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
Corn croquettes
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

Cheeses

Confit of figs “desert king”, perfumed with wild fennel, olive oil ice cream
Assorted plums, both raw & roasted, goat’s milk fromage blanc
Chocolate cupcake
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.)

- chuck

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.

  • http://foodsnobblog.wordpress.com Food Snob

    All the photos look delicious.
    That uni is just not fair.
    Are the kokotxas within the morel?

  • http://www.alifewortheating.com Adam

    Chuck, I just set your uni photo as the background on my phone. Great review and photos.

  • http://www.opinionatedaboutdining.com Steve Plotnicki

    Is that uni or calves liver?

  • http://www.foodforthoughtmiami.com Frodnesor

    A chef at a Japanese restaurant here in Miami scored some of that uni overnight from Oregon around the same time in July and it was phenomenal. Some pix here (about a dozen pictures in).

  • http://www.arthurhungry.com Arthur Che

    Never seen a piece of uni like that before. Did it taste any different, other than being really good? It’s hard to imagine eating uni that big!

  • http://uncouthgourmands.com/ Uncouth Gourmands

    I just went for a post birthday dinner and was blown away. Your pictures are a million times better than mine but here was my experience http://uncouthgourmands.com/2009/10/23/a-post-birthday-to-remember/

  • http://www.ulteriorepicure.com ulterior epicure

    That Brillat Savarin – Iranian caviar dish sounds stunning.

    re: Commis – that is a common complaint I have with restaurant menus. The first courses all sound so appetizing that the main courses seem breathless by comparison.

  • cirio

    Fresh Uni? Pretty easy to get along the central California coast.

    You can go out and pick em yourself. It’s pretty much as good as it gets, scooping it out of a live shell.

  • http://twitter.com/Sun__Art Karel

    Hi Chuck,

    Nice blog!
    new octopus logo is fab

    In September we will be travel in CA for 3 weeks. LA, SF, Napa Valley,…
    Manresa and Ubuntu are already en our dining schedule.
    What are the restaurants fine, casual dining that you think we should visit?

    Thanks,
    Karel

  • chuckeats

    Hi Karel, some options, depending on what you’re looking for:

    high-end:
    - Coi – increasingly in vein of noma-type restaurants
    - Quince – best pasta in the US?
    - Commis – former sous of Manresa, 1*, with a vision

    middle:
    - Frances – best casual restaurant in SF right now
    - Sons & Daughters – a very exciting new restaurant
    - Blue Plate – perfect “American” food (meat loaf, mac’n'cheese, etc)
    - Delfina Pizzeria – one of better neopolitan pizzas
    - Martins West – excellent gastropub

    cheap:
    - 4505 – best hamburger on Thurs & Sat Ferry Bldg farmer’s markets
    - Humphrey Slocombe – get the secret breakfast ice cream flavor
    - Blue Bottle – several locations, excellent coffee
    - Ritual – also great coffee
    - Dynamo Donuts – pretty good donuts

  • http://twitter.com/Sun__Art Karel

    Thanks for your input!

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