It bears noting that, of the more than a half dozen times I’ve visited San Francisco, my last three trips to the Bay Area have shared the same primary purpose: Manresa.
Sure, there were other noteworthy restaurants scheduled into those trips that might otherwise warrant a trip of their own: The French Laundry, ubuntu, Chez Panisse, and coi, for example. But, for me, dinner at Manresa has always served as the centerpiece.
Not only is Executive Chef David Kinch’s cooking fairly faultless, but it transcends the ingredients he uses, creating something wholly different and entirely new out of them. Though Kinch’s food defies place and time, it brims with story and perspective. There is always something to be learned, something to be imagined, something to behold here. There is a gravitas and excitement about Manresa that leaves you with a sense of urgency to return.
This is not behavior becoming of a Michelin 2-starred restaurant. This is behavior worthy of three Michelin stars.*
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chuckeats had raced us down to Los Gatos like bats out of Formula 1 hell earlier that afternoon (any faster and I’m sure we would have taken flight). There, we were joined by the incomparable Ms. O.M.G., whose facile company I’ve learned to miss since.
In full disclosure, all three of us at table that night are acquainted with David Kinch. chuckeats, who has eaten at Manresa decades times more than I, is all but a regular.
We didn’t really order dinner. Dinner simply appeared, a progression of nearly twenty-five plates, bites, and sips that stretched over seven hours.
Some of the dishes were Manresa mainstays, like the counterpart pâte de fruits and madeleines that bracket every meal, and Kinch’s gargouillou, “Into the Vegetable Garden…” Many were evolved versions of dishes that I’d seen before, like the “Strawberry Gazpacho,” “Snails Under Winter Squash Shoots,” and the “Farm Egg” – this time served with spiced melon.
And a few seemed experimental and new, like “Bluefin “Fromage du Tete” Canelons” – a tube of house-made pasta filled with headcheese pulled from sustainably raised bluefin kindai tuna – and “Octopus a la Plancha,” a Spanish vingnette with crispy, charred suckers dotting a small length of tentacle, a lovely round of potato, a creamy sauce, and extremely fresh salmon roe.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or click on the course titles to see photos of the individual dishes.
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“Morelle de Balbis“
Bitter leaves and lemon honey.
Fig leaf curd with flowering coriander.
Sashimi-style, plum dressing.
Delicate Abalone Jelly
Snails Under Winter Squash Shoots
Into the Vegetable Garden…
Pumpkin Veloute “Potimarron“
Nasturtium ice cream.
Japanese Eggplant Roasted with Citrus
Octopus a la Plancha
Salmon roe, potato.
Bluefin “Fromage du Tete” Canelons
Foie Gras in Seawater
Fresh lima beans.
Tomato-golden marjoram jam, pine.
Roasted strawberries, melon granita.
Squash Blossom Fritters
Homemade ricotta, “flower and fig.”
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I was not alone in noticing that this meal seemed to drift a bit more towards Asia. All three of us remarked on it almost at once at the end. Uncanny.
A few dishes seemed to showcase texture above all else, like the “Delicate Abalone Jelly,” which brought crunchy cucumber “noodles” together with a rich, dashi jelly and tender slices of abalone. “Japanese Eggplant Roasted with Citrus” presented us with a miniature, glazed Japanese eggplant that had been roasted until spoon soft. It coupled and contrasted intense flavor with a surprisingly delicate constitution.
Some dishes focused on the natural beauty of the garden. These were among my favorites.
Velvety “Strawberry Gazpacho” was poured around a fig leaf curd and flowering coriander granita. Try imagining the flavors. It’s impossible. You had to have tasted it to know just how punchy and fragrant it was.
Equally fantastic and mystical was a warm pumpkin velouté poured around a creamy scoop of nasturtium ice cream. Hot-cold, savory-sweet, earthy-floral, it triggered a host of sensations, a multi-dimensional experience.
Kinch is a curator of esoteric flora, and the “Morelle de Balbis” was our botany lesson for the evening. This little gem had the size and shape of cherry tomato, the coloring of a red bell pepper, and the firmness and stem cap of an eggplant. Halved, the interior revealed a fleshy, yellow core dotted with tiny flat seeds that looked like they came from a small chili pepper. Taste? Imagine cherry, tomato, and bell pepper crossed, actually.
What was it? According to Kinch, it was a member of the nightshade family, more akin to eggplant than anything else. The plant, we were told, sports lethal, razor-sharp thorns, so gloves are required for harvesting the fruit.
Did you ever wonder what brining foie gras in sea water might do to fatty liver? Judging by the rosy cut we each got, it makes it even more supple and delicate than normal. For all I know, that piece of foie gras was levitating above that mosaic of double-shelled lima beans that paved the plate. Those beans were every bit as silky and soft as the foie gras, though tender enough to give this plate some structure. The accompanying wedge of smoked plum? Brilliant. This course came with a cup of large-form salt crystals made in-house, which I liberally sprinkled over the plate.
The Veal “Tonnato” was simply stunning. It was my favorite dish of the night. With dried bonito shavings standing in for tuna, Kinch’s take on this classic Italian coupling offered a simple and gorgeous combination of flavors that left me blushing as pink as the tender slices of meat. A porcini fritter tucked among all of it seemed so random, yet so right. This was truly outstanding.
We happen to have caught Deanie Hickox in her final days as the pastry chef at Manresa.** She had returned to Los Gatos earlier this year, after leaving ubuntu, to assume her former post at the restaurant.
Hickox does wonderful things with fruits and flowers. Among them I count a tempura-fried squash blossom filled with milky, home-made ricotta. I believe the warm, frothy cream poured around it was made from nasturtiums, but I know that that the wonderful jam beneath the blossom was made from figs. Comforting and homey, I appreciated its restrained sweetness, which allowed the natural flavors of the milk, figs, and flowers to fully blossom.
For once, I was not disappointed in a chocolate ending. And here, we had a double chocolate ending. Whereas the “Flavors of Marjolaine,” which was served to the gentlemen as a last dessert, was witty and fun (think Rocky Road using the words ganache, meringue, sorbet, and praline), the rich “Dark Chocolate Terrine,” presented and sliced table-side as a last nibble, was quieting and soul-satisfying.
I don’t think I can quit this review without mentioning pim’s butter, an artisan product of the highest order. It deserves an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Tony.
Nor can I fail to acknowledge the service, which seemed more choreographed than ever before. Plates arrived together, descended together, and left together. Our captain was not only incredibly knowledgeable, but tireless. She, and the restaurant’s gracious general manager, Michael Keane, stayed with us from the first course to the end, happily slicing chocolate terrines and encouraging a midnight swim through a bowl salted caramels in the wee hours of the morning, after the restaurant had long-since emptied.
Truth be told, of the three meals I’ve had at Manresa, this one was not the most compelling one. There were a couple of dishes that lost me. And, whether perceived or true, I sensed that there was a bit of unsettled exploration in the overall arc of our meal.
That said, I remain firmly convinced that Manresa is one of the most dynamic, if not the most dynamic restaurant in the United States right now. What David Kinch is doing, creating, and building in Los Gatos is sui generis. I count myself lucky to witness the evolution in progress.***
As I stated far above, every visit to Manresa only begs for another. If you haven’t been, you must go, and go again.
320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, California 95030
** Deanie Hickox left Manresa to take up the pastry chef position at Daniel Patterson’s coi. Belinda Leong, formerly of Gary Danko, was named the new Executive Pastry Chef of Manresa shortly after this meal. She has also worked throughout Europe, most notably at noma and Pierre Hermé. I hear that macarons are to be expected.
*** David Kinch won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Pacific in May of 2010.