Restaurant Review: Manresa, Los Gatos

“In the future, I think we’ll go even further in mixing cuisines. French and Italian, Italian and Japanese, etc. We’ll take ideas right and left” says Gilles Bajolle, pastry chef extraordinaire at the venerable three-star Taillevent in Paris. Bajolle is talking about the future of cooking with Andrew Todhunter in his recent book “A Meal Observed,” which I just finished last night. If Bajolle is right, and I have no reason to believe he isn’t, then chef David Kinch of Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos, California is certainly in the vanguard of this culinary future. Mixing French, Catalan (northern coastal Spain), and Japanese flavors with care and precision, Manresa confidently offers one of the most compelling dining experiences in the Bay Area.

Los Gatos, California is the Woodside of the southern Bay Area — quiet, secluded, exclusive, and home to some of Silicon Valley’s richest and most private residents. It is a quaint town that, like Carmel by The Sea, is a wonderful place to stroll on a sunny afternoon — its shops and side streets filled with boutiques and cafes. Walk down one of these side streets and you might come across a small, unassuming, yellow-green one-story ranch house, fenced with unpainted wooden slats, and sprouting a small garden of California native plants out front. So tucked away off the main drag you might miss it, Manresa doesn’t shout to be noticed. Sit down for a meal, however, and you’ll be wondering why there isn’t a line of screaming epicures lined up out the door day and night.

I first found out about Manresa from Chez Pim, a Bay Area food blog, and was immediately struck by the praise leveled at this unknown restaurant and unknown chef so close to home. A couple of weeks later, finding myself with a late afternoon appointment in the South Bay, I made a reservation for an early dinner.

When Ruth and I arrived at 6:00, we were the second or third party in the restaurant. I had my expected pang of regret for the early reservation — I don’t like to eat out so early, partly because I like to experience restaurants when they are full and bustling as the best measure of their service, and partly because Ruth and I like people watching while we eat. As it turns out, this was the perfect time to get there, because starting from when the first course hit the table, we ate for nearly five hours.

Now I need to come clean here and let you know that a friend who knows the chef dropped him an e-mail to let him know that we would be coming — normal diners can expect their meals to be less of a marathon — however I would recommend at least three hours to fully appreciate the experience. This is dining-as-theatre in the best of ways. The atmosphere, the staff, and the food are crafted to work in concert on the senses, a slow persuasive argument that with each course firmly places you under a strengthening spell. The effects of the meal last far beyond your departure from this quiet enclave of dining.

Our coats taken, my bottle of Pinot whisked away to chill a little after the hot car ride, we are led across the rust colored polished cement floor and the scattered oriental rugs, to a quiet table in the corner of the restaurant. We find ourselves comfortably seated in a dining room that is a perfectly tuned mix of contemporary and comfortable. The furniture and tableware are of understated but distinctly modern design, while the decor deftly merges Middle Eastern and Asian elements with the strong colors (ochre, brick red, sunny yellows, rich purple) of Spain. Shortly after we arrive, a flamenco guitarist begins to play on the patio outside, lacing up the atmosphere like a comfortable boot, and priming the senses for what is to come.

A glass of Chardonnay ordered while the Pinot chills, the food begins to arrive. If this were a movie and I were the director, I might slow down the film and move into close-ups to capture the expressions as the first mouthfuls were enjoyed, sensually, but after that, I would certainly have to cut out a lot — reducing my filmic description of the eating that followed to brief flashes of a beautifully presented dish here, a set of lips pursed around a spoon in delight there, anything to help the audience understand the essence of the meal as it was eaten, but sparing them the ordeal of dramatizing every course.

Even though this isn’t a film, I cannot wax lyrical about every dish we had even though I might want to. Your attention span, dear reader, is finite. Instead let me present to you the menu of what we experienced with some minor annotations from the first set of petites fours to the last.

We began with a set of petites fours unlike any that I have ever had — candied beet jellies and black olive madeleines that hung suspended on a knife edge between savory and sweet, opening the palate for what followed…

1. Tomato soup, barely cooked, served in what I think was a stemless Reidel tasting glass, its opening covered with a finely latticed crisp of baked parmesan cheese spiced with fennel. Simply the best tomato soup I have ever had. Period.

2. A parmesan churro, just out of the fryer, unadorned, gracing a tall cocktail glass. While elegant, I found this one of the less compelling parts of the meal.

3. Citrus and jasmine tea gelee in a martini glass — small shards of mint threaded through the seedless mandarin slices and aromatic jelly.

4. Crab beggar’s purses (one each) — tiny pouches of light dough filled with fresh, fresh Dungeness crab and tied up with a chive.

5. Red and yellow watermelon squares on bamboo skewers, infused with licorice and and hibiscus.

6. Crenshaw melon soup, lightly cooked with shredded tofu and almond oil. Incredible, nutty flavors that sparkled. “Spectacular” quoth Ruth.

7. Foie gras and cumin creme caramel lightly topped with crushed black peppercorns and sea salt, served in a nested trio of leaf shaped porcelain bowls. I have NO idea how this dish was made, but it was quite extraordinary to think you’re eating flan and end up with foie gras.

8. Corn and tomato salad with drizzled basil oil and chunks of crab, accented with a lighter than air cone of pastry filled with what I think was watercress and shavings of parmesan cheese.

9. Japanese butterfish and geoduck clam sashimi (but before you think it’s a Japanese dish…) marinated in olive oil with slivered radishes, sesame seeds and chives. Though delicious, I feel like the olive oil overwhelmed the purity of the fish a little.

10. Toro tuna tartar, with pickled cucumbers and black sesame seeds, infused with what seemed to be a Yuzu (Japanese citrus) essence. This was also a dish that I felt missed its mark a little, partly because I found the citrus essence and the flavors of the tuna in conflict.

[ a nice pause, where the diners foolishly think they might be most of the way through the meal… but what about the wine?]

11. Lightly fried local abalone over fresh hearts of palm, lightly marinated. Truly delicious.

[the Pinot is opened]

12. Slow cooked egg in in a canelli bean soup poured tableside with lacy manchego cheese melted in.

13. Broiled black bass topped with tender octopus tentacles over small greens with a bouillabaisse sauce and a carrot puree.

[the first signs of caloric shock set in]

14. Chicken wing confit (“Amazing” says Ruth), foie gras, with a roasted pearl onion and garlic puree.

15. Carpaccio of pigs feet with vegetable caviar. I have no idea what vegetable caviar is, unless it’s just a fancy way of describing how the chef made one of his line cooks dice vegetables until they were microscopic particles…. Despite their puzzling nature, this dish was exceptional.

[gastric fibrillation begins]

16. Roast Lamb “crepine” (one piece of roast lamb loin together with a piece of slow cooked lamb shoulder) with Belgian endive and sautéed fresh chanterelle mushrooms. “Oh, Mama,” I say.

17. White nectarine frappe in a shot glass laced with sour yogurt and basil oil. Perhaps the single best palate cleanser I have ever had or imagined. This was incredible.

[the diners begin to breathe again]

18. Panna cotta with figs braised in red wine. Did I mention that I love panna cotta. Let’s just state that for the record….

[I cannot drink any more wine and survive]

19. Pain perdue with warm berry compote and corn ice cream on a plate with a tiny spots of what seems to be chocolate-mint oil. In a word: heavenly.

20. Chocolate marquis with coconut ganache. Ruth closes her eyes and utters profanity.

21. Mini chocolate soufflés with butterscotch ice cream followed by…

… a perfect mirror of the beginning of the meal: petites fours of concord grape jellies and bitter chocolate madeleines that hang suspended on a knife edge between delight and an intestinal rupture for yours truly.

And there you have it. Four and a half hours later there is a man in a white jacket standing next to me with a twinkle in his eye saying, “listen, shall we just call it a draw?” Kinch is gracious and modest, and unusually kind considering the horrible shape I’m in. But then again, if he cooks this way every night, he must be used to dealing with cripples at the end of the meal. He slips back to the kitchen with a smile to celebrate one of the staff’s birthday, and we are left to regain our composure over a pot of mint tea and reflect.

The service was impeccable throughout this experience, with only a single gaff: at one point we were brought a bowl of soup and left to only stare at the gorgeous dishes until we summoned a waiter in order to get some spoons. But just as the ancient Persian rug weavers always added in one imperfection “for Allah” (a perfect rug would be an insult to the Creator) so too must a critic have something to point out.

The food ranged from interesting and inspired to mind-blowing, and the whole progression achieved a state of grace and resonance that built like a crescendo to the edge of a sensory cliff. I was pushed off by a small shot glass of liquid fruit, and soared away for the rest of the meal.

Diners will find many of these dishes as part of the various tasting menus available at Manresa, and some are even available for those who simply wish to order a la carte. Manresa also offers a tapas style patio menu during the summer months, small plates that can be enjoyed with one of the many available wines by the glass. Wine pairings are available with any tasting menu, and for those who want more than a glass of something, the wine list matches the food: eclectic and high quality with both traditional standards as well as hard to find gems. Corkage is $20.

In closing, I find I am a little at a loss for words. So many have been used to describe the food and the experience. Perhaps it will suffice to say that Manresa is a truly special experience and one that I would recommend unreservedly as peer to a few of San Francisco’s best, and a triumph over many.

How Much?: The three course tasting menu will run you $58 per person, while the five course comes in at $78 per person. The Chef’s tasting menu of 10-12 courses is $94 per person. A la carte prices vary, but it’s safe to say that (minus wine) a person can eat a lovely meal for $80 or feast for $150. A large private room is available for parties.

320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030

Reservations required but you might get lucky during the week. Dress code is business casual or even more casual if it’s a hot day (after all it is Los Gatos). Parking downtown can be a bear, especially on weekends. Look for designated lots without meters to avoid having to run out with quarters every hour. Also, the restaurant can be a little difficult to find, tucked away on a one way alley.