Manresa (Los Gatos) – Early Spring Garden

Often, after taking a bite, you look at the plates for clues. Their simplicity belies the sensations of the palate. In an age of abundance, when dishes need matrices for decoding, David Kinch continues to reduce and refine, searching for the ethereal. A citrus or vinaigrette command immediate attention and focus, never letting the flavors wander or muddy. Sprigs of herbs, gorgeous but seemingly ancillary, pepper each bite with their quick short jabs of bitterness or tang, a Thin Green Line against an overbearing protein. Essence has always driven Kinch’s best dishes for my 25+ meals at Manresa.

Manresa 03-11

Manresa, and Kinch, play central shadow characters in the grand food narratives of today’s media. Kinch was one of the first fine dining chefs to eschew luxury ingredients for a cuisine of the vegetable, partnering with Love Apple Farm for the restaurant’s exclusive bio-dynamic garden. He has talked of “time and place” in many interviews, and what that means for a Northern Californian restaurant, long before the current Noma rage of wild and foraged. He has trained with some of the world’s greatest chefs in Kyoto, Japan 1 – the next frontier in international dining. In each story, he could be a feature, but seemingly prefers to let his tasting menus tell his narrative; below, a tale of the early spring garden.

This was a birthday meal in late March – obviously I am known – the full menu is listed at the end. 2

Manresa 03-11

Garden beignets, vinegar powder

Butter

With restaurants taking great strides to produce everything in-house, wise or not, butter, and bread, all too often remains an elusive frontier. Despite obstacles like terroir, seasonality, and state laws on raw and unpasteurized milk; too many butters simply underwhelm. Well-cultured butters are my preference – and this butter is the truth – especially when it has been sitting out for thirty to forty-five minutes, literally melting in your mouth. Only Bordier tempts me more.

Manresa 03-11

Manresa 03-11

Raw milk panna cotta with abalone

A dish that arguably shows Kinch taking the ideas of Japanse cooking and tailoring them to his cuisine. From my Perfect Meal 2010 post: Seductive and profound – my dish of the year – transmutation, alchemy, magic. The abalone, with all is meatiness, was tempered by the cool raw milk pudding, presumably milked from the same cow as the extraordinary best-in-the-country butter. The slight salinity of the dish, possibly from the abalone, possibly sea water mixed into the panna cotta, held it all together while faintly referencing salted butter. There were also inflections of sweetness and tanginess. Fifteen minutes of bliss.

Shellfish with wild rice, a chrysanthemum and chicken jelly

Kinch’s food has taken more and more direction from Japan and this dish felt like a statement – his interpretation of Japanese cuisine with his own brand of clarity. Wild rice vinaigrette and chrysanthemum jelly immediately focused the dish – its nutty acid cutting, without the heft one expected from the wild rice taste. It was an unexpected bite that carried into the textures of the dish’s base – a perfect bed of al dente sushi rice, each kernel seperate & distinct. The chicken jelly rounded the flavors, a slight umami, while the vinaigrette continued to form the backbone until completion. The vote has already been cast – this is the dish of the year.

Manresa 03-11

Manresa 03-11

Spot prawns and its head juices, bitter herbs

The Manresa Monterey Bay spot prawn, in all its guises, is always a special part of the meal. Beautifully, but simply, dressed with bitter herbs, this was a new incarnation for me. The Zen simplicity of Kinch’s cuisine is on full display – a prawn, warmed around its edges, viscid in the middle, peppered with herbs – and it makes for revelations. How is this not art? The bitter herbs, mere Noma-derivation in less-skilled hands, perked each bite – darted around the gelatinous prawn – adding counterpoint, vibrancy, and even structure. It is entirely representative of Kinch’s ideals.

Asparagus and amberjack, caviar and egg yolk vinaigrette

Manresa 03-11

Manresa 03-11

Crispy mussels and creamed salsify, cucumber with dill

Into the vegetable garden…

Until now, different courses flirted with the ingredients of the season, one or two featured, repeated once or twice, adding mystery and suspense to the flow of the menu. But Into the Vegetable Garden is a point of pause in a Manresa meal – a centerpiece – much of the garden’s bounty, 20+ ingredients, picked that day, presented in various forms, cuts, textures, & techniques. It is allegory for the garden, a key to the now.

Manresa 03-11

Manresa 03-11

Abalone and seaweed persillade, buckwheat

Steelhead trout, sweet onion and marrow broth with chervil

Manresa 03-11

Manresa 03-11

Roast porcini, smoked lentil with wild onion

Suckling kid goat, curds and whey

Manresa 03-11

Cake-, custard-, and chocolate-based desserts don’t fit into the arc of the Manresa tasting menu. The meal has progressed to this point pivoting around a micro-season – how could dessert not continue that trajectory? Outside of fruit, how does one incorporate garden elements into the context of “dessert”, while still referencing its sweetness?

Aloe vera gelee with celery and apple, yogurt sorbet

Tart, tangy, crisp, soothing and cool, with trace bitter hints, this first dessert course walked a fine line between the familiar and the unexpected, deftly balancing the individual components. This was very accomplished and I find myself drawn increasingly to desserts of this style – light and refreshing.

Manresa 03-11

Manresa 03-11

Egg; Vanilla mascarpone with almond milk ice

Exotic citrus with honey and spice, herbs

Manresa 03-11

Manresa 03-11

Hazelnut, coffee and brown butter mille feuille

As mentioned earlier, this was one of many many meals at Manresa – and it was possibly my best. Admittedly, I have a tendency to say that every year but there is no question Kinch gets better and better. In his best dishes, he is practicing alchemy – transmuting his garden into profound expressions on food. It takes a tasting menu to tell the entire story, to see the shifting compositions and ingredients, to experience the food at its most potent. With each picture and memory, it calls me back.

- chuck

1 – Culiminating in a Japense seminar and a meal that will become mythological over the years.

2 – The full menu:
Petit fours “red pepper-black olive”
Chicken chiccharones, buttermilk
Garden beignets, vinegar powder
Spiced sunflower and broccoli royale
Raw milk panna cotta with abalone
Shellfish with wild rice, a chrysanthemum and chicken jelly
Spot prawns and its head juices, bitter herbs
Asparagus and amberjack, caviar and egg yolk vinaigrette
Crispy mussels and creamed salsify, cucumber with dill
Into the vegetable garden…
Abalone and seaweed persillade, buckwheat
Steelhead trout, sweet onion and marrow broth with chervil
Roast porcini, smoked lentil with wild onion
Suckling kid goat, curds and whey
Aloe vera gelee with celery and apple, yogurt sorbet
Egg; Vanilla mascarpone with almond milk ice
Exotic citrus with honey and spice, herbs
Hazelnut, coffee and brown butter mille feuille
Petit fours “strawberry-chocolate”

  • chris

    looks amazing, its been almost 5 years since my first and only meal at manresa and it still sticks in my mind, what are your thoughts on manresa not making pellegrinos 50 best list, I know its not a credible list but I cant figure out why they dont get it

  • Paul

    Chris

    I would not take the top 50 list to seriously because it is just a mutual PR back slapping exersize, because any list that leaves a restaurant like Scholss Berg of the list when it is IMO the best high end restaurant in Europe is not really worth talking about

  • chuckeats

    chris, the list is obviously euro-centric and it’s a popularity contest to a large degree. san francisco/bay area is further away from europe than NYC; and that’s my theory for the bias of the list. there are plenty of snubs.

  • http://aintitalltoofunny.blogspot.com/ joel baumwoll

    The meal we had here with you and Leslie on Wednesday night still reverberates in my mind. Manresa, for me, is worth a cross-country journey at least twice a year. Were it close, I would eat there at least once a month.

  • http://www.wordsmithingpantagruel.com Ed

    Thanks for spreading the word about Kinch. Finally got to try his stuff on Thursday here in NY. The Green Garden Gazpacho was a revelation, and the abalone treatment was very special. I’m actually going back for seconds tonight because I was able to get 2 tix to bring the wife after getting the single last ticket for Thursday.

    I really need to make it out for the real deal one of these days…

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