review: king of the hill…
Three years ago, I stumbled upon greatness. Manresa opened a chapter to an era and a process.
Last month, I returned and found that process not only undisturbed, but evolved, advanced, and flourishing within its own world. It was great to return to the place where so much for me began.
Although I’d like to say that Manresa was a serendipitous discovery, that’d be a big fat lie. How I learned of David Kinch or his restaurant in Los Gatos, California, I can’t remember.
What’s important is that I did and that my first meal at Manresa in 2006 introduced a whole new language to my dining lexicon.
It’s no coincidence or mistake that I’ve recently posted reviews of my meals at l’Arpege and ubuntu. Anticipating another meal at Manresa, I thought I’d pave the way with Alain Passard and Jeremy Fox.
Kinch, Passard, and Fox are very different chefs with distinct voices. They are not cooking the same food. But they move in the same realm. Positioning their kitchens around the garden (Love Apple Farm for Kinch, a two-acre plot in le Sarthe for Passard, and ubuntu garden for Fox), they’ve each created a self-contained world between the land and the plate. To eat at Manresa, l’Arpege, or ubuntu is to enter the world of these chefs.
Passard is the genesis – his food is prototypic of its kind. It’s sparse, naked, and unadulterated. It sprawls. It’s theoretical.
Fox’s cooking, on the other hand, is a window into the future. Compared with the others, his food at ubuntu is devolved; it’s less rigorous and more impressionistic. It’s iconic and approachable. It’s casual. And it’s more playful, too.
Nudging his garden closer to the sea, Kinch is the nexus and the apex of the evolutionary track.
His cooking is where the past and the future meet.
It’s timeless, as demonstrated by sepia-toned “Vegetables in Calamari Broth,” a gathering of tender baby squid; double-shucked peas; unripened strawberries; and succulents in a rich squid broth dotted with opalescent spheres of occhipinti olive oil. Sophisticated and complex, it was primordial yet highly developed in the same bite. The flavor was as rich and deep as the ocean and as fresh as spring.
Kinch’s food transcends culture. It has roots in France, Asia, and Italy. Yet, together, it’s none of those. He seamlessly and convincingly weaves Western ingredients together with Asian seasonings: Porcini “Shirodashi” presented a textbook omelet next to a fat, meaty porcini sauced with creamy shirodashi. It was classically European but threaded with Asian umami. He makes grissini out of kelp and wraps them in house-cured lardo as a pre-meal snack (“Kelp Grissini“).
It’s otherworldly: how do you place a pixie rainbow palette of flowers, herbs, and vegetables in various textures? Showered with a green “garden soup,” it was delicate, light, yet full of flavor, packing a pickled punch from a quenelle of whipped ground mustard cream. It’s a supernatural musing with nature.
Flavors are intensified to their Platonic ideal – like a thick, viscous onion-marrow broth that tasted like a Chinese village’s worth of bone marrow soup concentrated into a small saucer. Warm and inviting, it was poured around a coral-coloured block of wild Pacific salmon so fatty and gently cooked that it shredded at the gentlest pawing of the fork. The fish was attended to by fresh chervil, a quenelle of (chervil) cream, baby onions, and morels.
“Strawberry Gazpacho” gathered a field of strawberries and condensed it into a velvety, cool soup that brilliantly balanced sweet, sour, and savory.
And textures are studied with extraordinary diligence. Squash is transformed into a creamy risotto that is threaded with silky strands of fiorelli (blossoms) and topped with curly ribbons of shaved, raw zucchini and (what I can only guess were) crispy fried squash chips.
My worthy companion for this dinner was Aaron of A Life Worth Eating. Chef Kinch assembled for us a multi-course odyssey. Book-ended by homonymic “petits fours” – red pepper pâtes de fruits and black olive madeleines fore and strawberry pâtes de fruits and chocolate madeleines aft – our meal lasted six indulgent hours.
Click HERE to see the entire set of photos or on each course for the individual photo.
Red pepper pâtes de fruits and black olive madeleines.
Garden Beignets and Panisse
Iranian osetra caviar with roasted crab broth.
Turnip and Foie Gras Royale
Spiced zucchini flower.
Vegetables in Calamari Broth
Oil “occhipinti,” shellfish.
“Multi-color,” stone ground mustard.
Into the Vegetable Garden…
Abalone in Brown Butter
Sorrel with coriander.
Squash and Corgette Risotto
Without rice, fiorelli.
Wild Pacific Salmon
Chervil, an onion and marrow broth.
Old fashioned omelet.
In warm poultry bouillon, garden greens, and seaweed.
Kobe Beef Bavette
Quinoa in arugula juice.
Strawberry in Hibiscus
Goat fromage blanc, pineapple, and guava blossoms.
“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?”
“Dark Chocolate Cupcake”
Like my first meal at Manresa, this dinner started with half a dozen pre-meal bites; a somersaulting series of flavors, textures, and temperatures.
There were fried fritters of sorts – one, a moist panisse perfumed with green garlic, the other, a savory beignet made of vegetables – under a tuft of crispy kale (the fascinating technique involving a microwave sounded similar to that described in Thomas Keller’s new book “Under Pressure…”). Both were comforting and delicious.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was “Sea Bream,” a coy silk purse of opaque, raw sea bream harboring a generous cache of osetra caviar within. The flavor of the cool roasted crab broth surrounding the fish and egg structure was immense but balanced. Slightly toasty, the broth tasted like a sea of sha pee, small dehydrated dried shrimp used in Chinese cooking.
In a special way, our pre-meal service completed a full circle for me by ending with the “Turnip and Foie Gras Royale,” the only reprise (other than the petits fours) from my meal in 2006. But it was a slightly modified version. Instead of being anointed with cinnamon oil, this time, the miniature mug was topped with a puffy, fried squash blossom. A crunch fanatic, this was a great addition.
Subsequently, ten courses followed, comprising the meal proper.
Aaron and I paralleled each other save one course. Instead of receiving the “Asparagus in Bonito Butter” – thinly shaved asparagus bathing in frothy bonito butter and topped with togarashi – which I was served, Aaron, who had eaten that dish a few weeks previous to our meal, was served “Asparagus with Country Ham Jelly.”
I note three things about my asparagus dish: (1) There was an unexpected, deep smokiness imparted by the bonito in the butter; (2) I preferred it to Aaron’s Asparagus with Country Ham, which found a different source of smokiness; and (3) This was – amazingly – the only dish that did not pair well with the white wine I ordered from the start.
That wine was a Baton Chardonnay, Heintz Vineyard Sonoma Coast, which I selected from the wines by the glass list with the help of Jeff Bareilles, the restaurant’s wine director. This wine was wonderfully versatile, pairing well – in fact, wonderfully (the most memorable being the “Sea Bream”) – with most of our dishes straight up to the beef course.
Kinch’s Abalone in Brown Butter – to me, the holy grail of Manresa – made a reappearance at this dinner (see Abalone with Pig Trotters from my meal in 2006). This time, the meaty mollusk was spiced with coriander and bright sorrel. It is still one of the most tender renditions of abalone I’ve seen come out of a Western kitchen.
Into the Vegetable Garden… was a veritable nod at Michel Bras and his gargouillou. This little patch of earth (hazelnut “soil”) topped with a colorful tuft of flowers and garden vegetables invited discovery. It’s an important dish, and its effects can be felt far and wide (see “seven degrees of ‘FORONO’ BEETS” in my review of ubuntu.)
I’ll pause just long enough at the Chicken Confit to mention that it was the oddest, yet the most sensible meeting of ingredients: a collision of Western and Asian comfort soups under the common denominator of chicken.
Our parade of savory dishes ended with Kobe Beef Bavette, a well-marbled and tender cut of ruby red meat. The accompanying quinoa, colored emerald-green with arugula juice, was wonderfully comforting and savory. It was especially refreshing to meet an entire ramp on this plate. There are so many half ramps – either greens OR bulbs – that one wonders whether chefs know how to cook a whole ramp to render the leaves soft whilst not over-cooking the bulb.
The service at Manresa has matured into the Michelin two-star station that it now occupies. I can’t deny that Aaron and I are both known to the house. But the staff could not have been more informed and on the mark.
A sixteenth inning stretch landed me on the patio for a spot of fresh air. Bryan, our server, joined me and we had a good little chat before returning to the house to finish the progression.
The surprise of the evening came with the cheese cart. Instead of the usual assortment of wedges and nobs I had seen carted around the dining room all night, a suspiciously familiar wheel of butter-yellow arrived at our table.
A server arrived with a large carving knife and began to shave large flakes of cheese from the round of Comte de Garde Exceptionnel 2004 (Bernard Antony), the same age and provenance as the one I had at l’Arpege six months earlier.
I had asked Mr. Bareilles for a taste of the Domaine Turlato & Chapoutier, Shiraz-Viognier, Victoria, 2007 as a possible accompaniment for the Kobe Beef Bavette. I declined it for that course. However, I took another sip of the tasting with the first bite of the cheese out of curiosity and found it to be a shockingly good pairing. I asked Mr. Bareilles to split a glass between Aaron and me. (This wine seemed to be missing from the final tab.)
A dainty and refreshing party of strawberries, hibiscus, pineapple, and goat fromage blanc transitioned us into the familiar sweet endings. (“Strawberry in Hibiscus“)
This was followed by “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” — a postcard from Kinch’s erstwhile home in the South. This two-part dessert featured hot, pillowy beignets under an blanket of powdered sugar and a collage of Crescent City’s classics: Bananas Foster (brûlée), chicory (ice cream), and pralines.
Miniature “half-baked” dark chocolate cupcakes arrived, topped with a tiny quenelle of dark chocolate sorbet. And, thereafter, petits fours.
Manresa is an experience that is a sum of its parts and parts of its sum. It’s just as easy to see the meal in vignettes – every bite a perfect portrait – as it is a whole – an epic story of land and sea, vegetables and meat, east and west.
Kinch’s passion and authority of these stories – his story – is undeniable. It pervades the entire operation of the restaurant. Not a detail is overlooked – the least of which is the bread and butter, easily two of the most memorable items of the night for me.
The bread had a thick, dark, and crusty shell – flaky, caramelized, and gruff. The interior had a workaday heft that was soul-enriching. Curiously, every basket we received (we managed to make our way through one and a half) had a fair portion of elbows and knees, which, to me, are the best tracts of real estate on any loaf.
The butter was on a plane by itself. Hand-churned from local, unpasteurized cow dairy by Pim, I’m certain that it has no peer this side of the Atlantic. Having a rich, golden hue, it boasted extraordinary flavor – blossoming with terroir and carrying one of the finest, fatty textures I’ve ever encountered. It is a stunning artisanal work of art.
So much expectation and hope ride on return visits to restaurants. But my reapproach to Manresa was surefooted and confident.
This second visit further solidified Kinch’s standing in my mind as one of the most important and talented chefs of our time. What he is doing in that kitchen in Los Gatos is immensely important.
Manresa has not only produced some of the finest and most sophisticated dishes I’ve encounted, but like other culinary monoliths around the world, it has inspired successful progeny. Daniel Patterson of coi, Jeremy Fox of ubuntu, and, most recently, James Syhabout of Commis have all risen from Manresa. And their success has been evident.
But there remains no doubt in my mind, that of these, David Kinch remains king of the hill.
Executive Chef David Kinch
320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, California 95030
~ by ulterior epicure on July 14, 2009.