Due to his recent appearance on Iron Chef and Manresa’s recent appearance on the list of the 100 best restaurants in the world, David Kinch needs no introduction - a Californian chef from California with training that runs through some of the greatest kitchens in the world and a focus on organics, biodynamic farm fresh ingredients, and the use of sharp contrasts to highlight natural flavors – a must visit for any self respecting epicure. Having missed out on Manresa on my previous trip to San Francisco I decided to make the voyage south this time around to experience Kinch’s vision – to see why some consider Manresa to be better than Keller’s place up north.
Having communicated with manager Michael Keane prior to my arrival I was greeted by name by Mr. Keane at the door (after parking quite a distance away because my GPS couldn’t figure out how to navigate the one way Village Lane) and taken to a small booth in the main dining room – facing all the action. Browsing the room I admit I was visually pleased by the plush yet inviting vibe as well as the lighting, plentiful windows, and decorations – rustic, yet refined. Shortly after my arrival I was greeted by my first (of at least ten that I can remember) servers who stated “I understand the Chef will be taking care of you tonight and that you do not eat beef flesh?” Affirming this I asked to see the nightly menu out of curiosity and chuckled at the odd “folder” style – certainly not the pomp and circumstance of The Ritz, Alex, Trotter’s, or TFL with their embroidered leather menus – at Manresa only the wine phonebook gets such treatment. Curiosity satisfied it was time to sit back and enjoy the next 3 hours.
Prior to my first dish I was brought a large loaf of bread – a Housemade Levain served with an incredibly complex and grassy butter from a local farm and topped with salt. Opting first for an end piece – and subsequently for about 7 center pieces – the soft centered and smoky/crusty crusted was absolutely superb. While I prefer more than one bread choice, I must say that if I had to choose one bread, this one works well. The butter, additionally, was every bit as good as the salted butter at The French Laundry, though not quite as good as the unsalted TFL option.
Shortly following the bread I a female server brought the first amuse – Manresa’s signature savory roasted red pepper gelée and black olive madeleines. Dense and sweet, the gelees tasted precisely like a fresh red bell pepper while the madelines were absolutely sublime with a rich and crispy exterior surrounding a complex and chewy center – I could’ve handled many more.
Another amuse, another server – this time Crispy Kale and Parmesan Churro. Describing this dish cannot do it justice, but imagine the world’s best cheeto complimented with a crispy flavor of cabbage. The dish reminded me of something Italian and Hungarian at once and had a strong savory component with minimal pungency – just a rewarding dish to eat in all ways. The dish was collected by the guy who kept refilling my water which I found odd at first, but I guess there is something to be said for division of labor.
A third amuse, a third server – I was starting to wonder if each server simply memorized a single dish for presentation. This time, a shotglass was presented and announced to be Purple Mustard Granite with Carrot. “Huh?” That’s right, a frozen soup of icy mustard greens topped with creamy carrot essence - sounds weird and is. Not a fan of mustard I went into this dish expecting the worst and hoping for the best – and the best I received. While I can’t say this is something I’d order or request, it actually worked – the spicy bite of the mustard contrasting sharply with the sweetness of the carrots and the frozen/icy texture mingling playfully with the cream.
Next up,the same server as the one who presented (and collected the empty plate of) the third amuse brought me “Asparagus and Foie Gras Royale.” A fan, to say the least, of Foie Gras I must say I found this presentation quite excellent and reminiscent of the strawberry version from Daniel Humm at EMP in New York. Layered in effect, a warm whipped asparagus cream sat atop a creamy and aromatic foie preparation and – all told – the presentation just worked to excellent effect – while I’d have preferred a foie dish in the main meal, this did suffice.
How do you follow Foie Gras in Mike’s perfect world? Egg. In this case, an Arpege Farm Egg with Maple and Vinegar. Another nod to Passard from another chef – and another winner. Topped with sherry vinegar and maple syrup the layers and nuances just kept coming with each bite – first cool and creamy, then sweet and savory, then fatty and textural, then salty and sweet at once. While it didn’t top the incredible versions at TFL, Providence, Trotter, or La Folie I’d still eat this egg daily if I could. Brimming with praise I commented to the guy who collected my plate (bread guy from earlier?) that the dish was amazing and got a muffled “okay” before he walked off to the kitchen.
As you can see from my commentary so far, I take a bit of an issue with the “tag team” service at Manresa – while everyone was ‘professional’ and adequate, I found the lack of continuity annoying in that compliments went unnoted, no one ever asked how I liked a dish, and in general I felt like I was being fed off a conveyor belt without personality. While most high end restaurants have multiple servers, they universally also have a captain who “heads” the team and stops by from time to time – Manresa did not have this and after my greeting at the door I additionally never saw Michael Kean again – aside from when he was noted multiple times schmoozing with the party of 4 that was ordering a lot of wine two tables down. Without belaboring anymore, Chef Kinch’s food is brilliant and he deserves a staff that compliments it for all guests – not just the ones with a $2000 bill.
Beginning the Chef’s menu I was first presented with “Shellfish in Crab Broth with Unripe Strawberries,” a worthy start to an incredible journey. Briny with accents of pine, soy, and sesame – creamy razor clams and textural Konpachi – plus unripe strawberries that had a unique and almost bitter-melon taste. A truly unique experience in flavors and textures – I found it odd after only one dish that anyone has ever referred to Kinch’s cuisine as lacking creativity.
Dish two, “Delta Asparagus with Bonito Butter and Toasted Seeds,” caught my attention from the first utterance of the title. Loving asparagus as I do, it wasn’t until Manresa that I finally had the chance to experience true Delta Asparagus – the sweetest and rarest of all asparagus varieties. Cut into thin ribbons and perfectly tender while maintaining a strong degree of texture the vegetable was wonderfully sweet – almost a fruit as opposed to vegetable. To compliment this, shaved flax and sunflower seeds that added further texture and a smooth and frothy butter with the fain essence of tuna and brine. An amazing dish prepared with amazing ingredients and flawless technique.
The next dish, a Kinch signature, was “Into the Vegetable Garden,” and – well, this dish is to salad what Patek Philippe is to watches – the standard by which all others should be judged. As beautiful on the palate as to the eye, the most striking aspect of this dish to myself was the fact that it had almost no smell aside from the of flowers, yet each bite unraveled and entirely different taste, texture, and –dare I say- ‘emotional’ experience. From the chicory “dirt” to the boiled fingerling to the spinach, raddish, and buttery foam – this dish alone warrants a visit to Manresa.
The next choice, “Spring Tidal Pool with Abalone, Octopus, Uni,” is another Manresa seasonal dish and another absolute winner in taste, texture, and sensation. Served warm, but with cool and nearly raw fishes, the shabu shabu style broth lent a buttery (almost foie gras-esque) yet earthy tone to the incredible fresh and succulent fish. While individual flavors of enoki, cabbage, and wonderful seafood all peaked through in resounding form, the overall effect of the dish was truly like the essence of the ocean.
After the previous two dishes, the follow up “Bluenose Bass with Chervil and Sweet Onion Marrow Broth,” didn’t really stand a chance of wowing, yet every aspect of it was well thought out, formulaic, and perfect. Sous-vide prepped, this was my first experience with true Bluenose and I found the fish much sweeter than the “average” Chilean Sea Bass – heavier and meatier, as well. The chervil added a wonderfully aromatic component moreso than taste, while the marrow/onion broth was thankfully quite mild with regard to the marrow (the marrow flan at Alex was a rare dish I couldn’t stomach) and pungent without being overwhelming.
Next, clever - “Root Vegetable Risotto without Rice, Mushrooms,” – yet another dish that makes me question why some call Kinch straight-forward. Featuring at least three varieties of mushrooms prepared in three different ways –dehydrated, fried, raw- over top of peas and a finely chopped (not shredded) “pseudo-risotto” of potato, turnip, and perhaps parsnips. Oddly the dish reminded me a bit more of couscous than risotto, but regardless each flavor was well complimented and expressed itself adequately – I imagine chef Kinch could prepare one heck of a vegan feast if he were so inclined.
Heading into the heavier dishes, I was next presented with “Roast Squab, Parsnips, Beets with Poorman Orange.” Having had a great squab the night before at La Folie, I must admit I found this dish to be relatively uninspiring in terms of the meat, yet once again mindblowing with regard to the vegetables. Admittedly I’d never heard of Poorman orange prior to this, but on my first taste I thought more “grapefruit” than orange – turns out from a little research that I was right. Mildly acidic yet quite complementary to the earthy beets and parsnips, I thought the flavors of the fruit/vegetable admixture simply overwhelmed the extremely mild squab. Not a miss, but not as great as the rest of the meal.
The final dish savory, completing the spring theme, was “Spring Lamb, Season's First Ramps with Peas,” and it was easily the best lamb I’ve ever tasted. Much more mild than the standard lamb with a mild layer of fat, the texture was almost pork-like without any gaminess whatsoever. Perfectly seared ramps, sweet peas, and croquettes that tasted almost like a sweetened hushpuppy – a wonderful dish yet quite heavy for my already-full self.
As a segue to dessert I was next presented with “Exotic Citrus with Honey and Spice, Spearmint Ice Cream,” a dish that, for myself, was not really a hit. While I appreciated the myriad variety of citrus (tangerine and meyer lemon, for sure, plus yuzu I believe) tastes, the honey and spice were far too heavy and the spearmint icecream gave the whole dish a somewhat “off” taste. As I admittedly do not like Spearmint, this could have been part of the problem, but all told it was simply too ‘strong.’
Having seen the cheese cart pass a couple of times and having seen multiple reviews of Manresa presenting three desserts I have to admit I was a tad disappointed when my server presented “your final dish” - A Taste of New Orleans with Powdered Beignets, Chicory Ice Cream, Burnt Bourbon Bananas – at least until I tasted it. While I admit the beignets were quite ordinary (and actually not as good as those at Brenda’s) the rest of the dish was incredible. Caramelized Bourbon Bananas that tasted like the very best Banana’s Foster, Chicory Ice Cream that reminded me of a strong cup of coffee, and an airy chocolate foam that pulled it all together – yet another sensation in a meal that had already included the tastes of Spain, France, Italy, Japan – another display of Kinch’s undeniable talent.
To finish the meal I was brought full-circle and presented with gelees and madelines again, this time a Strawberry Gelee and Chocolate Madeline. Like the first pairing, the gelee tasted precisely like it’s constituent ingredients while the madeline’s flawlessly prepared outside gave way to a sublime and soft – nearly soufflé-like- center. When my server (I think I’d seen this one before) asked if there was anything else I would like I requested a view of the kitchen if possible and a copy of the menu. Despite the late hour I was told that the kitchen was “too crowded,” but that if I waited he could prepare me a menu. Approximately 10 minutes passed and I was presented with the menu and the bill.
On my way out the door I was met, again, by another new face who held a jar full of candies – “a lime caramel or two for the road?” Of course I obliged and must admit that these were amongst the best caramels I’ve ever tasted – though not quite as delicious and nuanced as those at Providence.
All told I went into Manresa with very high expectations – why wouldn’t I since many have stated it is better than The French Laundry? While Kinch’s incredible skills wowed me time and time again, I must admit that the overall experience just lacked that “feel” of a truly superb restaurant. The multiple servers made things feel discontinuous and the single dessert with only two mignardises, while good, seemed out of place when compared to other 2-3 starred restaurants. While the food alone is absolutely worth the trip and the price, the service could use a pointer or two from The French Laundry, Providence, La Folie, Danko, The Dining Room – you get the picture.