Manresa Restaurant: a fascinating ride
I had a fascinating dinner at Manresa a couple of weeks ago. A series of somewhat odd circumstances made that happen, starting with a conversation about the restaurant on eG, which led the chef to my blog, and finally resulted in an invitation to visit Manresa and try his food. So I did, what can I say, I was easy.
I was accompanied by my usual gourmet gang, Dave, Allison and Malik, and a new acquaintance, Paul, a friend of Malik's. The gang all piled up in my car to drive down to Manresa in Los Gatos—to be kind to the environment, and so that our dear designated driver Allison could bring us drunken souls back home safely. Malik brought up that we could have been much kinder to the environment by simply eating somewhere in the City rather than trekking out to Los Gatos, I told him sweetly to shut up.
Los Gatos is a small town hidden in the Santa Cruz hills. David Kinch had a smaller restaurant in the area for a few years before he opened his current place. The area is very residential, but with plenty of Silicon Valley riches. I do, however, wonder if the local money can really sustain a restaurant of the caliber that Manresa aspire to be.
We arrived about 45 minutes later at a small and lovely yet unassuming house one block from a main street in the downtown area. I think we must have been recognized by sight, as they knew who we were before I could even finish my first sentence. We were greeted very warmly by Michael, the manager, and shown to a table on the patio outside. We were also asked to surrender the wines we brought so they could be properly chilled, opened, or decanted as appropriate. Our nice waiter, whose name I forgot to ask (shame on me), explained that the chef planned to serve us a few things to start on the patio, then, he would have us moved back inside to the main part of the meal.
The patio is lovely, basking in the soft light in the cool Bay Area evening. Our table was set up some distance from the others, which was just as well because we (read: our dear Malik) sometimes get a bit rowdy when properly inebriated. The waiter brought our bottle of Champagne, a 1988 Salon, and asked if we wanted it opened for our starters. The bottle, unfortunately, had been on a long journey, unchilled, all the way from Dave's cellar in the wine country. So it needed a bit extra care. A bucket of ice was promptly brought tableside to help our champagne up to proper drinkable temperature.
That bucket of ice was the only service “mistake” of the night. I didn't want to start the review with a mistake, but unfortunately it happened at the beginning of our meal, so here it is. When our waiter came back by to open the bottle of champagne for Dave to taste, it was still far too warm, so the bottle was relegated back to the bucket. A while later, he tried again, and it still was too warm. Dave finally got up to look at the bucket, and saw that there was barely any water in it. The champagne would never be cold in only ice. We had to specifically explain this to a passing runner to get it rectified.
Our discomfort was dispelled almost immediately when the food began to arrive. Immediately as we sat down a small bowl of olives, a plate of taro chips, and some candied nuts were place on the table to get us started. The taro chips, flavored ever-so-lightly with curry powder was especially nice, unbelievably crispy and extremely tasty, this was a very good start indeed. I also liked the nuts, which were macadamia "Garrapinados", though a bit less so than I did the chips as I found the macadamia a bit too sweet.
Next to arrive was the strawberry gazpacho. This dish was very interesting. By look alone it resembled exactly a normal gazpacho. The scent, however, was unmistakably that of strawberry, though also mixed with garlic and basil, again bringing to mind regular gazpacho. The taste was also intriguing, undeniably gazpacho, with perfectly smooth texture, yet also distinctly strawberry, and somewhat sweeter than normal gazpacho. It was quite lovely actually. Allison and I had an interestingly similar reaction to this dish, both wondering out loud how it would be had this been served as a palate cleanser between the savory course and the desserts.
After the gazpacho, our taste buds were considered primed, ready for another multitude of dishes that would stream out of the kitchen. We were served a plate of house-made Charcuterie, with a particularly nice rabbit rillette, sweet corn croquettes, very fresh crab beggar's purses, and anchovy beignets. After which our palates were cleansed, yet again, this time with wasabi-apple granita and citrus and jasmine tea gelee, priming us for the “proper” meal inside.
Everyone loved the corn croquettes. In Allison's words, she “very much enjoyed the croquettes. Corn tasted very fresh and the contrast in textures between the crisp exterior and the liquid center was excellent.” I couldn't agree more. It was also very creative, a playful celebration of the season, I love it. I also adore the anchovy beignets, which were light as air and fantastically crispy and tasty.
The citrus and jasmine tea gelee was terrific, a perfect interplay of slightly acidic citrus segments with the perfumed and smooth gelee of jasmine tea. I did not, however, like the other palate cleanser, the green apple-wasabi granita with olive oil. The combination was definitely creative and even intriguing. I could imagine the flavors working together to form a superb result, but this one was not quite there yet. The wasabi flavor was so overwhelming, and the whole thing entirely too salty and disjointed. This cacophony has a potential to be a fabulous symphony, perhaps with a bit more fine tuning it will get there. I certainly look forward to it.
Thus concluded our sojourn on the lovely patio, and we were politely led to our round table in the nicely appointed dining room. Our waiter brought us the wine list again, asking for us to pick our white bottle to start. We emailed the list of the wine we would be bringing to the chef beforehand, so the service staff knew exactly we had. We intentionally brought no white bottle, expecting to buy one off the list, but instead of picking off the list, we let the chef select for us instead. I will let Paul and the others infinitely more knowledgeable than I tell you about the wine. (I can't be good at everything now, can I?)
The next thing that arrived at our table was The “infamous” Egg, the dish which instigated this sojourn to Los Gatos for this particular meal. For those of you who haven't heard, there was a discussion on eGullet about Manresa. The “egg” in question was lauded as highly creative. I chimed in that it was a copy of a dish made famous by chef Alain Passard of L'Arpège in Paris, one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I called the chef at Manresa on the fact, as I believed it to be, that the dish wasn't properly attributed. David Kinch, having heard wind of this somehow, came on to my blog and graciously explained his point of view. In the mean time, I heard from another reliable source that the dish, in fact, was properly credited when asked, so I ended up eating crow.
David, I must say, took all this in good humor. The Egg, at least on that day of our dinner, was properly cited on the menu. It was listed as The Egg (For Pim). :-) ha ha. (So, anyone got a good recipe for crow?) It was nice, actually. I've had the original version a few times, and I must admit I still prefer it to this one. The taste here seems to be stronger, less smooth, the contrasts were simply too strong for my taste.
The next set of courses is the cold entrees. Those of us faithless shellfish eaters had the dungeness crab with avocado and mango gelee, the others had the avocado and chickpea "frites". Followed by Japanese butterfish with olive oil and chives for the boys, and tuna tartare with cucumber gelee for the girls. These plates were gorgeous, the Dungeness crab came draped with paper thin slice of avocado, so fresh even I who was normally not a fan of avocado ate it. The avocado and chickpea “frite” were also wonderful, extremely creative and playful. I am not a fan of either food item, though I don't go out of my way to avoid them (unlike my nemesis, beets), but I thought the “frites” here were just fantastic. Malik found his butterfish too “bland”, while I find the cucumber gelée that accompanied my tuna a tad too sweet. We swapped our plates and both our palates were happy again. The butterfish, to me, was impeccably fresh, the subtle taste of the flesh was perfectly complimented by the olive oil, lightly toasted sesame seeds and chives.
It was time again for our palate to be cleansed and primed for the next onslaught. This time it was with a warm and delightful soup of turnip purée. It was one of my favorite dishes that evening, the soup was earthy, smooth and balanced. This proved that even such an earthy and homely ingredient like turnips could become heavenly in the right hands. I was slightly less happy with the accompanying madeleine with black olives, however, finding it entirely too sweet for the soup.
The next set comprised of warm seafood courses. The shellfish eaters at the table received sautéed softshell crab with sauce Ravigote, while the others had red mullet “Mediteranean style”. The crab was nice, crunchy around the edges and pristinely fresh. The sauce Ravigote, on the other hand, was a bit too assertive for the delicate softshell in my opinion. I didn't have a taste of the red mullet, but Dave seemed pretty happy with it, complaining only that the skin wasn't crisp. After these two, all of us had another plate of fish, this time a very nice bass à la plancha with octopus. The bass skin was perfectly crisp, by the way, in case you're wondering.
Apparently, there was a slight confusion in the kitchen as to the meaning of “shellfish”. They sent out two dishes with octopus and calamari, claiming that these were not shellfish. Dave and I had a little chuckle over this, because we've have this exact discussion many times with Naka-san, who always insists that octopus and squid are not shellfish as they have no shells! I don't know about you, but I'm with him. Dave and Allison did not wavered, however. So, I ended up with more than my share of the octopus with my bass, about which I had absolutely no complain.
Then, we moved on to the meat dishes. Our palate was, yet again, primed, this time with a fabulously flavorful crème caramel of foie gras and cumin. This was really very lovely, and very creative. I've had foie gras prepared “royale” like this before, but never in this manner of a crème caramel. The presentation for this was also very cute. It was served in a nesting of plates. Dave and I had a fun time speculating about whether every single one of those plates was washed every time.
Next, Paul and I had the mignons of suckling pig, with spicy morcilla, while Dave, Allison and Malik had farmed chicken with sweet potato “allumettes”. Morcilla is the Spanish (near) equivalent of the French Boudin Noir, or blood sausage. I assumed that the morcilla was housemade, which was quite impressive. The suckling pig filet mignon was quite nice too, but I wasn't happy that it was missing the crackling. Pork without crackling is simply sacrilege in my religion. (I was even more bitter when I found out, a little later in the kitchen, that there was indeed some crackling, which were enjoyed entirely in the there!)
The last savory dish was braised beef short ribs with marrow, morels and Little Gem lettuce. The short ribs were fork tender and intensely flavorful, smeared all over with what I assumed was roasted marrow. The marrow was slightly too salty, pushing the already assertively flavored short ribs even further. By this time we had already been eating for at least four hours, and we hadn't even started the desserts yet!
We brought two bottles of red, a 1989 Leoville Barton 1er cru, and a 2001 Groffier Bonne Mare. We only managed to finish one, the 2001 Groffier. This was too bad as I really wanted to try the Barton. The Bonne Mare was quite nice, a little bit more fruit than other Burgundy I'm used to. Malik brought this one specifically for our friends Dave and Allison, who have quite a New World palate.
We took a little breathing break before the desserts began. Allison even went outside for a little walk. When we were ready for yet another wave of food, champagne glasses filled with tantalizing looking yogurt sorbet covered with Olallieberries arrived to help smooth our transition into the sweet course. This was terrific, the berries bursting with flavors complimenting the tangy yogurt sorbet. Fantastic. Next came a plate of assort biscuits, petites financiers and petites madeleines. There were nice as well.
We had three more dessert courses yet. The first was mini strawberry shortcake served with chamomile tea, then bing cherry crisps and almond toffee ice cream, follow by the last, chocolate marquis “Bunuelos”. They were all very good. I was so happy to see the cherry crisps I forgot to take a photo first, hence the half eaten plate you saw, sorry. I also particularly like the chocolate marquis, which had a perfectly smooth texture and slightly bitter dark chocolate taste. Fantastic.
With these lovely desserts, we had a bottle of '89 Mittnacht-Klack SGN Tokay, which my friend Vedat gave me at the Thai dinner I cooked for him recently. The golden hue was gorgeous, and the wine absolutely delicious. I think this was the best bottle we opened all night.
A beautiful pot of tea arrived unnoticed, a large clear pot filled with fresh mint leaves. We were being served fresh mint tea, without having to ask! It was either a fabulous coincidence or the chef had done his homework, mint tea being one of my restaurant pet peeves of all time. It was a very nice touch indeed.
After another break, some fresh chocolate truffles arrived with our coffee, nicely pulled shots of espresso. The night finally came to an end, we were the very last table, it was already well past midnight, the chef came out again to have a little chat and invited us into the immaculate kitchen. David proudly showed us his pride and joy, the immense Bonnet kitchen range, made specifically for him, which was so giant it had to be moved into the kitchen before the wall could be finished! The whole staff was still there to show us the kitchen. We were being given a full royal treatment. I felt a little unease—I certainly hope it wasn't on account of us that everyone in the kitchen had to stay so late.
All in all, it was a lovely experience, the room comfortable and beautiful, the food lovely, the service warm and friendly, if not seamless. It was clear that David Kinch was a talented chef. His style is very interesting, playful, and inventive. His evident penchant for strong tastes and juxtaposing interesting flavors felt jarring at times, but the ones that worked were wonderful. He's not afraid to push the envelope, test the boundaries, though at times to some not so successful ends, but even his failures were interesting. Some of those clearly had potential, and I would be very interested in trying the results once the tinkering was done.
I must say I find it a bit surprising that chef Kinch appeared to be such an admirer of Alain Passard of L'Arpège. His style is quite different from that of chef Passard, whose well known strive for simplicity and harmony is evident in everything that I've had the good fortune to taste. Chef Kinch's style, not to mention the somewhat roller-coaster ride feeling to his meal, reminded me so much more of Pierre Gagnaire's cuisine. As with some of chef Gagnaire's dishes, one has a fleeting feeling that the chef is trying far too hard, and that had he stopped a notch or two below this, the dish could have been perfect already.
All of this may not have been due to the penchant of the chef alone. I am not entirely sure how much of his push toward strong flavors and intriguing juxtaposition comes from the need to keep his audience entertained. Simplicity is a virtue that is not always valued. If his audience, who all are willing to shell out substantial sums, demanded to be entertained with complex and "fussy" cuisine, simplicity could be seen as far too, well, simple to be worth the money.
And before I leave this review, I must test your (and chef Kinch's) patience and return to the issue of The Egg one last time. I do understand that his audience may have a little bit of a revolt were they not placated by this now familiar dish, but I really do believe that a chef of this caliber deserves to be known by a dish of his own invention. Thomas Keller has his Oyster and Pearls. As for David Kinch, I think him far too talented to be known by Passard's Egg, attribution not withstanding.