Near the end of our nearly five-hour extravaganza at Manresa, the most talked about restaurant in the Bay Area, I asked my three friends who, on separate occasions, had also dined at the French Laundry the inevitable question: which meal was better?
But, wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Four of my friends, N and I all dined at Manresa on Saturday to celebrate N's and my thirteenth anniversary and my friend's fabulous new job.
Arriving at Manresa, you feel like Alice (no not that one, this one) must have felt after she stepped through the looking glass. You've entered a world of paradoxes, juxtapositions and incongruities. You've entered chef David Kinch's mind.
The first hint that you're in for an unusual night is the location. Of course any time a city boy like myself leaves the big city and heads to unexplored regions of suburbia, I feel a sense of anxiety (my favorite Roz Chast cartoon from a few years ago depicts New Yorkers driving through the depths of New Jersey nervously exclaiming "Where are we? Are we in a town? Are we between towns? How can anybody live out here? Look! Look at that weird mall!!").
After driving for an hour south of San Francisco to Los Gatos (a suburb of San Jose?), we followed Manresa's own directions to the letter, for, as the website warns, "Google and MapQuest are not reliable." We carefully parked as directed in the bank parking lot, just behind Pedro's Mexican Restaurant.
Although I felt a sense of relief just to have arrived safely at the restaurant, this turned out to be my first lesson of the night: Trust Manresa. Allow Chef Kinch and General Manager Michael Kean and their capable staff to take care of you.
Because one of my friends had previously co-managed Silks Restaurant with Michael, we were warmly greeted and offered complimentary glasses of bubbly (thank you, Michael). This set the tone for a glorious, somewhat gluttonous five-hour feast that lasted until 1 am (sorry, Michael).
Unlike many other celebrated food bloggers, I'm admittedly not often lured into the rarefied air of four-star (or in Michelin land, three-star) dining. I'm probably the only so-called foodie to have eaten all my meals at tapas bars when I visited San Sebastián, Spain, the town renowned for having more Michelin stars per capita than any other place in the world. As N somewhat embarrassingly commented upon learning that half our table had eaten at the French Laundry and we hadn't, "how come you only take me to Suzu?" Ha ha, isn't she funny! Of course, she was just joking...I think?
Besides the obvious fact that now that I have a food blog I don't want to look like a complete cheapskate, Manresa tempted me because I know that David Kinch is enamored with the cuisines of Spain and, in particular, Catalonia. If you've been reading my blog at all, you know of my affection for the cooking of this part of the world.
So when my friend suggested the idea of going there, I jumped at the opportunity. My only condition was that we all agree to eat the multi-course tasting menu. There were certainly no objections with this group. We all ended up getting the wine pairing as well!
The highlights of our meal were the little unexpected touches: savory flavors when you expected sweet (and vice versa), unusual juxtapositions of ingredients, a pot of hot water when someone started coughing, and the most impressive tea service I've ever seen.
The chef loves to blur the boundaries between sweet and savory. Just as the humble madeleine inspired Proust to write a thousand-page novel, Kinch began our meal with his own take on this usually sweet tea biscuit. He transformed it into his signature black olive madeleine, accompanying it with a wonderfully squishy red pepper gelée. Coming full circle by ending the meal with sweet versions in identical colors (chocolate madeleine and strawberry gelée) was an innovative gesture.
In another amuse bouche, two incongruous Spanish street festival snacks, sweet churros and pimientos de padrón (chiles), were united on one plate. Only here, the sugar in the churros was swapped for parmesan cheese, making the churros into the greatest Cheetos the world has ever seen (pictured above).
There were also surprising flavor combinations and textures, like the vanilla that infused a fried cube of corn gelatin (my friend called it a "hushpuppy on acid") that exploded with juices in your mouth. Or the play on the traditional Catalan mar i muntanya (literally sea and mountain, or surf and turf), where Kinch paired perfectly prepared, tender local abalone with pig's trotters. All were as brilliantly executed as they were conceived.
Two other dishes stood out as highlights for me.
How could I not adore a dish featuring our local sardines? Here a sardine fillet was seared and placed atop a creamy burrata risotto, topped with fried shallots and accompanied by a green tomato. My own personal plate of heaven. It was even better paired with a glass of interesting white wine from Catalonia that was 85% moscato and 15% parellada (forgot the producer's name).
My favorite course of the night drew from the chef's other country of inspiration, Japan. Thinly sliced striped jack (shimaaji?), a relative of hamachi, was topped with paper thin slices of local geoduck clams, julienned radish, chives, shiro dashi and olive oil. The shiro dashi contributed a hint of smokiness that made it a perfect match to the Alsatian riesling that accompanied it.
If you're interested, to the best of my recollection (I didn't take notes) here's a comprehensive list (with links to photos or click here for a slideshow) of our meal and the wines paired with them:
Amuse bouche (with champagne)
- black olive madeleine & red pepper gelée
- parmesan churros & pimientos de padrón
- chilled tomato soup with parmesan and fennel tuile
- vanilla-infused corn fritter (with liquid inside)
- soft-cooked egg with maple syrup, sherry vinegar, chives and cream
- fresh strawberries, key lime granita, hibiscus gelée (sparkling pink cabernet franc, Loire)
- chilled crenshaw melon soup with almond tofu, fried Marcona almond (chenin blanc, Loire)
- striped jack sashimi, geoduck clam, radish, chives, shiro dashi, olive oil (riesling, Alsace)
- sardine, buratta risotto, green tomato, fried shallots (moscato, Catalonia)
- black cod, salmon roe, cucumber, butter (chardonnay, Chablis)
- abelone, pig's trotter, parsley, red wine reduction (pinot noir, 1er cru Burgundy)
- squab breast and confit leg, zucchini mousse, raspberries, huckleberries (syrah, near Santa Cruz)
- beef bavette cooked in own fat, wilted little gem lettuces, mushrooms (zinfandel, Napa)
- trio of sorbets in little cones: watermelon, strawberry, peach
- caramel soufflé, white chocolate quenelle, praline, banana
- chocolate tart, cinnamon ice cream, fig (10-year old Madeira)
- chocolate madeleine & strawberry gelée
- choice of eight looseleaf teas, mostly low caffeine greens, whites and herbals served in glass teapots. N and I chose different types of white teas, one with rose and one with chrysanthemum. Exquisite.
Oh, lest you had thought I'd forgotten, all three of my friends who had also dined at the French Laundry unanimously agreed without hesitation that they preferred this meal at Manresa hands-down. Sorry, Thomas.
Myself, I would place it on par with the many meals I've enjoyed at Chez Panisse (see, I'm not a complete cheapskate...although most of those meals came when I worked there) and my meal at Ca' Sento. While very different in style, all three restaurants share an obsessive focus on showcasing the best regionally available ingredients.
Would I go back to Manresa? In a heartbeat.