Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Manresa - Los Gatos

We did Manresa all wrong. I now know that Los Gatos is a good hour and a half away from Carmel, which was our home base the evening of our Manresa reservation. I now know that it was a major mistake to attempt a heady dining experience with the whole family after a day of tidepooling and hiking in Point Lobos Park and a loooong drive back up the coast. But when I planned our California trip (in fairness to myself, on very short notice), this was one of the destinations I didn't want to miss, and so - against my better judgment, or at least that of certain other members of the family - we made the trek to Manresa. With this preview, it shouldn't come as a great surprise that the meal was not a perfect success.

Once we got there, Los Gatos turned out to be a charming little town, and the restaurant, on a side street off the main drag in what looks to be a converted house, is modestly unassuming for a place that has garnered such a lofty reputation. Inside, the exposed wood beam ceiling, earth-toned walls, and oriental rugs give a feeling of casual intimacy. We were greeted warmly and led to a table in the back that looked out on a small garden. The garden is a prevalent theme with Manresa, where Chef David Kinch has an exclusive arrangement with Love Apple Farms located nearby: the farm's produce is grown exclusively for the restaurant, a quite literal exemplar of the "farm-to-table" movement.

In light of the long drive behind us and the return trip still ahead of us, the tasting menu was out of the question. All right, I questioned, and Mrs. F said "Absolutely not." Manresa also offers a four-course dinner, and further accomodated the kids by doing 2- and 3-course offerings for them. The menu appears to be divided into vegetable & seafood appetizers, fish items, meats, and desserts & cheeses, suggesting a natural 4-course progression, but you are free to choose however you wish and we mixed things up quite a bit. Indeed, between the four of us we tried thirteen different items, effectively (or ineffectively, perhaps) making our own tasting menu. It was something of an up-and-down experience. I had some dishes I thought were absolutely ethereal; some of the other ones we had were visual feasts but lacking in flavor (causing Mrs. F to proclaim that they were like "a symphony composed for the deaf").

First, the whole line-up of our meal, then pictures (apologies in advance for the poor quality of some of these; the full set can be seen here) and discussion:

Parmesan churros and crispy kale (amuse)
"Arpege" egg (amuse)
Summer snapper, sashimi style
Assorted shellfish in green tomato broth
Squash and courgette risotto
Into the vegetable garden
Pasta with vegetables and cheese[*]
Local abalone
Ling cod
Season's first albacore
Spring lamb
Beef bavette
Selection of artisan cheeses
Exotic citrus with honey and spice
Hazelnut and cocoa tartine

After ordering, we were first brought two amuse bouches ("amuses bouche"?). The first to arrive, on a sheet of slate, were a few twirls of light, airy and greaseless parmesan churros, paired with leaves of crispy kale. These were neither the palate-cleaner nor palate-tweaker I typically anticipate from an amuse bouche, but there's nothing wrong with starting a meal with something crispy and fried either. The next amuse was more interesting, described by our waiter as the "Arpege egg," readily acknowledging the dish's source of inspiration, Alain Passard's L'Arpege. The egg is served in its shell and, working your way from the surface to the bottom, you find frothy creamy white, a tart dash of sherry vinegar, a sweet tickle of maple syrup, and the gooey rich yolk. This was an elegant and flavorful package. Having never tried the original at L'Arpege, I am in no position to draw comparisons. The bread was also quite nice, crusty outside and tender within, served with creamy house-churned butter, a corner of which is sprinkled with coarse sea salt.

shellfish shellfish
Assorted shellfish in green tomato broth

My first dish was the assorted shellfish, which is also described almost universally by those who have tried it as the "tidepool." And for good reason, as the visual association is almost inevitable. The dish featured a variety of seafoods - octopus, dungeness crab, geoduck clam, and buried further within, a couple tongues of coral-colored sea urchin roe, seemingly floating in a limpid pool of dashi given an inflection of refreshing tartness with the addition of green tomato broth. Both the dashi and the green tomato broth were just slightly more viscous than water, perhaps thickened a touch with xanthan. Scattered throughout were sea beans (a/k/a marsh samphire, a name that makes more sense to me since these are clearly not beans), various green leaves, orange and red nasturtium petals, and tiny purple flowers (borage?). In a few spots were little puddles of black and white sesame seeds and tiny matchsticks of nori, providing an additional dash of flavor. Yet another layer of contrast was provided by the addition of thin slivers of unripe strawberries, their green, sour note playing the role often played by citrus in combination with seafood.

Mrs. F started with "summer snapper, sashimi style," the fish served raw and sliced usuzukuri style into very thin slices arranged in a spiral around the plate. The pristinely fresh fish was topped with good olive oil, slightly coarse sea salt, tiny chopped chives and very finely shredded kaffir lime leaf. I enjoyed the clean and pure flavors, though Mrs. F found the kaffir lime a touch overpowering.

squash and courgette risottosquash and courgette risotto
Squash and courgette risotto

Next for me, a squash and courgette (zucchini) risotto "without rice," the vegetables cut into dice roughly the size of grains of rice, and cooked to a texture approximating a risotto - tender outside, but with still a hint of firmness within. The "risotto" was bound with an emulsion with the salty umami of parmesan cheese, the flavors echoed by a white froth on top. The dish was crowned with a twisted mobius strip of thinly sliced raw (or barely blanched) zucchini, along with little crispy wafers of mushroom. I usually find both summer squash and zucchini insipid, but this was an effective and pleasing use of their summer bounty.

into the garden
Into the vegetable garden

Mrs. F's next course, "Into the vegetable garden," is a signature item for Manresa. Like the "Arpege egg," it is also one that has something of a family tree. The original reference point for the dish is derived from French chef Michel Bras, and a dish he dubbed "gargouillou." Though the original gargouillou is apparently a simple peasant dish of potatoes and ham, Chef Bras' gargouillou is a garden-inspired assembly of dozens of different vegetables, leaves, herbs and sprouts (supposedly anywhere between 30 and 60 different items), some raw, some cooked, all united by a buttery ham-infused broth. It has been the inspirational springboard for many chefs, and Chef Kinch's own explanation provides intriguing insight into the evolution of his take on the dish.

The iteration we had featured a cornucopia of different leaves and petals, plus cubes and rounds of various vegetables - zucchini, potato, turnip, tomato - some raw, some barely poached. Then as you progress further into the pile, you find a couple loose pyramids of vegetable purees, and a crumbly dark "soil" in which I tasted potato, chicory and maybe hazelnut. The elements of the plate were bound by a foam made from the vegetables' juices. It was a beautiful thing to look at, really like a garden on a plate. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the elaborate pedigree and gorgeous presentation, Mrs. F found the dish bland and underflavored.

I recently saw Chef Kinch on Le Bernardin Chef Eric Ripert's new TV show "Avec Eric" talking about the dish, and he was explaining how as time has passed, he has pared away components of the dish in order to highlight the vegetables, specifically commenting that he didn't want to be guilty of overseasoning the "star ingredients" (the theme of the show). It is possible this restraint can be carried too far; either that, or perhaps Mrs. F doesn't love her vegetables enough. But I am also reminded of a tweet exchange I recently had with the immortal Gael Greene, prompted by her comment on Top Chef Masters that "Whenever a chef uses a foam I wonder what they're trying to DO to me." Interpreting this as an overbroad indictment of an entire technique, I helpfully suggested "Relax - it's foam, not Astroglide," to which she gracefully responded "I often wonder if the foaming chef ever tastes his foam. So often it's flavorless scum and detracts from an otherwise good dish." And she makes a good point. A bold or richly flavored ingredient can work well when aerated into a foam, but milder ones can often get lost; and here, if I hadn't known that the foam was made from the vegetables' juices, I would have never been able to tell you what it was. This was a dish I found more pleasing in concept and presentation than in flavor.

Local abalone

I found my next dish, local black abalone, infinitely more satisfying on every level. Unlike most abalone I've tried, these, which are farmed in Monterey Bay, are mind-bogglingly tender, yielding to the gentlest touch of a knife and not chewy or bouncy at all. Their flavor is mildly but distinctly oceanic, reminiscent of octopus or geoduck. Two of these plump disks were propped upright in the bowl in a golden-brown umami-loaded broth, together with a few dollops of corn pudding, glassy-looking translucently golden-green slices of tomato, and a fascinating little green our server told me was called ficoide glaciale. These little sprigs, similar to the iceplant, were lightly crunchy, just slightly sour, and provided a sensation uncannily like a light spray of cool water.

ling cod
Ling cod

Beef bavette

Spring lamb

Next, working in reverse order of the pictures, the spring lamb dish was mine, featuring rosy slices of shoulder, a cube of tender confited tongue, a tangy yogurt-based sauce, black beans, some wilted and fresh greens, and - if memory serves - some roasted shishito peppers. The yogurt sauce was the component that brought this dish, which otherwise would have been well-prepared but unexceptional, to another level. The other items we had, however, did not impress as much. The beef bavette, which was cooked in its own fat, had a murky taste to it (Frod Jr. said the beef tasted like mashed potatoes), and I found the pairings - grilled spring onions, cubed turnips, and quinoa turned bright green with arugula - somewhat bland. The roasted ling cod was good fish, but the accompanying zucchini, summer squash and eggplant - the first two sliced in various thicknesses and alternately raw or grilled, and all bound with a milky white froth - were also bland, and too similar to the "risotto" I had earlier. Mrs. F had "the season's first albacore," and also found the oil-poached fish to be underflavored.

The cheese course which we followed with - described on the menu as "refined and perfectly mature" (perhaps more than we can say about our dining group) - again brought redemption. The cheeses come out on a little red cart, which our server told us was custom-made for the restaurant in France. The first cart mysteriously disappeared on arrival in the U.S., and a second one had to be commissioned. The cart is charming, but its contents are truly special. We had four cheeses, accompanied by house-made membrillo (quince paste). They were all indeed perfectly aged and a couple in particular - a Grayson (a Tallegio-like washed rind cheese made in Virginia) and a Brillat-Savarin (so rich and oozy it required more than a bit of dexterity to get it from the cart to a plate) were truly memorable.

We let the kids pick desserts, and Little Miss F chose "exotic citrus with honey and spice," while Frod Jr. chose a hazelnut and cocoa tartine (they did not wait for pictures to be taken). The former featured some truly exotic citrus, various pomelo and tangerine hybrids, some with incredibly intense tartness to them, only slightly tamed by some honey's sweetness, and contrasted with an almost equally intense spearmint ice cream. The tartine, meanwhile, played along the boundaries between sweet and savory, with strong dark chocolate only lightly sweetened paired with a vibrant magenta beet granita, a creamy milk curd, and a sprinkle of pea flowers. As we headed out, a creamy, chewy salted caramel provided a treat to savor for the long drive home.

I know and regret that we didn't do Manresa the right way. We were frazzled, we were burned out from driving, and some of us were a bit grumpy. I suspect that both the concept and execution of many of the dishes translate much more successfully when presented in a tasting menu format, and when the diner has more patience and focus than we had on our visit. On the other hand, while I had some truly memorable and exciting dishes (the shellfish tidepool, the abalone, and the cheese course would unquestionably fall in that category, and the "risotto" would come close), others were underflavored and I was pressed to even recall them only a few weeks later.

Even so, I would love the opportunity to try the place again. Even from an imperfect vantage point, some things were clear to me.

First, that Chef Kinch's cooking represents a uniquely successful, and uniquely personal, synthesis of a wide range of influences and ideas. The flavor profiles show French, Spanish, and Asian influences, including dishes unabashedly inspired by those created by other chefs, yet still come across as a consistent and individualized creative vision. The menu is driven by the farm and its bounty as much as probably just about any restaurant in the country, yet the methods and techniques liberally take advantage of the latest culinary technologies and concepts (two trends that many wrongly perceive as antithetical). And second, that next time I'm going without the kids.

sea urchinstarfish
Tidepools at Point Lobos

320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030

Manresa on Urbanspoon

[*]Made special for Little Miss F. I was thoroughly charmed by how the waiter sized up how conservative her tastes were. When she showed little interest in what was on the menu and we asked if they could make a pasta for her, he willingly accomodated, then gently asked "With butter? ... and some cheese? ... and some vegetables?" with pauses between each addition to make sure each step was OK.

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