a journey just short of one through the desert for established Washington, DC, chef-couple Todd and Ellen Gray.
Their latest venture may seem a far cry from the marriage of innovative farm-to-table and traditional Ashkenazi dishes present in their cookbook. But at Manna, the 160-seat restaurant at the new downtown museum, the culinary creativity that the couple shows in hardcover—and at their classic vegetable-forward restaurant Equinox—is on full display.
“We’re not your typical museum food,” says Ellen Gray, standing over handsome knotted-wood communal tables. Replicas of ancient cookware line the walls, and undulating cream-and-red cloths drape the ceiling, right out of a Bedouin tent.
“This is a unique dining opportunity,” Ellen said. “We wanted to serve something that we wanted to eat. We can’t go in and serve hamburgers.”
The Grays were originally approached by the museum back when the couple was managing another museum café, at the now-shuttered Corcoran. Given their relevant experience, they were a natural fit.
“Once we signed on, we had to think of the right concept. I’ve always been a fan of Mediterranean cuisine, and that direction made sense given the subject matter on display,” Ellen added.
Yet Manna is not a generic Mediterranean quick-eats spot. The chef-driven menu is carefully put together from enormous research, including an intensive fact-finding trip to Israel.
First, though, they took to the books for an academic understanding of biblical-era diets. They found that meals were simple, straightforward and mostly vegetarian, with a bit of goat for meat protein. “What stood out to us the most was realizing how much plant-based and seasonal foods are what was consumed—but it makes perfect sense,” says Ellen.
Then, on their trip to Israel, it all fell into place. They broke bread with food scholars, top chefs, tahini manufacturers and producers all over country.
“The food today is incredible. It’s different than when I was there 35 years ago on a kibbutz,” Ellen mused. “They are rocking it.”
Todd and Ellen visited old spice shops, learned 2,000-year-old recipes in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter, ate a year’s worth of figs and dates and were blown away by a cheesemonger deep in the Negev churning out a dozen types of goat-milk products, including goat-cheese ice cream.
Back at home, they got to work on the menu. When they wrote The New Jewish Table several years ago, it was a project of fusion, of Americana with Ellen’s herring-and-borscht background. Manna’s similarly a fusion: of seasonal, “traditional” American food with Israeli Middle Eastern cuisine.
The Grays knew that their audience would be different from those sitting at the white tablecloths of Equinox or reading their book. At first, they sought a sit-down restaurant, but realized that was too formal. They then originally offered patrons the opportunity to put together their own plates, but as diners were unfamiliar with ingredients like tahini, that also was problematic.
Today, Manna offers a composed-dish menu of exploration: ancient food through modern, Americana eyes. Hence: Tahini-laced grits. Falafel made with pumpkin. Pita dough sourced locally from a Lebanese baker. Za’atar-dusted pita chips. And French fries—added to the menu after repeated customer requests. Options have names like “Amazing Grace” and “Washington Revelations.”
“Everything is made in-house,” Ellen says. “We have a pastry chef making date-nut dessert, sufganiyot and babka. There are only two meat proteins, and we’re really proud of that. We’re staying true to biblical times—it wasn’t a meat fest.”
In the end, Ellen concludes it all makes sense, “We had put out The New Jewish Table years earlier, and incredibly, so much there is reflected in Manna’s menu. It was,” she says, “always in the stars to happen. It’s almost as if it were our calling.” Amen to that.
Manna at the Museum of the Bible, 400 4th St SW, Washington, DC, Open daily 11 am–5 pm. Not kosher.