Los Gatos, California
Date Visited: 5/20/16
Meal Length: 3 hours 30 min
Why should you be interested?
Not only does Manresa hold 3 Michelin stars (and the current rank of 83rd best restaurant in the world), but Chef David Kinch is both idolized by his peers and widely appreciated by the food media-consuming public. He worked his way through New York, Japan, Germany, France, and Spain. After running a bistro in Saratoga for seven years, he opened Manresa in 2002, which won wide acclaim after a 2005 review from visiting London Observer critic Jay Rayner. Since then, Kinch has taught as dean and founder of the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) and won a Daytime Emmy in 2016 for his work hosting the PBS series Mind of a Chef. I would highly recommend watching this two-minute clip for a sense of Kinch’s style and personality.
How easy is it to locate?
Rather easy once you make the hour or longer trek from San Francisco proper out to Los Gatos (a pilgrimage the staff earnestly shows their appreciation for). We ultimately arrived a bit early—and there’s not all that much to do around the area—yet it’s certainly pleasant to walk around.
How do you feel when you enter?
A short stone trail leads you around the building to an entrance that looks delightfully ordinary. Design-wise, the restaurant is a bit of a mishmash of different elements–surfaces, textures, and colors work together but lack the intention and polish of more elegant, rarified fine dining. And I think that’s a great thing. The planning doesn’t reflect the intention of an engineered three Michelin star experience, but a restaurant that earned its acclaim and was catapulted to “bucket list” status. There’s a certain charm to that, and it works well along with the staff to disarm the trepidation some feel entering fine dining restaurants.
How does the service make you feel?
Warmly tended to but not fussed over. Everyone from the waiter to the wine director (whose authority and experience at this level sometimes makes me feel like I have an audience with the Pope) was cheery, down to earth, and ever so natural. Anything less, and I feel some star-chasers might feel let down by the ambiance. Yet Manresa succeeds at offering “dressed down” fine dining without, like Saison, patting themselves on the back.
How should you order?
The restaurant serves one tasting menu priced at $235. The only choice, barring dietary restrictions, is to enjoy a wine pairing ($198) or pick bottles from Manresa’s list. If you couldn’t tell before, I truly enjoyed talking with the wine director: his list has great variety and value and his suggestions struck with the sincere desire to deliver us a memorable bottle of wine rather than a sale. We asked if we could combine parts of the pairing with a bottle from the list and were made to feel like our request was the greatest idea in the world. They won’t let you make a poor choice.
What are the notable dishes?
Opening/Closing Bites: I rarely include these, but several were particularly imaginative. The meal began and end with the very same two petit fours. Yet the opening pate de fruit was red pepper, the closing a sweet strawberry. Same for the madeleine: first a savory black olive and at the end of the meal made of chocolate. I loved the inversion of a traditionally sweet form towards the savory side as well as the parallel of offering the corresponding sweet versions to end the meal. Also of note among the opening snacks: delicate caviar beignets and miniature steamed buns filled with broccoli and scallop.
Into the garden, green and bitter: A crown of herbs and bitter leaves plucked from Manresa’s garden added crunch to a potent garlic custard. Crisp rounds of fingerling potato evoked a delightful chips-and-dip element. Overall, an expert use of assertive raw products anchored to concentrated, comforting (and also, I might add, local) garlic.
Asparagus “Stir Fry”: This tiny pile of stir fry packed a wokful of flavor. The asparagus crunched with a pleasant sweetness I’d never exactly tasted before. Bites of cuttlefish were plump and slick with warmed lardo. I can’t quite remember what the nicely thick sauce was–XO perhaps? Like many dishes this evening: vibrant and perhaps petite yet only because it possessed such forceful flavors you’re left scraping the plate for more.
Striped bass in barigoule: Yet another fish dish (from the trip) that had me questioning the high heavens: where have the fillets cooked like this, with sauce like this been? The striped bass was soft to the point of bare coagulation, enveloped with a slick coating of artichoke-saffron broth and dusting of “fish ash.” The accompanying barigoule—spring vegetables simmered in vanilla-spiked broth—layered crunch and vegetal sweetness atop the bass. And it all came on a plate (but ate more like a comforting fish stew).
Poularde: If you’re being served chicken in a fine restaurant–and they leave its French name on the tasting menu–prepare for ecstasy. The poularde, or young hen, arrived in parts, with dribbles of jus connecting the dots between the nut-brown skin of the leg and breast. Punctuating the paths: a sand bar of potato and ribbed hills of morels stuffed with foie gras and anchovy. Morels stuffed with foie gras and anchovy. At these levels of richness, restraint is key. And while the mushrooms tasted rightfully like gustatory gemstones, the chicken maintained a purity and intensity of flavor that wasn’t just impressive, but familiar. Like the sediment at the bottom of your chicken soup or that spongy piece of rotisserie chicken from the murky depths of the pan. The key here is certainly the freshness of the bird, but I couldn’t help grin and think “this is why we eat chicken.”
Spring lamb: I really thought we had to be done after such a thoughtful and rich preparation of fowl–though unabashedly carnivorous I try to be sensitive to issues of food cost and creativity and treat whatever animal proteins I receive graciously. You can see how the chops themselves look—blushing and freckled with peppercorn. And you can take what I just said about the young hen and apply it to the lamb. The accompanying “lettuces” were tender and flush with juices though I was most impressed by the mosaic of pickled tongue. I thought the large chunks, married with other gelatinous textures, would be off-putting. Instead I found them triumphant: pickled and poignant with a markedly sharper lamb flavor.
THE BREAD BASKET
Given that Manresa Bread (the restaurant’s sister bakery) sits right down the block, I sat down to dinner with my hands crying for a coating of fresh flour. What was ultimately served–warm brioche, rustic multigrain, and a sprawling sourdough–seemed plain for boundary-pushing food. Yet it epitomized the style seen so clearly throughout the savory courses: distinct flavors and food that tastes and feels vigorously of itself. The breads didn’t conceal a reservoir of cheese or come chosen from an ornamental tray. They didn’t look of much but had personality in their crusts, the heft and density of their crumbs, and the mere beauty of some noticeable salt. The butter was simply local and soft and slick. It’s a bread service that celebrates the simple beauty of bread. You can imagine how happy I was.
Was the meal satisfying?
Undeniably, and while serving smaller, extended tasting portions we often malign. The flavors, dish by dish, show consideration and pleasing interplay. And they’re flavors you know. They sing clearly, buoyed by the care given by the kitchen. Care because the product is wholesome, something they might have even grown themselves. The touches of French and Asian technique are expert but cut by a prevailing playfulness (that doesn’t hesitate trading blini for beignets). I would have happily taken another portion of anything I ate at Manresa–and the restaurant always seems eager to satisfy diners with freshness and simplicity rather than frills.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
In the Bay Area, for what I’ve tried so far, Manresa is second only to the French Laundry (and even then it comes somewhat down to personal choice and desired style of dining). That puts it in rare company among my very favorite fine dining restaurants in the country.
Would I go back?
Eagerly and excitedly. Though it seems that all the restaurants out here are tending land and growing some amount of their own product, Manresa makes you feel like you’re really being fed by the farmer. He’s playful, he’s wry, and he mixes influences and styles with abandon. Yet in doing so, he develops a style altogether new, altogether and distinctly his own. The meal lacked an obvious, iconic dish or signature moment to anchor my experience to, and I think that says it all. Eating at Manresa—not just any one dish or flavor or texture—is a joy independent of the season or specifics of the menu. That’s the level of trust the team fosters and that which they deserve.
How hard are reservations to get?
Reservations can be made by calling the restaurant or through OpenTable. Diners will want to leave at least a few weeks to a month if they are looking for a Friday evening or other weekend reservation. More flexible parties, from what I see, will generally have luck looking on weeknights for short notice reservations.
Reservations, directions, and other information can be found at www.manresarestaurant.com