Manresa (Los Gatos, CA) – A Summer Meal
Periodic readers know that Manresa has been instrumental in crafting this blog’s fine dining point of view and voice. Many reviews, particularly lately, reference the ideas, and ideals, that David Kinch strives for. Manresa was my first exposure, first-hand through many meals, to watching a great restaurant, and chef, transform itself from very good to great.1 My travels have taken me through various quadrants of haute cuisine but I find myself honing in, and enjoying most, restaurants that share similar philosophies to Manresa.2
It is a great pleasure to see Manresa alumni infiltrating the (figurative and geographical) edges of the “Chez Panisse mafia” Bay Area dining scene.3 Ubuntu (Napa) has blasted through any traditional notion of “vegetarian cuisine” and is propping itself up as one of the most creative restaurants in the country. Commis (Oakland) recently received a lukewarm review from the big bad local restaurant critic, the main criticisms being price and “cooking only for himself, not for the customer.” After one meal, I would argue that Chef James Syhabout’s problem is in trying to appease the Alice Waters acolytes – the vision is not personal enough!4
Comments like that also mark an interesting delineation between this blog and other critics/reviewers – this blog does not aim to review average meals. There are many blogs and people trying to fulfill such roles, conforming to rigorous (and probably unnecessary) codes of ethics, and eschewing any sort of relationship with a restaurant or chef, for fear it will taint their “objective” experience. This blog wants to explore and experience the opposite – the impassioned chef cooking his own personal vision of cuisine – cooking as art.
This was a meal from July 30th. FILO – first in (5:30), last out (11:00) – the pictures that turned out are below (sans captions.) The most remarkable dish was the uni. This prehistoric monster (it measured 8-9 inches) was plucked from the Oregon ocean earlier in the day, still alive minutes before being plated. And it was remarkably – unimaginably – impossibly fresh – possibly the best I’ve ever had.
The full menu read:
petit fours “red pepper black olive”
Lavendar lemonade, spearmint
Tomato soup, barely cooked, coriander ice
Brillat savarin and buckwheat, caviar from Iran
Foie gras, gently roasted, “reine claude” with amaranth
Sea bream with green tomato, oil “occhipinti”, shellfish
Young squash shoots and beans in bonito butter, toasted seeds
Chaud-froid of sea urchin, golden raspberry, saffron, cocoa…
Into the vegetable garden
Spot prawns, peaches perfumed with basil and walnut, peach leaf granite
Pumpkin veloute “potimarron”, nasturtium with country ham jelly (benton)
Kokotxas with morels, sweet garlic
Celtuce with chevril, onion, and marrow tears
Wood pigeon with arugula and cepes
Confit of figs “desert king”, perfumed with wild fennel, olive oil ice cream
Assorted plums, both raw & roasted, goat’s milk fromage blanc
Petit fours “strawberry-chocolate”
You can watch David Kinch on Eric Ripert’s TV show Avec Eric online – it is a solid ten minute feature going over the cuisine, the garden, and a few dishes that have been reviewed here. It is not a ground-breaking video but it helps fill in some blanks for those that have never tried the food.
I am a broken record, spinning endlessly around, repeating the same phrase – “go now.” Get the tasting menu, open your mind, and enjoy a future vision of American cuisine.
(For those that have read this far, I leave for Tokyo in two days – Sawada, Mitzutani, RyuGin, Koju, Sushiso Masa, 7chome Kyobashi, Waketokyuyama, and more. Yum.)
1 – Of course, we are talking about the garden.
2 – noma, The Sportsman, Mugaritz, L’Arpege, Michel Bras, McCrady’s, Elements (review forthcoming), and more. The Flemish Primitives, or New Naturals, staged what looked like a great example of this general style a few weeks ago (where was my invitation?)
3 – Ubuntu (Napa), Commis (Oakland), and (possibly) Bonny Doon (Santa Cruz.) Getting technical and nerdy about hope – in complex systems, it is the edges, points of lesser interest, where systemic failures begin and shockwave through the system, dismantling entrenched players. I can dream of a day when a new restaurant opens in San Francisco that does not reference “Italian”, “pizza”, or “market cuisine.” (Do we really need another Delfina or Zuni variation? Why, with umpteen-million pizza places opening, can none rise above and cook something as brilliant as Kesté?)
4 – My meal at Commis was over-priced but my main complaint was that the menu had a jarring schism – exciting appetizers (salad of young carrots with seaweed) and big boring proteins for entrees. I think Syhabout’s food, and potential, would be better showcased by a six to eight course tasting menu where he would have more chances to offer a more cohesive point of view. I will, of course, return, in hopes of experiencing his full potential.