Chef in Translation – Manresa 2.0 – Los Gatos, CA
My second visit to Manresa, Chef David Kinch’s highly esteemed restaurant in Los Gatos, occurred less than two weeks after the first, and in culinary style, it was as if Manresa had suddenly hired a new chef. But no. When one dines at a serious restaurant with a brilliant chef, a critic attempts to draw a bead on how this artist defines gastronomy as evidenced by what he chooses to put on the plate.
My first visit to Manresa was characterized by a vibrancy that owed much to Parisian and Catalan styles as filtered through California light. Diebenkorn on a dish. I was particularly impressed by Kinch’s version of the Arpege egg, his experimental Elemental Oyster, a poached oyster made to taste raw, his Catalan (and Italian) inspired Rack of Veal Tonnato. Even the dish that I rejected – Butterfish in a Yuzu Sabayon – had no Asian tranquility, but was all jangly and nervy, despite its ingredients.
But this second evening was a different matter. We asked Chef Kinch to cook for us, and twenty-one courses later we were sent packing. (Given my complaint with my first meal, I am obliged to note that the timing was impeccable on this Saturday night – and I have come to admire Manresa’s smooth and elegant design, even if it has none of the New York glass, high-modern style, and bluff).
I do not cover each of the dishes of the evening, but the menu consisted of six amuses, ten savory courses, and five sweets. One should note the symmetry of the first and final two courses. The petit fours and gels (Red Pepper/Black Olive; Strawberry/Chocolate) were identical twins separated at birth: both engaging and delicious as hand-to-mouth bites. The beignets were less of a precise match, but contrasted savory and sweet. The cream beignet with a “dairy cup” of condensed milk ice cream was one of the two most persuasive desserts.
Petit fours “Red Pepper-Black Olive”
Garden Beignets, Vinegar Powder
An Elemental Oyster (image in a previous post)
Caviar Beggar’s Purse
Spot Prawn Roe Tempura
Raw Milk Panna Cotta, Abalone
Geoduck Clam in Apple and Seawater
Golden Butterfish, Sashimi Style, Citrus and Olive Oil
Mushroom Broth and Black Tea, Dried Tuna
Golden Raisins and Vegetables, Pickled With Mackerel
Autumn Fruit with Jasmine Tea, Bay Scallops, Pumpkin Seed Oil
Into the Vegetable Garden
Asian Pear with Celtuce, Beach Herb Vichyssoise
Spot Prawns on the Plancha, Spiced Pumpkin
Black Bass with Walnut Oil, Wild Watercress
Roast Duck with Cabbage and Dates and Riesling
Banana Roast in Passion Fruit Caramel, Shiso Crumble
Frozen Cream Cheese, Citrus and Lime Curd
Orange Sable Millefeuille, Coffee and Chicory
Muscovado Sugar Beignets with Condensed Milk Ice Cream
Petit fours “Strawberry-Chocolate”
While Kinch’s plates on my first visit were exuberant, these were hushed, subtle and seductive. Chef Kinch had recently spent several weeks in Kyoto and tonight it showed. Perhaps the change can be attributed to the difference between a Prix Fixe (dishes that are fixed in amber for the cooks to prepare – Greatest Hits) and dishes that are in process, tested through an elaborate tasting menu. Some of novice dishes tonight may in time be given starring roles.
But a few dishes were birthed from different traditions, notably the Vegetable Garden Salad, a dish in motion. This plate of greens is continually altered according to what is freshest in the Manresa garden: a chop suey of herbal cuisine. While I didn’t have the two salads to compare, I was struck by a few nicely bitter leaves that I didn’t recall from a few weeks back. Nature’s bounty is dynamic.
The Raw Milk Panna Cotta with Monterey Abalone was also an exuberant dish – profound and dramatic. (Milk and cream are used in several dishes, more European than Asian). This mix of the smooth, cool pudding with the chewy, oceanic abalone was a warm surprise and a success.
More inspired by Japanese traditions was the next act: Geoduck Clam in Apple and Seawater. The seawater was the liquid remains of the oysters as reconfigured by the kitchen. I often find geoduck chewy, but texture is crucial to Japanese cuisine, and the small pieces of clam were brightened and heightened by the water and the apple. It was not a dish that I would have chosen as a main course, but it was delightful for a few bites: a happy honeymoon of ingredients.
The mushroom broth was a firmly kaiseki dish: perhaps the most traditional of the evening (despite European shaved white truffles). No jangling here, but a mix of tuna, truffles, tea, and chanterelles. It was a dish that managed to display the best of the ingredients without having the chef’s shadow in the way.
Visually the autumn fruit with jasmine tea, bay scallops, and pumpkin seed oil was the dish that most reminded me of my visit to Kyoto, and it is a lovely jewel: Tokyo Tiffany. The plate sparkled without screaming, and the complexity of the small bowl more than made up for the fact that it was but a few bites – but rich and pungent bites. Tea, pumpkin, and scallops each have enough flavor without any shoving the others aside. Beautifully quiet, confidently composed.
In a similar way, although not as visually compelling, was the Spot Prawn Roe Tempura, which used ingredients to their very best effect. The spot prawns with pumpkin required that a diner digs the meat from the shell which made things a bit messy, but the combination of flavors and the challenge of the diner to be thought-filled made the effort memorable.
Who could not treasure the Asian pear with Celtuce (a Chinese lettuce) and Beach Herb Vichyssoise? Perhaps it owed much to the idea of the ingredients – just finding beach herbs must have been a challenge – but as a small soup I was glad to enjoy the effort of combing the oceanfront, bucket in hand.
The frozen cream cheese with citrus and lime curd was pretty on the plate and happily acidic on the tongue. Along with the beignets it was the star of the sweets.
The least successful dishes were the two main proteins. Roast duck with cabbage and dates was the type of contemporary dish that any well-trained modernist chef might have prepared, a bit of breast and a few spheres of accompaniments and a cabbage leaf. Competent, but edging to cliché. The weakest dish of the night was a zingless Black Bass with Walnut Oil and Wild Watercress. Borrring! Where is the hook? Time for a next course. Fortunately this pair of snoozers was no larger than their better cousins – and so could easily be forgotten.
So in 21 courses, no singular style fully characterizes Chef Kinch’s artistry, but tonight he strived to combine Catalonia, California, and Kyoto. His goal is my dream.
320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, California
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