Monday, August 9, 2010
Manresa: Where Art Imitates Life
Tucked away in the sleepy suburbs of Los Gatos lies arguably the best restaurant in the entire Bay area, Manresa. Located 40 miles outside downtown San Francisco is this restaurant led by 2010 James Beard Award winning chef, David Kinch. The award is just the latest in a long line of accolades earned by chef Kinch, as Manresa has become a destination restaurant for foodies around the world. Celebrated for his uncompromising demand for only the freshest and absolute best ingredients, chef Kinch was motivated to form a relationship with bio-organic Love Apple Farm, an arrangement whereby the farm supplies Manresa with literally, the "fruits" of their labor. Having been awarded two Michelin Stars, featured on Avec Eric and championed by countless food bloggers, MW and I were especially excited that our reservation came right on the heels of chef Kinch's James Beard award victory.
Reminiscent more of a house than a restaurant, Manresa's spacious dining room was dotted with tables draped in white amid a sea of warm colors and natural wood. Waning sunlight poured in from numerous windows before giving way to these "tripy" dome-shaped candles, resembling the wavy patterns inside a lava lamp. Though service started poorly, things improved dramatically but predictably, after the captain learned the destinations of our previous meals on this trip. Regardless, MW and I ordered the "seasonal and spontaneous" tasting menu, eager to see what chef Kinch had in store for us.
Not given menus until after the meal, the restaurant's sommolier arrived and suggested we start with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, Domaine du Salvard Cheverny, from France (2009). The wine was light and crisp, a nice compliment with the beginning half of our meal.
Service began with a hiccup as they initially forgot to bring us the restaurant's opening amuse, whereupon, I decided to inquire about its availability with captain. Apologetic and embarrassed, we were quickly brought an amuse of Red Pepper Petits Fours and Black Olive Madeleines. Although fully aware of the savory nature of these post meal treats, we were still quite surprised by how clearly pronounced the red pepper and black olive flavors were in these different forms.
Next, Garden Beignets with Baked Kale and Vinegar Powder. The vinegar powder served a dual purpose, functionally, providing an acidic element that helped cut through the fried dough and aesthetically, mimicking powdered sugar, thus completing an illusion of the sweeter and more familiar version most famously served at Cafe Du Monde. Arriving straight from the deep fryer, these savory beignets came pipping hot and were simple, but wonderful.
The Elemental Oyster from the East Coast, poached in it's own Shell and served with a Seaweed Gelée was the most visually stunning dish of the entire evening. Presented covered, the top shell was removed, revealing a perfectly cooked oyster swimming in a mixture of its own liquor and a seaweed gelée. Chef Kinch successfully captured the essence of the ocean with this dish as the clean and briny flavor of the oyster was enhanced by cooking its own juices and seasoned with the seaweed gelée.
A Foie Gras and Cumin Caramel Flan arrived in a lacquerware container, reminding me of a Japanese chawanmushi, presentation-wise. Decedently smooth, you initially were hit with the flavor from the cumin before transitioning into the sweetness of the caramel sauce, finally fading into the richness of the foie gras flan. Combining a spice like cumin with a classic ingredient such as foie gras, was yet another example chef Kinch's unexpected but ultimately stunning flavor combinations.
Appearing last, but certainly not least was the "famed," Arpege Farm Egg, a Soft Poached Egg, Sherry Vinegar and Maple Syrup. This amuse got some unexpected notoriety after food blogger and current beau, Chez Pim, observed how similar this dish was to the signature amuse of French chef, Alain Passard. Regardless of its genesis, there is no disputing its genius. Nestled inside a hollow eggshell is a soft poached egg that is further layered with maple syrup and finished with sherry vinegar. But there is logic behind this seemingly haphazard combination of ingredients as the vinegar lifted the flavor of the silky egg yolk and was rounded out by the sweetness from the maple syrup.
As our table was cleared, another server appeared with a bread basket that included a selection of freshly baked: Seeded Multi Grain Bread, Levain French Baguette, Rosemary and Black Olive Bread and Brioche. Accompanying the bread was butter from Normandy cows and was churned in-house. Each bread was good but not memorable, what was however, was the freshly churned butter, notably distinct taste-wise from all commercial varieties.
Our opening course consisted of Japanese Cuttlefish with Green Strawberries and Fig Leaf Curd. The tartness of the unripened strawberries contrasted beautifully with the sweet cuttlefish and fig leaf curd. The dish, as with the entire meal, showcased chef Kinch's finesse with ingredients as he delicately balanced bold flavors, varied textures and even contrasted temperatures, creating dynamic, yet restrained food.
Next came a shallow bowl filled with ribbons of Delta Asparagus enveloped in a Bonito Butter and topped with Toasted Seeds. Much like the first course, chef Kinch withheld the urge to further enhance the flavors of this dish, choosing to emphasize the natural sweetness of the asparagus that was complimented by the bonito butter. The addition of the toasted seeds enhanced the dish's composition, adding some complexity as well as a textural element.
The third course was yet another Manresa signature, Into the Vegetable Garden..., which was a veritable cornucopia of the best of what Love Apple Farm has to offer the restaurant. In an interview on Eric Ripert's television show, Avec Eric, chef Kinch describes how the farm ultimately creates his menus as he explains the inspiration of this dish, which at times features over 60 to 70 raw, cooked and pureed components. In addition to the stunning assortment of vegetables, another highlight of the dish was the layer of Edible Dirt, a mixture of Dehydrated Potato, Toasted Almond, Parsnip and Roasted Chicory Root, which serves as the finishing touch to this edible landscape.
We were then transported from the garden to the sea with the next course, a "Pil Pil" of Cod with Artichokes and Watercress. A riff on the Basque country classic, Bacalao al Pil Pil, this version contained three pieces of cod, covered in a pil pil sauce and topped with a crisped artichoke. While the cod was flaky and moist, it became lost in the overpowering pil pil sauce, an inspired dish that unfortunately suffered from poor execution.
At this point we were progressing towards the more substantial portion of the tasting menu and again, with the assistance of the sommolier, we selected a nice bottle of Pinot Noir, Patricia Green Ribbon Ridge, from Willamette Valley Oregon (2007).
But chef Kinch and company recovered nicely with the next course, a duo of Monterey Bay Abalone with Smoked Lentils and Porcini Mushrooms. Resting in a warm dashi, this version was strikingly similar to the abalone prepared by chef Siegel at the Ritz. The abalone was prepared two ways, fried and braised, both remarkably good for different reasons. Despite sitting in the dashi, the fried preparation managed to maintain a pleasantly crisp crust while the braised version was astonishingly tender, soaking up the flavorful dashi like a sponge and made me jealous of this amazing product, rarely seen in Manhattan, outside of Chinese banquet halls.
The Suckling Porcelet with Onion and Marrow Tears and Morel Mushrooms fell short of expectations, a dish victimized by over-seasoning. But salinity levels aside, the most disappointing aspect of the course was chef Kinch's decision not to render enough fat and produce the crispy skin one hopes/expects from a dish entitled, "suckling porcelet."
Our final savory course of the evening was duo of Young Lamb with Nasturtium Pesto and Pine Nut Pudding. This course was a study of unexpected flavor profiles combining successfully. The gaminess of the the lamb matched well with the rich pine nut pudding and peppery nasturtium pesto. The lamb's tongue was fork-tender, easily the highlight of the dish, and a perfect example of how this under appreciated cut of meat can shine when in the hands of a talented individual such as David Kinch.
Moving on to the sweeter portion of our meal, the first dessert was Roasted Strawberries with Nasturtium Ice Cream and Black Pepper Tuile. The natural flavor of the strawberries was further intensified by the roasting process and its natural sugars were kept in check by the black pepper tuile and nasturtium ice cream, an innovative and balanced start.
Following the tasting of strawberries was a Marjolaine with Bitter Chocolate Sorbet. Interspersed between Almond and hazelnut-flavored meringue was a rich butter cream along with a quenelle of bitter chocolate sorbet. The bittersweet sorbet and airy meringue was enough to satisfy any chocolate-lovers craving while avoiding being too heavy.
Next was a Chilled Chocolate Mousse with Maldon Sea Salt. Decadently rich and sinfully smooth, the small flecks of sea salt created bursts of flavor with each bite, heightening this deceptively pedestrian dish to a new level of sophistication.
At this point, we were presented Strawberry Petits Fours and Chocolate Madeleines, a symbolic gesture from chef Kinch, representing the meal's progression coming full circle. However, instead of the identically-looking savory versions we initially served to begin our meal, these sweeter versions were more in line with the status quo and were preferred.
After a tour of the kitchen and a chance to thank the chef personally, we were told to take a handful of House-Made Salted Caramels for the ride home, an offer too good to resist. This was but one of the many details that helped forge a lasting impression of this incredible meal that persists in my mind to this very day.
It is said that we eat first with our eyes, and then with our mouths. From the conceptualization of our meal, to the near flawless execution and pristine ingredients sourced from Love Apple Farm, after eating at Manresa one gets a sense that the dishes transcends simply being food, but rather, are works of art, paying homage to the most inspirational of all muses, mother nature. So if art imitates life, then David Kinch is an artist and Manresa his museum for all the public to enjoy.
320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030
To see all our pics click the flickr link.