John Dory on the Plancha, Artichokes with Pomegranate, and Romanesco Broccoli; A Selection of Artisan Cheeses with Toasted Walnut Bread; Roast Suckling Pig and Boudin Noir with "Butcher's" Potatoes and our Choucroute
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Manresa
Reviewed Manresa: Sunday, October 16, 2005
Until I encountered Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos, located over fifty miles South of San Francisco, I did not really appreciate what is intended to be conveyed by the star system employed by the famed Le Guide Michelin, often referred to as the gastronome’s bible for European restaurants. One star means, “worth a visit,” two stars, “worth a detour,” and the coveted three-star ranking means, “worth a special trip.” Although I do not have a point of reference as to exactly what that means in the context of European travel, fifty miles is a long way to go for dinner, especially for San Franciscans who have access to a spectrum of great restaurants without having to veer far from its 7-by-7 mile city limits. Moreover, San Francisco diners are quite spoiled. We expect the freshest ingredients, prepared by pedigreed chefs, using the latest techniques. With so many great restaurants to choose from in the Bay Area and new ones opening every few months, even those who dine out frequently can go for quite a while without repeating any particular restaurant. The food at Manresa is not only worth repeating, but worth the trip. Using our tenth wedding anniversary as an excuse, my husband and I made the long drive to Manresa, laden with memories of the previous exquisite meal we had experienced there.
The cozy warmth of the restaurant had not changed. The faux wine rack glass display in the foyer had red apples in each of the wooden racks instead of the green ones we had seen the last time. The warm wood paneling and the beige taffeta drapes framing the windows make the dining room of the restaurant look more like someone’s living room, which just happens to have bottles and bottles of wine encased in racks under tinted glass in the walls. Even the slightly tattered, mismatched rugs on the floor, some Oriental and some Southwestern, added to the homey feel of the atmosphere. We were promptly seated at our table upon arrival, and our appetites stirred as we took in the visual and aromatic temptations from dishes being served at adjacent tables. Then the amuse-bouche began descending upon our table, one by one, starting with a red pepper jelly candy accompanied by black olive Madeleine cookies. The startling savory flavors in forms typically associated with sweets or dessert were a delightful surprise to begin the meal.
The second amuse was a dish of about a half-a-dozen tiny, delicately-fried padron peppers. This was followed by a palate-cleansing amuse in a martini glass, composed of a hibiscus granité with slices of pluots (plum-apricot hybrid), and a small but pungent fresh mint sprig garnish. The cool sweetness of the fruit and the granité provided a perfect contrast to the mild spiciness of the padron peppers we had just finished. The fourth amuse was a deep-fried croquette ball, the size of a gumball, filled with corn and vanilla gelatin, which exploded with the first bite in a startling combination of both sweet and salty flavors enveloped in velvety rich sauce, similar to hollandaise in texture.
The next two amuses were among my favorite tastes of the entire meal. Using small wooden caviar spoons, we gingerly scooped out delicately poached egg innards (which had been combined with sherry cream and chopped chives) from the eggshell with the top quarter shaved off. This luxurious mixture tasted like soft scrambled eggs with a designer twist. The last amuse, an espresso cup filled with a foie gras mousse blended with cream and puréed cipollini onions, is the pièce de résistance for foie gras lovers.
As if to say, "If you like the amuse, wait until you get a load of the tasting menu," the first official course was a sashimi-style dish worthy of being served by a Japanese sushi chef at an elite Tokyo restaurant. The fresh and slightly sweet raw pieces of translucent-white fish, which we could not identify, were surrounded by a delicate sauce called “shiro dashi” (described as a white soy sauce, but actually a savory fish-based broth that was milky in color) and topped with small shreds of nori (dried seaweed used in maki sushi), mildly pickled daikon (Japanese radish), and a sprinkling of white sesame seeds.
The second course was a chilled melon soup topped with almond-flavored tofu, and garnished with a single white almond in the center. The combination of starkly contrasting sweet and savory flavors in one dish was flawlessly executed. The third course was a small piece of grilled horse mackerel resting on top of a cream made from dates and onions, topped with almond foam, and surrounded by a green sauce that tasted like sweet green pea purée. This was a solid dish, although not quite as sublime as what we had enjoyed so far.
The next course was my favorite among the tasting menu -- succulent pieces of meltingly soft, wild, local salmon, which had been cooked sous-vide, were topped with salmon roe and tiny pieces of cucumber shaved into the same shape and size as the roe. The crunch of the tiny cucumber balls combined with the velvety texture of the perfectly cooked fish, accented with the briny popping of the salmon roe, was absolute artistry.
The last two savory courses were less exciting than the rest of the menu, but we did not mind. One can hardly sustain this level of excellence at all times, and these final dishes were still quite good. The fifth course was roast squab with beets and more pluots. The sixth course was a square of beef tenderloin with trumpet mushrooms, accompanied by grilled escarole that was somewhat tough and stringy, and a swirl of watercress puree that was relatively tasteless in relation to the rest of the dish. Afterward came a series of four dessert courses, concluding with sweet fruit jellies and a standard vanilla Madeleine cookie, which was a charming reminder of how the entire meal began.
Even as we left the restaurant full and happy, I was already wondering with eager anticipation what surprises Chef Kinch will unleash the next time we make that fifty-mile trek to Los Gatos.
Occupation: Hospitality and Lifestyle Marketing Consultant
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Piperade
Reviewed Manresa: Sunday, October 16, 2005
When San Francisco Chronicle critic, Michael Bauer, gave Manresa four stars recently it made me curious and eager to give it a try.
I was somewhat skeptical with my big city attitude. Could a restaurant in the “burbs” really be that good? So off Mike (my partner) and I went to see for ourselves. I had never been to Los Gatos and the ride down was really beautiful. I already had a feeling it was going to be a good night. When I called the previous Friday night to make our reservations (yes, without thinking about the time I called right during service), Michael the General Manager couldn’t have been nicer despite the fact that it sounded very busy in the background.
I did a little research on the restaurant prior and learned that the talented Chef David Kinch is doing creative cooking with accents from France and Catalonia, the northern region of Spain. I love Spain. I love France, so I was preparing to love this meal. It was like being on a blind date when you’ve already seen a picture and made a connection on the phone. I wanted to fall in love. And happily, I can report that I did.
When we arrived, Michael was waiting for us. We were seated right away. The room has a reddish golden glow and is filled with oriental rugs on a beautiful concrete floor. It’s very lovely but relaxing at the same time. Not the formal feel that you might expect from a four star dining room. We really liked this as we were in jeans and blazers and didn’t feel at all out of place. The fireplace was going and the patio (totally charming, with a view of the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains) was closed for the night. We were seated in what felt somewhat like an overflow area, as it doubles as the restaurant’s private dining room. It was fine but we wished we were seated where there was a little more action.
Once seated, the service team got busy. Our headwaiter arrived to explain the menu: three courses, four courses, or the Chef’s tasting menu. They could do wine pairings or suggest wines. Given it was a Sunday night at eight, we opted for three courses with wine pairings and the adventure began. I chose two starters and an entrée, Mike chose one starter, one entrée, and one dessert. Little did we know that there would be six additional tastes from the Chef to compliment our meal. One disappointment was that they were out of the chicken dish, which had been my first choice. The sea bass was recommended, and I went for it.
Bread and our first wines arrived. They started us both with sparkling wines from Spain. The list is well thought out and pays attention to France, Spain, and California, which makes total sense for this restaurant. The little tastes (amuses) to start the meal included cassis sorbet, a tasty charro, a beautiful oyster, and two signature items: “The Egg,” and the Chef’s very interesting foie gras presentation. Both dishes could easily be used to define the word "RICH!" Let’s talk about deep-fried foie gras. Our server warned us to pop the whole thing into our mouths, as it might leak. We followed her orders, and the facial reactions were priceless -- liquid liver!! As you can probably guess this wasn’t our favorite, but it was immediately redeemed by the creamy egg served in its shell.
The meal continued with dishes and wine arriving in a timely manner, each time by a new server. Memorable service touches happened all night. At one point, a candle went out on our table and I thought to myself, "At last, a glitch I can report on." Just as I was thinking this, a server arrived with a fresh lit candle on a tray and in one sweep did a switch. I was foiled and impressed all at the same time.
For starters, I chose the salad of wild greens and herbs with roasted beets and Meyer lemon yogurt dressing, and Mike chose the Striped Jack, done in sashimi style with olive oil and chives. The portions were small, but both dishes tasted really good and were beautifully presented. The headwaiter explained that the Chef adjusts portion sizes based on the selections the diners make, but they still felt small to us. Redemption came quickly. I love when a bite of food brings a warm smile to a face. It’s almost like the taste of that bite takes you somewhere else for a moment. The first bite of the Creamed Corn and Garden Tomatoes with Assorted Basils took me to a summer picnic somewhere in my past. Mike was too busy “ahhing” with delight for me to find out where he went. This dish was the winner of the night for us. Though we weren’t quite sure if the “Classic Version” menu description came from the French or Spanish camp. The confit of duck with roasted pears and endive braised with orange, and the roast sea bass with butterbeans perfumed with wild fennel came next. Mike thought the duck was a touch dry. My sea bass was cooked perfectly and I loved the butterbeans, though I admit I wasn’t totally sold on the fennel perfuming.
As the evening progressed, we realized we were the only two left in our dining room, and it felt a bit strange. We geared up for our private dessert tasting. We shared the Chocolate Marquis with Roasted Banana Ice Cream. “Oh my Gods” filled the air with the first bites. I also got a rich taste of hot chocolate with a homemade marshmallow. “Roll me out of here,” was what I was thinking as I took the last sip. At that point, Michael arrived to ask us if we wanted a tour of the kitchen. The kitchen is amazing, designed and built for the (and by) the Chef. When we got back to our table, the final sweets were waiting, a tray of small cookies and candies to cap the night off.
In the car on the way home, before I slipped into my delicious food coma, we chatted about how great the night was. In truth, I usually don’t enjoy the formality of four-star dining experiences -- they just aren’t for me. Now we have a place where we could have a superb meal without worrying about which fork to use or how straight our ties are and that place is Manresa.
Occupation: Software Developer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Bissap Baobab
Reviewed Manresa: Wednesday, October 26, 2005
The long drive down to Los Gatos provides ample opportunity to build up one's expectations (and hunger) for dinner at Manresa. With all the hype surrounding David Kinch’s newest restaurant, you feel like you’re in for the perfect meal. Arriving at the small cottage, tucked away behind a Mexican restaurant on Los Gatos’ main drag, has the air of entering the chef’s private home, ready to have a meal fit for his family. Manresa did not disappoint; featuring a multitude of perfectly balanced flavors, the food was, in a word, excellent.
Upon arrival, we were seated promptly in a bright and open room with a number of tables, quite different from the deceptively cozy exterior of the building. The floor was large tiles covered in scattered oriental rugs, which seemed out-of-place, but not awkward. Anchoring the room, in the center, was a harvest table, loaded up with decanters of various antiquity and style. The menu is quite simple, offering a three or four-course prix fixe (the four course added a cheese plate) or the “Seasonal and Spontaneous” tasting menu. Each is available with a wine pairing for a modest extra fee. My companion and I, due to our inevitable long drive home, decided on starting with a glass of champagne, then a glass of wine each, along with the three course meal.
Not expecting any special additions to the meal, we were surprised by the arrival of our first amuse-bouche, a citrus-mango lassi, which proved to be quite good. Rich, creamy, and sweet, exactly as a good lassi should be. This was followed up by an unspectacular Parmesan toast, and then by a phenomenal multi-layered, multi-flavored, whipped egg dish inside the eggshell. It was one of the most interesting foods I’ve ever eaten. Each one of the dishes was designed to enlighten and awaken your taste buds. A perfect starter.
Our appetizers arrived shortly after we finished our final amuse-bouche. The Striped Jack sashimi was simple, exactly what one would expect from any contemporary restaurant, but the winner was truly the Risotto “Biodynamic.” While the thought of robotic risotto may seem a bit odd, this dish was great. I may never have risotto anywhere else again. We continued with the Atlantic halibut with butterbeans and mussels. The halibut was a tad overcooked and tough, but it didn't spoil the dish, which again, had seemingly conflicting tastes that somehow end up in a choreographed dance inside your mouth. My companion had the Roast Suckling Pig, which was juicy, tasty, and overall excellent. Again, Kinch is able to take a variety of flavors and bring them together in harmony. For dessert, I had the apple and cheddar galette. Being a fan of apples, cheddar cheese, and galettes, I thought that this would be awesome, unfortunately it proved to not be. In this case, the dish just didn't seem to fit together. This was fine, though, because my companion ordered the Chocolate Marquis which proved to be an excellent dessert and a dessert that I had most of! Dark, rich, and perfectly bittersweet, it was an ideal end to a great meal.
A restaurant experience is all about expectations. Mine were probably so high that nothing could have matched them. The food at Manresa exceeded my expectations. Even with the few small and easily overlookable missteps, I can honestly say it was the best meal I’ve had. However, the service tended to be distracted and not as attentive as I’ve experienced at other less highly-regarded restaurants. Numerous times, our waiter was nowhere to be found, even though we had a good view of the entire dining room. When a restaurant costs around $100 a person, you expect a certain level of service and quality, and it's extremely important that neither suffer. It's too bad that the service did at Manresa. I’ll go back, but only if it's on an expense account.