Sunday, November 21, 2010

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
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Caviar Beggar's Purse

Spot Prawn Roe Tempura
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Spot Prawn Roe Tempura

Raw Milk Panna Cotta, Abalone
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Raw Milk Panna Cotta with Abalone

Savory Courses
Geoduck Clam in Apple and Seawater
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Geoduck clam in apple and sea water

Golden Butterfish, Sashimi Style, Citrus and Olive Oil
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Golden butterfish, sashimi style, citrus and olive oil

Mushroom Broth and Black Tea, Dried Tuna
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Mushroom Broth and Black Tea, Dried Tuna and Truffles

Golden Raisins and Vegetables, Pickled With Mackerel
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Golden Raisins and Vegetables, Pickled with Mackerel

Autumn Fruit with Jasmine Tea, Bay Scallops, Pumpkin Seed Oil
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Autumn Fruit with Jasmine Tea, Bay Scallops in Pumpkin Seed Oil

Into the Vegetable Garden
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Into the Vegetable Garden

Asian Pear with Celtuce, Beach Herb Vichyssoise
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Asian pear with Celtuce and Beach Herb Vichyssoise

Spot Prawns on the Plancha, Spiced Pumpkin
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Spot Prawns on the Plancha with Spiced Pumpkin

Black Bass with Walnut Oil, Wild Watercress
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Black Bass with Walnut Oil and Wild Watercress

Roast Duck with Cabbage and Dates and Riesling
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Roast Duck with Cabbage and Dates

Sweet Courses
Banana Roast in Passion Fruit Caramel, Shiso Crumble
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Banana Roast in Passion Fruit Caramel, Shiso Crumble

Frozen Cream Cheese, Citrus and Lime Curd
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Frozen Cream Cheese, Citrus and Lime Curd

Orange Sable Millefeuille, Coffee and Chicory
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Orange Sable Millefeuille, Coffee and Chicory

Muscovado Sugar Beignets with Condensed Milk Ice Cream
Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 20, 2010 - Muscovado Sugar Beignets, "Dairy Cup" (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 clich̩. 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 Рand 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
(408) 354-4330

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Buzzy – Coi – San Francisco

Few restaurants have generated as loud a buzz – positive buzz – as Chef Daniel Patterson’s San Francisco restaurant Coi, located in the somewhat scruffy North Beach neighborhood. But unexpected or not, the California-inspired modern cuisine at Coi has received a lot of admiring attention: it as if a hive of foodie bees had descended on the Embarcadero.

The restaurant itself is something of an oasis; it is neither luxe nor loud (Coi means quiet or tranquil in French), but bright, modest, slyly elegant, and pleasing, and service is forthcoming. And it is an establishment whose honeyed food always satisfies, although on the night that I dined only a few dishes stunned. This is only a complaint given the chatter that Patterson’s place generated. And, in truth, a few dishes were remarkable. One of my dining partners felt that the restaurant had, on that night, pulled back a bit from its more adventurous efforts. The restaurant is one of the most significant dining destinations in the Bay Area, a necessary culinary visit. And only one dish was less than very successful.

Coi, San Francisco - Interior

That dish was the first offering: Childhood Memory of Harvest: Vegetable Leathers, Apple, Nuts, and Pear Cider. It has become de rigueur for chefs to trade in nostalgia, sometimes for the best, sometimes not. Here the memory was Patterson’s. For this diner, fruit leathers have never been that appealing. I come from a generation in which these “healthy” snacks were not widely available for afternoon television surfing. I give Chef Patterson a ribbon for the best vegetable leathers that I have tasted, but prize is perhaps not worth much in the larger culinary scheme.

Coi, San Francisco - Childhood Memory of Harvest - Vegetable Leathers, Apple, Nuts, Pear Cider

Fortunately this memory was quickly replaced by a gracefully cool and fresh plate of Marin Miyagi Oysters with wheatgrass and lemon ice. This was an amuse for the ages, designed to awaken all of one’s senses. It was complexity and simplicity on a plate, and was among the star presentations of the evening. Oysters can be difficult partners, but when treated well, they are sexy and profound.

Coi, San Francisco - Marin Miyagi Oysters, Wheatgrass, Lemon Ice

The inverted cherry tomato tart with a black olive basil wafer was an elegant architectural construction: precisely prepared. If it didn’t jangle or provoke, it was a very happy savory tart. Perhaps it was more an assertion of the builder’s art than the chef’s, but the tastes were Californian and right.

Coi, San Francisco - Inverted Cherry Tomato Tart, Black Olive, Basil

Chilled Piquillo Pepper Soup with fresh pole and shelling beans, preserved lemon, and cilantro was another highpoint. It was slightly gelatinized (is that a word?) and so vibrant in visual appeal that its hue could play off its tang. This soup was not Progresso, but Progressive.

Coi, San Francisco - Chilled Piquillo Pepper Soup with Fresh Pole and Shelling Beans, Preserved Lemon, Cilantro

Monterey Bay Abalone Grilled on the Plancha with Nettle-Dandelion Salsa Verde, Spicy Breadcrumbs and Wild Fennel Flowers might have nodded too deeply to the idea of the wild. Here I was particularly impressed by the textures which were challenging and exciting with each bite.

Coi, San Francisco - Monterey Bay Abalone Grilled on the Plancha, Nettle-Dandelion Salsa Verde, Spicy Breadcrumbs, Wild Fennel Flowers

At this point, we were served an off-the-menu soup: Late Summer Squash with Borage. Patterson’s second soup was impressive if less exciting than the first soup of the evening.

Coi, San Francisco - Late Summer Squash Soup with Borage

Do diners dream of beet charcoal? I do. Our most memorable dish was Wild Black Cod Smoked over Beet Charcoal (beet charcoal?) with Creamed Leeks, Beet-red Flame Grape Sauce, and Horseradish Dill. Who knew that I would love a presentation that couldn’t be beet? Perhaps it was the smoked and rooted flavor of the cod that seduced, or perhaps it was a visually stunning plate or an amazingly moist aquatic protein. Everything worked in synergy, and I bang my head on my computer screen for lacking the photographic skills to show you my love in her deep red lipsticked grandeur.

Coi, San Francisco - Wild Black Cod Smoked Over Beet Charcoal, Creamed Leeks, Beet-Red Flame Grape Sauce, Horseradish Dill

Pan-Grilled Matsutake with Potato-Pine Needle Puree was a quiet contrast to the cod. I never have understood why Japanese gourmands count Matsutake as so favored a fungus: I will take King Bolete. The Matsutake and pine was well prepared, tasting like a walk among damp conifers.

Coi, San Francisco - Pan Grilled Matsutake, Potato-Pine Needle Puree

The main protein was Poached and Seared Duck Breast with Foie Gras Ganache, Figs, Angelica Root, and Tarragon. I have tired of those dishes that are a little of this, a little of that. A smorgasbord rather than a symphony. Yet, it is the style. Each point of light on the plate was well-prepared, but the dish seemed more straight-forward than astonishing.

Coi, San Francisco - Pached and Seared Duck Breast, Foie Gras Ganache, Figs, Angelica Root, Tarragon

Our cheese – Tomme D’Ossau with Late Summer Greens – was the artistic presentation of a fine slab of curd.

Coi, San Francisco - Tomme D'Ossau with Late Summer Greens

The Cheesecake with Goat Cheese, Graham Cracker, and Niabell Grape was a powerful sweet. Both the goat cheese and the grape added muscle to the creamy cake. It was the more striking of the two desserts.

Coi, San Francisco - Cheesecake, Goat Cheese Ice Cream, Graham, Niabell Grape

Cinnamon Smoked Apples with Iced Buttermilk, Hazelnut, and Sorrel was a worthy closing, although perhaps too accessible – more North Platte than North Beach. I could eat such a pleasure, but I would doubtless select a more challenging sweet.

Coi, San Francisco - Cinnamon Smoked Appples, Iced Buttermilk, Hazelnut, Sorrel

So, Coi was a success: a four star restaurant for certain. Several dishes were wonderful, and the cod and the oysters were memorable. If it didn’t quite live up to the buzz, we should blame the buzz and not the chef. Chef Patterson is a man of enormous talent and creativity. With his left coast garden perhaps there is no stopping him.

373 Broadway (North Beach)
San Francisco

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Manresa 1.0 – Los Gatos, California

Everyone foodie needs a goal in life, if for no other reason than to keep him off the streets. And so during my year in Silicon Valley (Palo Alto, actually), I made a commitment to myself to visit Manresa once a month: for a total of ten visits. Who knows whether, in fact, I will meet my goal, but it surely counts as a caloric packed Jewish New Year’s resolution. Although I have started off slowly (on a month-by-month basis I should be at my third visit), I hope to ramp up soon. I expect to eat through the menu, although I have no doubt that the menu will change to extend my mad dash. (If we were talking about Moto, I could not only eat through the menu, but eat it as well).

It can be debated – endlessly with gustatory gusto – which Bay Area restaurant is the most definitive or the most delicious (not precisely the same question). This is a metropolitan area that sports the French Laundry, Chez Panisse, Gary Danko, and Coi. Countless other restaurants have their own virtues. But there are many partisans for Manresa, David Kinch’s establishment in Los Gatos, which, among its many virtues, includes the avoidance of San Francisco’s traffic.

Of all of the Bay Area’s restaurants, it is Manresa that perhaps owes the most to European (especially Spanish, especially Catalan) cuisine, although Chef David Kinch has the California’s love for all things herbal, vegetative and fructifying.

Manresa as architecture is pleasant, although not startling. The design doesn’t pretend to knock one out, and, in truth, it could house a restaurant deserving one, two, three, or four stars – or perhaps none at all. To say that it is upscale generic is not to suggest that it is corporate. But it lacks the attention to architectural theatrics that one finds at Alinea or Bouley. At Manresa one does not lick the walls, just the plates. The attention is on the food.

Perhaps what I will enjoy most in my essays is finding points to criticize this essential and compelling restaurant. This is the critic’s right and, frankly, his pleasure. This first night – a Sunday – my colleagues and I selected the four course menu. As we moved through the night, I was glad that no one in our party was dieting or that no one was rushed. The dinner became ten courses (some of the extras may have resulted from a friend’s phone call), and spread out longer than four hours. I confess that there will be no objections from this scribe to four amuses (that is a lot of amusement, comparable to Duck Soup or Babette’s Feast), a substantial palate cleanser, and a brief dessert. And it is not the four hours that was at issue. Still, we were surprised at the pacing of the dinner. If four courses last four hours, does David provide PJs for the tasting menu? We were surprised at the gaps between the courses. The amuses were delivered quite expeditiously, but the spaces between the prix fixe courses left much time for conversation. Aside from the pacing, service was very agreeable and we appreciated the wine suggestions of the sommelier: two very food-friendly wines.

My second complaint was an unbalanced dish that I describe subsequently.

I will not spend much time describing the amuses and other extras, but no account of Manresa would be complete without mention of the poached oyster with seaweed and the Arpege egg, an homage to Alain Passard. The former is a marvel of culinary technology, a cooked oyster, designed to taste raw, almost. Chef Kinch was able to capture the fulsome quality of the oceans, particularly the essence of seaweeds that accompanied the dish.

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 7, 2010 - Poached Oyster with Seaweed

I have not eaten at Arpege – sad moi! – and so I cannot claim any expertise as to whether this yolk compares, but of all of the dishes served it was the most luxuriant and astonishing. The hot-cold soft-boiled egg mixed with cream, maple syrup, and sherry vinegar. The warm egginess is set apart with sour’n’sweet. It is a canonical dish that deserves, like the greatest musical composition to be reprised frequently in culinary concert halls.

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 7, 2010 - Arpege Egg

For this first meal, I asked our server (Bryan) to suggest the most “typical,” or perhaps archetypical, dishes of the Manresa collection. The dishes were not the ones that I would have ordered from the menu, but I wanted to learn how the restaurant (or at least one of their servers) conceived themselves.

So I began with “Into the Garden . . . Their Natural Juices.” I expected a subtle, restrained dish like Town House’s Vegetable Minestrone. I could not have been further from the mark. Chef Kinch’s salad was a herbal kitchen sink. It had everything that one might imagine, prepared in incredible ways. It looked like an exploded mixed salad, but it tasted like a jazz combo. There were soils, bubbles, foams, leafs, and shoots. If the goal of modern cuisine is the make each bite an experience and to permit interaction with one’s food, this salad succeeded brilliantly.

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 7, 2010 - Into the Vegetable Garden . . . Their Natural Jices

I promised a criticism, and my second dish is the place. Chef Kinch does not produce laid back cuisine, but why did he have to beat a yuzu drum? I was served butterfish slowly roasted with chanterelles, baby leeks, herbs, and yuzu sabayon. While the butterfish was as buttery and perfectly prepared as advertised, and the chanterelles were welcome, they were overwhelmed by an astringently pushy yuzu sauce. I was astonished by how dominant – how hegemonic – that yuzu was, and I have to wonder whether it was poorly made or deliberately intense. This was sabayon with sharp elbows. I have argued that food need not taste good to be artistic, but this dish seemed something other than serving glass shards to add the taste of blood. After a bite or two I tried to wipe away the sabayon. Perhaps a salmon or mackerel might have stood up to the blows, but not poor little butterfishy.

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 7, 2010 - Japanese Butterfish Roasted Slowly with Chanterelles, Yuzu Sabayon, and Baby Leeks and Herbs

The third course put the meal back on track: slow roasted rack of veal “tomato,” cabbage with sweet onion and porcini fritter: a Manresa specialty. The label rack of veal was misleading as no rack was in sight. What was served was delicious enough, veal off the bone, cooked as tuna might. Even though this was the main protein course, it had the style of a grand salad, and, with the exception of the amuses mentioned above, the star of the night.

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 7, 2010 - Slow Roasted Rack of Veal "Tonnato," Cabbage With Sweet Onion and Porcini Fritter

Dessert is prepared in the modern style, mix and match components: Pears and pumpkin cake with Speculaas (spiced cookie) ice cream with moscato jelly, prunes, dates, molasses and pecans. I enjoyed the dish thoroughly although my preference is for a dessert with a central focus: these days pastry chefs feel that rather than creating a single dessert, they create a dozen served on the same plate. Still, it was a successful autumnal sweet.

Manresa - Los Gatos, CA - November 7, 2010 - Pears and Pumpkin Cake with Speculaas Ice Cream, Moscato Jelly, Prunes, Dates, Molasses, Pecans

Chef Kinch deserves those plaudits ladled upon him. Manresa is a four-star restaurant. Yet, after this first meal, I am not quite sure where I would place it in the firmament of dining destinations. The veal “tonnato,” carnivalesque salad, poached oyster, and Arpege egg suggests brilliance. The pacing and yuzu extravagance less so. So with nine meals left, the grade is incomplete.

320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, California