Manresa (Los Gatos, CA) – Approaching an Apex

If you read my blog, it’s no secret that Manresa is one of my favorite restaurants in the US (and the world for that matter.) While some decry it’s a little too experimental or nouvelle to be thoroughly “enjoyable”, it is a restaurant that seeks to offer an elegance and purity of dishes and flavors. The dishes are rarely muddled, the flavors rarely misplaced; instead, the dishes are pure expressions of a flavor or ingredient. While I have a soft spot for the antics of the chemists and the desire to try something daring and new; it’s a cuisine of elegant ingredients-focused simplicity that probably pushes my buttons most. That is Manresa.

L’Arpege in Paris is known the world over for their perfect vegetables. Over the years, the chef has retreated from fancier preparations to focus on the perfect expression of his vegetables. Yes, “his” because he planted his own garden to ensure vegetables were grown to his specifications of superior quality. Manresa is following this blueprint – this summer’s menu is the first that utilizes Manresa’s own garden vegetables. The garden has been in development for over a year and now we finally get to enjoy its harvest. Given the obvious uptick in quality with this meal, it’s a wonder more chefs don’t commission their own gardens.

The dishes below come from 3 meals this summer. 3 visits may seem like a lot but I’ve actually wanted to go 5-6x. The vegetables are spectacular; the chef continues to make seemingly impossible improvements; and the restaurant is hitting an apex – just in time for the Michelin folks.

1. Radishes and creme fraiche
Small, subtle, a perfect introduction for what was to come

2. Rhubarb horchata
A fruit cocktail of rhubarb, citrus, and horchata foam. Wonderful contrasts of flavor – the tanginess of the rhubarb and citrus with the earthy finish of the essence of rice. There was a touch of grit at the end from the rice – one of my favorite things about horchata. Excellent.

3. Melon Soup Confit w/ Almond Tofu
A beautiful soup that reinforces the seasonality of the cuisine. Light, velvety, not too cold, an essence of melon taste. Excellent.

4. Charcoal grilled Foie Gras w/ Beet & Beet Puree
Not sublime like the Mesquite grilled foie in past visits, this one had a “heavier” taste. I’m no fan of beets but these would change my mind – awesome, intense concentration of taste, sweet, all while maintaining a delicateness. Very Good.

5. Marinated Summer Bass w/ Just-Pressed Olive Oil & Chives
The sashimi @ manresa is handled w/ extreme care and puts other restaurants’ sashimi dishes to shame. And that olive oil is insanely good. Excellent.

6. Crab w/ Foam, Exotic Indian Spices & Cucumber
A detour to India, an Arpege-like dish, “light” indian spices that complemented the crab rather than overpower. Also included a very juicy piece of crab tempura. Somewhat similar to last year’s Uni shell w/ exotic spices. Very Good.

7. Spot Prawns in Creamy Rice, Nasturtiums
Imagine the best langoustines from Paris – this spot prawn was of similar quality. Perfectly cooked, extremely sweet, this was a prawn of superior heritage. The creamy rice was a perfect risotto. the entire dish was perfect in my eyes – the whole thing had a delicateness & balance that you can’t find in too many places. favorite dish of the night. Excellent.

8. Wild Turbot on the plancha w/ Vegetables from the garden
Cooked on the bone, very moist & juicy, tasted great. I can’t say how great b/c i haven’t eaten that much turbot. the vegetables were awesome; but the carrots (and i’m not a carrot fan) were nearly as good as the Arpege carrot i remember so well. Very Good.

9. Abalone w/ Porcini & Corn & Avocado Puree
Charred & caramelized like a great steak. The avocado puree gave it that hint of refreshingness. Very Good.

10. Squab w/ Turnip & Turnip Puree
I am known to the house, but aside from a few meals, i’ve never had so many dishes cooked so perfectly. Rare to medium rare, i must already be quite jaded when a beautiful piece of meat from the kitchen gives me a smile. Very Good.

11. Lamb grilled over Oak, Squash blossom, & Peas
Again, nicely cooked on the rarer side, it had a nice (but subtle) taste; it could have been the oak though my memory nor notes can confirm this. Very Good.

12. Strawberry Sorbet Cone
As someone who has been buying a whole flat of strawberries each week from the farmer’s market, this was very delicious – essence of strawberry. The cone was also great b/c it was not very sweet. Excellent.

13. Abalone in its own Bouillon w/ Seaweed
A delicious and tender piece of abalone, enhanced by its own delicate bouillon. The seaweed imparted that ‘green’ flavor and gave the bouillon an extra dimension. Awesome.

14. Roast Guinea Hen w/ Agnolotti of Marrow, Snails, & Beef Tendon
A nice way to end the meal – lighter w/ shades of richness. The hen was very juicy & flavorful while retaining its bite. The agnolotti were wonderful – very small but packed full of richness. My problem w / tasting menus is that the meat is piled on at the end to get you full – this was a soft landing that had the right touch. Awesome.

15. Littleneck clams & edamame w/ bacon
I’m not a clam fan but this was a very different dish. The clams & edamame had a satisfying texture together w/ the bacon (and butter) adding a delicious richness. Very Good.

16. Spot prawn tartar w/ Prawn Gelee and Russian Osetra Caviar
This reminded me of Can Roca and some of their gelees. The spot prawns were of very high quality and the gelee just amplified the flavor. The caviar on top obviously added the salt and a breath of the sea. Very Good.

17. Composed Salad of Tomato, Strawberry, Borage Stalks, & Pedro Ximenez (grape)
Impeccable fruits, hardly touched, simply done, this is of the season. The stalk was a little prickly – this dish’s ‘bite’. The fruits were lightly dressed w/ a maple syrup. ultimately refreshing. Very Good.

18. Corn & Tomato Salad, classic version
A warm salad to follow the previous dish. again, impeccable veggies (from the garden i presume.) Very Good.

19. Melon sorbet and Oxtail Gelee w/ black pepper
This reminded me of Can Roca (as Manresa can from time to time) and it was the most controversial dish of the night. I enjoyed it quite a bit and found it very refreshing. the gelee was intense but the sweet melon sorbet cut through it nicely. The sorbet might have been a touch too cold but it’s a dish that can be refined and perfected. Others complained about the texture of the gelee (more of an issue w/ gelee instead of this instance) and another complained about the taste pairing – we’ll call her a traditionalist. Very Good.

20. Basil Risotto
This was an alternate for the vegetarian so i only got a bite but i’ve asked for it on my next trip. Manresa has the texture of risotto down and the basil was intense and just took over your entire mouth. Awesome.

It doesn’t get much better than those dishes above. Manresa is performing at a Michelin 3-star level and it would be right at home in France or Spain. They are meals ‘of the season’ – they do not just contain seasonal ingredients – they embody the season. Go before summer runs out (but I’m certain the winter will hold just as many delights.)
- chuck