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Best meals of 2008 – Manresa (Los Gatos, CA)

I’ve given up on the goofy parody of Iron Chef  that appears today on the Food Network, but last week was an exception. David Kinch was battling Bobby Flay and I was a little more than interested in the outcome. Not that a win on Iron Chef means anything, but after visiting Manresa three times in the last 12 months I am convinced it’s the best restaurant in the land, or at least one of the few that could make that claim.  Add to that the horrendous lunch I had at Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain and you have yourself an epic battle between good and evil.

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Skip to the end. Kinch didn’t as much win as he slaughtered Bobby Flay on national television. Aside from enjoying the public humiliation of someone as cocky as Flay, what really grabbed me were the dishes Kinch created for the competition. There were a few signature touches – use of subtly  seasoned raw geoduck Kinch has mastered and yet another installment in the “into the garden” series featuring edible dirt that elevates the dish from an ordinary salad to a sensory experience. But then there were the new dishes. Red cabbage borscht with pear sauerkraut and mustard cream. Cabbage napoleon. These are things I must eat. Coi and possibly Cyrus are on the agenda for my next Bay Area trip, but I fighting the urge to be at Manresa again.

This post is an amalgamation of the two of the best meals I had in at Manresa 2008 (third was a bit less successful and came in winter of 2009). The dinner in June was about as close to a perfect meal as you can get. Perfect meals are rare even at the best restaurants, so I feel fortunate to have hit Manresa at just the right moment to experience one.

Each meal begins and ends the same way – with savory (red peper and block olive) and sweet (strawberry and chocolate) petit fours that bookend each meal. Some of the amuses change from meal to meal, such as the expertly crafted golden purses filled with crab or oysters topped with Japanese sea urchin.

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The lavender lemonade with a sprig of garden mint was one of the most simple and interesting first courses I have seen in a while, served with what looked like a soap bubble that covered the top of the glass. Pull the mint sprig and the bubble bursts. Interactive food au naturel, no iPod required.

imageCarrot "white satin" and foie gras royale

The foie gras royale is one of the Manresa signature dishes that makes an appearance at many meals. The royale has the texture of mousse and richness of a custard, with a subtle foie gras flavor that seems the build towards the bottom of the cup.

image Arpege farm egg

Another signature amuse with vertical construction – eat it layer by layer and you may find yourself tasting jarring amounts of sherry and maple syrup. Drive the spoon all the way to the bottom of the shell and all the flavors magically combine with the soft coddled yolk to produce one of the finest dishes ever conceived. The original egg at L’Arpege in Paris is slightly better than the version served at Manresa, but it doesn’t make me love eating this dish any less every time I visit.

imageSea bream with shellfish, bonito broth,
golden raspberries, green curry oil

Every time I taste the stunning crudo preparations at Manresa I am reminded just how wide the gap is between truly fresh seafood and what your find in your better than average sushi bar. The portions at Manresa may be small, but the fish is good enough to reset the idea of what “fresh” really tastes like. Geoduck, especially, tastes dramatically different here – tender, yet crisp texture with a slightly sweet finish. I’ve had geoduck in other places, but it just doesn’t taste the same.  

image Horse mackerel, ginger, seaweed ice, lemony herbs

The incredible aji I had at at Sawa Sushi just weeks prior to this meal was of better quality than the mackerel at Manresa, but what really made this dish was composition of flavors. Kinch has a singular talent for creating conceptual dishes that allude to the environment of the main ingredients. This dish achieves that with a bit of seaweed flavored ice slushy. 

image Kindai tuna cheeks, roasted peppers,
sweet garlic, crispy potato

There is nothing remotely conceptual about the Kindai tuna cheeks at Manresa – just the the most intense tuna flavor I have ever encountered. Explanations of dishes at Manresa always seem to be muddled, so I completely tuned out when the server went into a long story about universities, fish farming and rare tuna varieties that are somehow going to save the wild tuna populations some day. *Yawn.*

After the first bite I wished I had listened to the whole story. The taste of Kindai tuna cheeks is difficult to describe – imagine the texture of barely cooked high grade wagyu (to be honest, the threads of the top end of BBQ brisket are a better proxy, but that makes me sound like such a Texan…) with the flavor of the some exceptionally expensive toro. You’re getting close.

Turns out Manresa is one of a handful of US restaurants to serve Kindai tuna – the first farm raised bluefin tuna in existence. You can read more about it here, but to the best of my knowledge all the available Kindai cheeks go to Manresa. And they are absolutely stunning. 

image Into the vegetable garden…

Into the vegetable garden… is one of the most famous Kinch creations and for a good reason – it’s a remarkable dish for it’s simplicity, depth and conceptual design.

If you have a concrete mind with a pragmatic bend, this is going to be one of the best salads you have ever had. Manresa is famous for quality of its vegetables and the seasonal produce here is either barely poached or completely untouched, preserving as much of the natural flavor as possible. I am pretty certain the dish is seasoned with nothing more than the poaching jus. As with any garden, you are just as likely to find a perfect carrot that tastes as if it was pulled from the ground minutes before it hit your plate, as you are to stumble onto weeds or flowers many of us don’t associate with salads.

If you fancy yourself as an abstract thinker, this dish will really surprise you, because the composition actually creates the imagery of a vegetable garden. The edible dirt made from parsnip and roasted chicory root plays a sensory role by emulating the environment of the garden. Two of my Manresa meals were eaten alone, allowing my mind to wonder if this is the way garden bugs perceive their natural habitat – eating their way through vegetables, weeds flowers  with a little bit of grit in their teeth from the dirt. Sounds a little far fetched, but you have to amuse yourself somehow when you eat alone.

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Abalone, garden basil, courgettes, slow egg

Abalone has appeared in each of my dinners are Manresa and has never disappointed; a rarity for this ingredient. I don’t have a photo of my favorite abalone dish (grrr poor lighting), but you can see a nice shot of it here

The Autumn “Tidal Pool”: Foie Gras, Abalone, Uni in Mushroom Dashi sounds like a total mess of flavors that do not belong together. In truth, eating it as a soup I thought the dish was offensively strong. I like food aggressively seasoned, but the amount of salt in the “pool” was high even for me, clobbering the foie gras, uni and anything in between. The dish tasted harsh.

Just as I gave up and tried to fish out the edible  bits, all the flavors came into focus. All it needed was careful calibration of amount of sea flavored dashi in each spoon. Another example of Kinch’s ability to weave the environment into a dish or a mistake in the kitchen?

image Kokotxas, stewed smoky white beans, country ham

Where the tuna cheeks  cheeks are all about intensity of flavor, the standout element of kokotxas at Manresa is the ethereal texture of the cod cheeks. Country ham is used more like fat netting here, lending richness and depth to the cod.

image Wood Pigeon

I get less and less enthusiastic as the most epic meals get closer to meat courses. More often than not, they don’t measure up to the rest of the dishes and Manresa was no exception. The meat courses at my first Manresa dinner were good, but unremarkable.

On my second visit, just as the meal was hitting what I thought was the absolute high point, David Kinch exceeded all expectations and delivered what I still consider to be the best meat courses I have ever had. It all started with the tableside presentation of the salt roasted wood pigeon, which then took a detour to the kitchen for carving.

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Wood pigeon, apple puree, sorrel, ramps, morels

It’s difficult to describe the flavor and texture of this dish without resorting to banalities. The flesh was perfectly rare and cooked with remarkable consistency throughout both leg and breast cuts, but the flavor was close to what I imagine Lilliputian lambs would taste like if they have been fed of milk and honey most of their short lives. Which is to say, really fracking good.

If you visit Manresa, call ahead and beg them to prepare the wood pigeon for you. It’s worth the indignity.

image Roast saddle of lamb with turnips

Just as I was trying to re-calibrate my new standard for perfectly roasted foul, another meat course appeared. The dish was giving off such intense aroma that I knew it was lamb long before it reached my table (this is a good thing). As perfectly as the wood pigeon was cooked, this lamb somehow matched it.

I had a similar lamb preparation on my third visit to Manresa and it didn’t have nearly as intense of an effect, so clearly things were firing on all cylinders in the kitchen on this particular night. Though another explanation is that we perceive food differently when we dine alone, versus meals we share with dining companions who compete with food for attention. This is a topic for another post, but for some reason my solitary meals often end up being the best meals.

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Comte de garde exceptionnel 2003 (Bernard Antony)

Few cheeses I have sampled match this extraordinary cheese course. Deep bursts of flavor (and sound effects) from crystallized lactic acid.

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Chocolate, blackberry napoleon,
cucumber sherbet, shiso leaf

Desserts are not a strong point at Manresa, but this combination of chocolate, cucumber slices and cucumber sherbet really grabbed me. I really didn’t think the combination would work, but the chocolate actually amplified and complemented the flavor of the cucumber. And as all the best dishes at Manresa, it showed that ingredients we often take for granted can be used in new and unexpected ways.

San Francisco 146

David Kinch may be the prototype for the new generation of great chefs. Spanish name aside, the flavors seamlessly span the globe without ill effects. The food incorporates touches of modern techniques, but they are used to carefully enhance natural flavors, rather than defy the laws of physics. Some of the best dishes have a conceptual arc, yet never cross the line between food and post-modern art.

Most important – produce at Manresa is unlike any I’ve ever had (that includes L’Arpege), except for a select few Tenacity dinners, making Kinch’s efforts in sourcing and growing his own produce an example of what we will all expect from the best chefs and  restaurants in the future. Quality of the ingredients makes all the difference at Manresa, elevating it far above any other restaurant I have come across.

 

  1. Petit fours – red pepper and black olive
  2. Lavender lemonade, garden mint
  3. Golden purses
  4. Sweet corn croquettes
  5. Carrot "white satin" and foie gras royale
  6. Arpege farm egg
  7. Sea bream with shellfish, bonito broth, golden raspberries, green curry oil
  8. Horse mackerel, ginger, seaweed ice, lemony herbs
  9. Kindai tuna cheeks, roasted peppers, sweet garlic, crispy potato
  10. Into the vegetable garden…
  11. Abalone, garden basil, courgettes, slow egg
  12. Kokotxas, stewed smoky white beans, country ham
  13. Wood pigeon, apple puree, sorrel, ramps, morels
  14. Roast saddle of lamb with turnips
  15. Comte de garde exceptionnel 2003 (Bernard Antony)
  16. Cherry sorbet with reine de pres, noyaux, almonds
  17. Apricot, fig leaf
  18. Chocolate, blackberry napoleon, cucumber sherbet, shiso leaf
  19. Petit fours – strawberry and chocolate

March 26, 2009   13 Comments