Saturday, June 25, 2011

Manresa: Six Degrees of Inspiration

Some pictures from my latest dinner at Manresa: my most recent, this week. There is a grace and lightness to David Kinch, a love of the garden and an elegance. The meals sometimes substantial in length are never heavy. The star of this line of dishes was the Spring Lamb, Pickled Tongue, Smoked Date with Cumin Seed, Roasted Carrots, and Braised Letter. Also a wonderful Black Bass and Octopus with Clam Juice perfumed with Coriander and Leek. It is hard to classify David Kinch who brings together all of the streams that influence contemporary cuisine: modern French (a la Michel Bras), Catalan, Japanese, Garden to Table, and Tail to Snout. But the dishes never seem forced, but inspired. And, best of all, every time I have eaten at Manresa, Chef David Kinch has been in the kitchen cooking. Let us hope that Las Vegas never comes calling.

Manresa has expanded its dining room, and in the process have become more distinctive and architecturally interesting. Even my photos look better. They have a most creative cocktail menu.

An amuse from Manresa's Love Apple Farm:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 Vegetable Beignet

Manresa's iconic elemental poached oyster: all of the flavor, none of the slime:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Elemental (Poached) Oyster

A reprise of the Abalone and Raw Milk Panna Cotta from an early meal:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Abalone Panna Cotta

A vegetarian dish of spring: Pea and Strawberry medley:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Medley of Peas and Strawberries

The late spring version of "Into the Vegetable Garden," now with nasturtium. Sweeter than the winter version:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Inter the vegetable garden: June version

A splendid and elegant aquatic dish: Black bass with octopus, clam juice, perfumed with coriander and leek and young squash shoots:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Black Bass with Octopus, Clam Juice Perfumed with Coriander and Leek, Young Squash Shoots

The best dish of the evening was spring lamb, its pickled tongue, smoked date with cumin seed, roasted carrots, and braised lettuce. One of Chef Kinch's most creative creations. An inspiring composition:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Spring Lamb, Pickled tongue, Smoked date with cumin seed, roasted carrots, braised lettuce, nasturiums

Our intermezzo was Acai granita, Lemon Cream Soup, and Yogurt sorbet. Cool and sweet:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Intermezzo - Acai granita, Lemon cream soup, Yogurt sorbet and Berries

Finally dessert, a continuation of the intermezzo: Yogurt mousse and passion fruit curd, poached rhubarb with strawberry sorbet:

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - June 2011 - Yogurt Mousse and Passion Fruit Curd, Poached Rhubarb with Strawberry Sorbet

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Challenge of Dining

The Challenge – Restaurant at Meadowood – St. Helena, CA

The most memorable mignardise that I shall ever taste was served on June 15, 2011 by Chef Christopher Kostow, the inspired and mischievous chef of the Michelin Three Star restaurant at the ultra-luxe Meadowood resort in St. Helena, California. One does not image that a chef cooking at a resort that might easily get away with a Cal-Ital version of Surf’n’Turf would serve a “sweet” that might as easily been a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. This tiny bite was a slight Oreo-like cookie (so slight that I didn’t even think to take a photo) with a mint filling. But what a mint-filling! In most instances a mint filling is little more than a sugar delivery system. But suppose one excised all sugar. The innocent, dream cookie was a mouthful of Scope. Pure, unabridged mintiness.

I have often wondered, even speculated in print, whether dishes, like sculptures, need to be welcoming to be artistic. Today I realize that even at the highest of the high-end resorts, at least one chef will utter uh-uh. Admittedly of the fourteen dishes served only two (an amuse and a mignardise) were challenging. But still the gesture reflected the subtle rebalancing of the relationship between chef and diner. And I was proud to have been a victim.

Both the décor – a high-ceiling, open space – and the service – very cheery, slightly nervy - was as one expected at a top Left Coast restaurant. Everything polished, wooden, white and light.

The first amuse was as precious as could be: a small crackly pillow filled with liquid goat cheese, garnished with a tiny flower from the restaurant’s garden. This latter was to be a theme of the evening; we almost ate a bouquet. The bite was luxuriant, because of its jewel-like quality, and it was surely a mouth opener.

Amuse followed amuse. The second dish, equally memorable, contained a few micro-carrots and radishes hidden in a snow drift of fromage blanc ice. I have never seen a dish to compare, and had the vegetables been any smaller they would have had to been served with a magnifying glass. The dish, only a few bites, was quite ingenious. It was a creation unlike any other.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Frozen appetizer with tiny carrots and radish and fromage blanc

Geoduck clams in beer batter, wrapped in lettuce with lemon zest and served on bread crumbs, was Amuse 3.0. Less showy than the ice, it was simple and delicious.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Beer batter geoduck, lemon, wrapped in lettuce on bread crumbs

The final amuse was another poke in the eye: Goat yogurt custard with salty pickled plum (Japanese umeboshi) with nut rocks and shiso. When I tasted it I was convinced that some poor ill-starred stage on her final day in the industry had dropped a shaker of salt in the mix. The dish was on the edge of inedibility, and for several hours I felt great compassion for Chef Kostow. He was the star chef at a RESORT for chrissake! The plating was so perfect that it was a crime that the dish tasted so. Finally after several delightful dishes I inquired about the misbegotten plums, only to be assured – and assured several times! – that the taste was quite intentional. It was, our server asserted, designed to awaken our tongue. No salt had been added, it was all the salted plum. But for me, as with the later mint cookie, it raised the issue of whether food needed to be delicious to be worth serving. Richard Serra’s sculptures on the plate. The umeboshi certainly made me sit up, take notice, and beg for relief. It revealed that Kostow is nothing if not brave, but I’m grateful that it was only in the freebies – the amuse and the mignardises - that he tested us.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Goat Yogurt Custard, Pickled Plum

The first dish of the nine-course tasting menu was an artistically displayed Geoduck Clam Grilled over Grape Wood with Avocado, Osetra Caviar, and Shaved Almond. Served on a slab of wood taken from a wine carton, it was a smooth and elegant presentation. While the dish had the modernist foible of lacking a true center, the components were beautifully prepared, especially the geoduck reprise.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Geoduck Clam Grilled Over Grape Wood

The second offering was the flavorful star of the night: Foie Gras Enrobed in Licorice with Wild Fennel, Glazed Pickled Cherries and Black Walnuts. I have lost some enthusiasm for foie gras, often used to demonstrate that the meal was worth its price, but thanks to the licorice this was a superb use of the duck’s liver, reminiscent of a salmon and licorice dish once served at the Fat Duck. The slightly bitter licorice cut through the unctuousness of the foie gras. It was a truly distinguished dish.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Foie Gras Enrobed in Licorice, Wild Fennel, Glazed Cherries, Black Walnut

The third plate was a composition of Cucumbers of Sea and Land with Borage, Sorrels, and Frozen Herbs. Given the dangers of cooking with sea cucumbers, the texture was spot on, and, as I prepare to leave California, it reminds me of how much I will miss the bounty of Bay Area farms.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Cucumbers of Sea and Land, Borage, Sorrels, and Frozen Herbs

Live Scallop Roasted in its Shell with Caraway, Seaweed, and Cauliflower was brought to table covered by the top shell, removed with a dramatic flourish. The scallop and accompaniments were matched to excellent effect. Kostow has a gift for understanding which flavors, colors, and shapes match. The caraway was a wry addition.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Live Scallop Roasted in its Shell

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Live Scallop Roasted in its Shell, Caraway, Seaweed, Cauliflower

I have recently noticed that California chefs often select duck for their big protein. It is not that they have used the liver and do not wish the rest of the bird to go to waste. But duck has a gaminess that chicken lacks and a lightness of being that one doesn’t find in cow. Chef Kostow served his duck (breast and confit) rubbed with Chermoula spices (a North African spice marinate, often including lemon, pepper, cumin, and garlic) with Raw Rhubarb, Mustard Seeds, and Celery Leaf. The dish was beautifully presented and tasty, although I felt that it was less distinctive than some of his other creations.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Chermoula Rubbed Duck (Five North African spices), Raw Rhubard, Mustard Seeds, Celery Leaf

Tête de Porc was quite a surprise, given that it was served on a tasting menu at a prime resort. Chef Kostow should be grateful that he has all of those Michelin stars to protect him. Not many chefs are willing to serve pig’s ear, head cheese, brined tongue, and pork cheek to well-heeled diners (along with peas, smoked potato and horseradish). Still fewer would get away with it. But it truly was a brilliant modernist dish with each component adding the proper texture. What was chewy was never too chewy. The display, reminiscent of the geoduck clams – a horizontal culinary poem – was a display of robust genius.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Tete de Porc, Peas, Smoked Potato "Gnocchi," Horseradish

Our cheese course (Le Jeune Austise, a Verbena ash cheese from the Loire) was served with textures of Apricot and dashes of Sassafras Honey. As a break, it was very pleasurable.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Le Jeune Austise, Textures of Apricot, Verbena Ash, Sassafas Honey

As a palate cleanser we were served Rose Sorbet with fresh botanicals and an elderflower veil. The mixture of rose and elderflower was inspired, and again it was beautifully composed.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - Rose Sorbet, Fresh Botanicals, Elderflower Veil

With some brio (and Chef Kostow is filled with brio), dessert was named “To Quicken the Heart”: flavors of umami, red cedar, and butter popcorn, and brown butter dacquoise. While the cedar might have been more pronounced, it was an impressive sweet that edged toward a very high-end modernist pudding.

Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA - June 2011 - "To Quicken the Heart," Flavors of Umami, Red Cedar, Buttered Popcorn

And then among the mignardises was the mint cookie.

Meadowood is one of the most illustrious American restaurants. Of the Bay Area restaurants it holds it own with French Laundry, Coi, and Manresa: each a renowned culinary treasure. To think that I almost missed Meadowood, imagining that it might be resort dining at its best, but Chef Kostow is up to something else: creating a distinctively Californian, distinctively modern, and distinctively challenging cuisine. It is a triumph.

The Restaurant at Meadowood
900 Meadowood Lane
St. Helena, CA 94574

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Mlle. Proust in Cow Hollow - Atelier Crenn – San Francisco

Often young chefs find a horsey-style and ride it, but not so Dominique Crenn who is working with flair to harness her own vision. She has been in the industry for some 23 years, and perhaps “young” is a matter less of chronology than the fact that she only reached wide gastronomic notice in 2008 when she became chef at San Francisco’s Luce, received a Michelin star, and was named Esquire’s chef of the year. She has since triumphed on Iron Chef, which might or might not testify to her vision, but certainly to her culinary chops.

Although she had worked with Jeremiah Tower at Stars according to her bio, she does not have the golden resume of some colleagues. Perhaps she is not self-taught, but she is not a sponge of others’ visions. This past year, Crenn branched out on her own, opening Atelier Crenn, a workshop for her own “Poetic Culinaria.” For those who hope that their chef is not only a creator of the idea of dishes, but also an overseer. She is a working chef, working the kitchen and the dining room both. Perhaps in a few years, this will not be so, but it is clear that neither she nor her food is set in amber. Having a chef visit one’s table is, perhaps, worth a third of a star alone.

Even if her culinary history does not reveal many mentors, she is a public figure with a biography. Crenn is apparently the adopted daughter of a prominent French politician, although I have been unable to discover which one (one hopes not the other Dominique: the ill-starred Strauss-Kahn). She was raised in Versailles, and after her mother took ill when she was nine, she determined to cook for the family. She and her papa and his friend, a prominent food critic, would visit the high-end boîtes of Paris. Much of her professional cooking has been in California, particularly in the Bay Area. She is edging ever closer to becoming a celebrity chef, and one of the relatively few female chefs who are in serious and sustained dialogue with modernist cuisine.

The menu includes a moving (and somewhat ambiguous) letter to her father, talking about pain and sun, surf and sweat. As with so much poetry, readers have much to read in, but one can hardly imagine a male chef making the claim that his cuisine is such a personal and private expression, a way of reliving the past, whether troubled or happy.

Ultimately reviews are about the food. Critics are often asked, reasonably, how good was it? Asking that of Crenn is a bit like asking that of, say, Eva Hesse or Robert Rauschenberg: they don’t easily fit on a 30-point scale. They are important artists with a vision that might or might not appeal and techniques that might or might not be proficient. The most obvious limitation of Crenn (and for that matter Rauschenberg) is that her dishes are not noted for their precision. If you admire Thomas Keller’s perfection on a plate, this falls short of that standard. Perhaps Crenn doesn’t have the staff, but I think she doesn’t have the desire. Memory doesn’t work like that. She is attempting to produce remembrance and reverie. Whether she succeeds is as much a function of the diner as of the cook.

We four diners ordered all eight of the dishes on the savory menu (all the photos are to be found on my Flickr account page: But I realized that having a bite didn’t do justice to a plate that was designed to be savored and to be considered. So I focus on the dishes that I ordered.

We began with a quite lovely and evocative amuse: a spoonful of freeze-dried split pea soup, a bloody-dried beet “kiss,” an intense bit of fungal broth, and an non-edible boulder. It was quite a stunning composition: possibly Freudian, but perhaps freeze-dried split pea soup is simply freeze-dried split pea soup. The consommé was properly intense, the beet was deeply flavored – a root with a zing. The bright freeze dried pea soup didn’t wow my tongue. The crumbly texture added little to the enjoyment of the flavor, but distracted a bit.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - Amuse - Frozen Split Pea Soup, Dried Beet, Mushroom Consomme

My opening course (diners can choose any three dishes from the savory portion of the menu) was a “Walk in the Forest,” a composition of textures and aromas of the wild. I imagined that it was going to be similar to David Kinch’s iconic “Into the Vegetable Garden” salad, a bowl of local surprises. It wasn’t quite. The plate was coated with a pine paste (a surprisingly sticky and sweet paste, more keeping with dessert), covered with various forms of mushrooms, the raw and the cooked and the pickled: a delicious black trumpet mushroom paper, picked and pickled morels, champignons, added were hazelnuts, chestnuts, tiny lettuces, toasted pumpernickel, and sorrel oil. I was glad to have selected the dish and I surely will remember it, but I don’t quite know what to make of it. As a culinary matter, it was somewhat too sweet and too pickled (Crenn seems to enjoy the tang of pickling). The plate was remarkably creative as an idea, and just a bit off as culinary practice.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - "Walk in the Forest," Textures and Aromas of the Wild

My second plate was poetically entitled, “The Sea, An Interpretation of Aquatic Flavors: Mussels, Oysters, and Arctic Char.” As I have previously suggested, the modernist style of dessert is to present the diner with a mix of preparations. The Sea, not so sweet as the previous dish, had this same decentered quality. Crenn prepared abalone, smoked oyster, char, mussels, squid ink meringue, and dehydrated lemon foam. It was quite charming in its ingredients and preparations and beautiful in its presentation. However, not having lived Crenn’s life, I wondered about the poetic imagery of the dehydrated foam. What might it signify? Still, it was a very worthy dish: a collection of satisfactions.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - The Sea, An Interpretation of Aquatic Flavors - Mussels, Oysters, and Artic Char

My main protein was more standard: Duck with crispy skin, spring garlic, strawberry, rhubarb and smoked buckwheat. I recently ate a magnificent duck entree at Coi; Crenn’s was more exuberant and less precise. Still, it was an excellent use of big protein. I particularly admired how she sprinkled toasted buckwheat on the plate as if buckwheat was salt. It stood in contrast to Patterson’s carefully composed accompaniment of radish and wheatberries. Crenn’s duck was a special preparation, well within the modernist canon.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - Duck, Spring Garlic, Strawberry, Rhubarb, Smoked Buckwheat

Finally dessert (from pastry chef Juan Contreras) was a witty trompe l’oeil: a carrot cake with spring pea cream. The joke was that the cake was within the hunky frosted “carrot” with tiny carrots and frozen peas as accompaniments. Perhaps the cake itself tasted no better than a routine carrot cake and the cream was more clever than wondrous, but still it was a pleasurable ending to a most distinctive meal.

Atelier Crenn - San Francisco - June 2011 - Carrot "Cake," Peas, Walnut

Michael Bauer, the lead critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, awarded Atelier Crenn a disappointing two-and-a-half stars in April, complaining not about ideas, but execution (and an average wine list). My meal (and those of my companions) in June deserved more credit, even if the cooking of ingredients is not quite at the level of the best of the San Francisco restaurants. Still, when a chef is still at work in the kitchen and the ideas are bubbling and bouncing, Atelier Crenn stands a good chance of being a better restaurant in December than it was in June. Even now, it is a restaurant that is always thought-provoking and vibrant. Chef Crenn, trying to capture her past and to share it, has a distinctive, potentially influential, gastronomic voice even if not all the songs are lullabies.

Atelier Crenn
3127 Fillmore Street (at Filbert)
San Francisco