By Lauren Monsen
Like any chef worth his salt, Todd Gray believes that a good meal is a little slice of heaven.
And that’s what he aims to provide at a restaurant called Manna, at Washington’s new Museum of the Bible. The word “manna” — which means divine or spiritual food — appears in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus, referring to the food miraculously supplied to ancient Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness.
In keeping with the museum’s theme, Manna serves dishes from Israel and the Middle East — such as falafel (deep-fried balls made from ground chickpeas or fava beans), lamb meatballs, brine-roasted chicken and chopped-olive tapenade.
But the restaurant, run by Gray and his wife, Ellen Kassoff Gray, also gives the regional fare an American twist. Options include pizza-style flatbreads, blending Israeli and U.S. cooking traditions.
One of Gray’s most popular hybrids is tahini grits, a Mediterranean spin on an American staple. The chef adds tangy notes of cumin and lemon to Southern grits (coarsely ground corn), a food that reflects his Virginia roots.
Manna feeds about 800 people from all over the world each day. It seeks to strike a balance, introducing adventurous diners to new flavors while also featuring classic dishes with broad appeal.
“We had a family from Oklahoma City who said the food was amazing, and a group of Israeli scholars pulled me aside to say that our falafel was the best they’d had outside of Israel,” said Gray.
Years before opening the restaurant in 2017, Gray and his wife had traveled to Israel (where Ellen once lived) and co-authored a book on Jewish cuisine. On a more recent trip, they worked with Israeli master chefs, “learning how real falafel is made, which garnishes are used, how food is prepared and served,” said Gray.
Manna is designed to resemble an Israeli-style market eatery, its ceiling draped in tent-like fabric and its walls lined with terra-cotta ceramics. There’s also a garden terrace, planted with herbs, for outdoor dining.
Elsewhere at the museum is Manna’s smaller cousin — the Milk & Honey Cafe, also run by Gray and his wife — which sells snacks, sandwiches, beverages and artisanal spices. Launching the museum’s two eateries “has changed the way I look at food, and going to Israel has changed me as a chef,” said Gray.
“Meeting and cooking with people, including an Israeli husband and his Palestinian wife, has enlarged my perspective and made me feel as if I was at the crossroads of two worlds.”