|2012||Forbes Travel Guide||4 Stars|
|2012||Opinionated About||100 Score|
|2014||Michelin - SF||2 Stars|
|2016||The Worlds 50 best by SP||83 Ranking|
|Value for money|
On Friday, Aaron and I had shared a remarkable meal at Manresa. On Saturday, we returned…
Aperitif: Solter Brut Rheingau Riesling 2005. Tonight, we began with a light, well balanced Riesling. Soft and delicate, it had a pleasant sparkle.
Amuse Bouche 1: Petit fours “red pepper-black olive”. Amuses at Manresa always remain the same. Second time around, the red pepper jelly was similar to the previous night’s rendition whilst the black olive madeleine was noticeably better – more moist and more olive-rich.
Amuse Bouche 2: Parmesan churro, crispy kale. Knotted coils of fried fritters permeated through with parmesan were interlaid with crisp curly kale. The churros, thin, smooth and more south-eastern Spanish in style, were well-cooked, but a little doughy for me. The Italian touch from the cheese gave them a nice savoury nuttiness whilst the kale, seasoned and quickly oven-baked, added some saltiness.
Amuse Bouche 3: Garden veloute with stone ground mustard. A cold quenelle of Moutarde d’Orléans cream, thickened with fork-crushed potato, came laced with pansy, pea and fennel flowers; over all, a mild garden green velouté of various vegetable tops with yarrow and amaranth, was poured at the table. Yesterday, the Arpège farm egg was a nod to Passard, today it was this; the Orléans mustard, produced by the French chef with a famous vinegar-maker from that city, is a staple of the Paris restaurant’s pantry. Acidic, sweet and simultaneously spicy, this complex condiment struck concurrent chords with the subtle sweetness of the amaranth, flowers and soup itself and with the gentle tang of the yarrow and calendulas. The blossoms contributed leafy crispness to the substance of the ecrassé potato and silky potage.
Amuse Bouche 4: Citrus and jasmine tea jelly. Interlocked supremes of temple tangor mandarin, immured in green jasmine tea and mizzled in Meyer lemon and lime juice, was an exercise in simplicity. The first flavour was of floral jasmine, which the tartness of the citric juices soon took over, followed by the juicy richness from the tangerine-orange cross. The last savour was of garden spearmint which lingered lazily. This was vibrant and refreshing.
Amuse Bouche 5: Asparagus and foie gras royale. A demitasse was delivered filled with asparagus mousseline splashed with a dash of pistachio oil. This oil emanated a trace of nutlike toastiness whilst its distinct taste matched well with that of the deeper, earthier asparagus. Beneath the cream came a welcome surprise – a secreted deposit of excellent, warm foie gras custard that made this a luxurious treat.
Le Pain: Pain au levain, Pim’s butter. These were just as superb as they were during last night’s dinner.
Entrée 1: Foie gras torchon, rare ginger lime with toasted rapeseed oil. The previous amuse had offered a hint of what was to come – a considerably-sized slice of foie gras coupled with ginger lime marmalade, sunflower shoots and sprinkled with rosemary flowers, Maldon sea salt and extra virgin rapeseed oil. Having been covered in cloth, poached then cooled, the resultant foie was thick yet velvety, dense yet subtle. The spicy, acidic marmalade, also made by Pim, from little-known ginger lime – a citrus similar to Kaffir lime, native to Assam in India and grown locally by Gene Lessor – was a fine foil to the liver’s fullness. The flowers offered a little bitterness whilst the shoots simply astounded with their intense nuttiness.
Entrée 2: Sea bream, sashimi style, with olive oil and chives. Translucent, super-thin slivers of raw sea bream, arranged in a circle that started with flesh from the top of the fish’s back and finished, moving clockwise, with its belly, were drizzled with shiro dashi and Kaffir lime and garnished with shredded breakfast radish, chives, nori and white sesame seeds. The sea bream, brightened by the olive oil and aromatic citrus rind, was succulent and meaty, becoming creamier and gaining bite as one reached the fattier later tranches. Shiro dashi – white soy sauce, kombu, dried mushrooms and bonito – was flavoursome, slightly salty and complex. Crunchy, mild sesame and diced radish varied the texture.
Entrée 3: Buckwheat noodles, bottarga and toasted seeds. A bundle of buckwheat noodles was nicely scattered with furikake and bottarga that been brought back by the chef himself on his last trip to Japan. The soba, typical to Tokyo, were thin and stringy with a nutty mildness that married with the sesame in the furikake. The fishiness of the grated grey mullet roe – that turned to paste on the tongue – worked to amplify the effect of the Japanese condiment. There was also an overlying toasted note to the dish.
Entrée 4: Asparagus, both raw and uncooked, caviar. Alternating demi-spears of cooked green asparagus and uncooked purple, both from the Sacramento Delta, were wrapped around a hen’s egg that came crowned with a quenelle of Iranian Oscietra caviar; lemon and pistachio oil vinaigrette, parmesan breadcrumbs and spots of swede sauce accompanied. This was picture perfect: brilliant green pikes, flecked with purple, rung round an alabaster blanket layered with golden orange orb, whose colour was reflected by amber crumbs and bright dressing, and which was capped with glossy ebony pearls. The green stems were tender whilst the darker ones, naturally sweeter and less stringy, delightfully crunchy. There was a common nuttiness running throughout the asparagus, caviar, root, pistachio and parmesan that grew as one ate. The lemon and brininess of the Oscietra were a nice counterpoint to the yolk.
Entrée 5: Horse mackerel with ginger oil.
An empty tumbler.
A minute later. A blue bottle of unordered sake.
Electric azure, it seemed almost enchanted in its appearance. And the mystique remained as the potion, poured into the glass, instantly became clear.
Gingerly, the Koshino-Omachi Daiginjo from the Niigata prefecture was sipped. Its clean, crisp, slightly syrupy savour was like melted ice. This sake – made only during winter and within an ‘igloo’ – although served at room temperature, indeed felt very cold.
Another minute. An empty plate.
Esteban and two assistants arrived. One carried a large tray. It bore two dark slabs. They sat atop folded white napkins. The maître d’hôtel took one, someone else the other. They lifted each. The linen served as a litter. Slowly they were set before us.
The suspense was intense.
Atop black slate, teamed together with French breakfast radish, mandolined into white wafers rimmed with nearly fluorescent red, were chunky ingots of horse mackerel, ivory coloured at their ends and vermillion in the middle, deepened with puce and speckled with its still shimmering silver skin. From the drops of ginger oil drizzled over the fish, the spice’s warm, sweet citrus scent tickled the senses; it also gave the thick, mild yet tasty mackerel a little smoky heat. The radish had gentle peppery-sweet crispness whilst the ginger notes in the palate-cleansing sake were underscored by the oil.
The dish did not disappoint.
Entrée 6: Orzo, prepared like risotto, with ramps. Pearl barley, blended with pickled ramps and Benton’s Tennessee country ham, was served with the whole vegetables sautéed and flakes of parmesan rind. Plump orzo grains were creamy and full of flavour; the cheese supplemented pleasingly the seasoning; the pickled ramps were juicy, leafy and delicious; while the sautéed, supple and crunchy.
Entrée 7: A spring tidal pool. A bowl bearing barely-transparent broth bursting with shellfish, vegetables and various other ingredients was immediately and strikingly suggestive.
As a tide recedes, crevices, spaces and trenches between rocks are left filled with seawater and sea life. Thus, diverse mini-ecosystems are formed, at least until the tide returns. During the recess though, these pools paint a picture that depicts a scene of the sea. In this dish, Kinch scales down this miniature one step further, using symbolism sublimely to create, effectively, a marine-themed rendition of Into the vegetable garden…
Scallions pretended to be seaweed; nori played itself; as did uni; golden enoki evoked little jelly fish; and the kombu dashi acted as the seawater. There was a listless floating, a stillness which seemed suspiciously misleading given the semi-suspended nature of the stock’s constituents and small, air-like beads of olive oil locked just below the surface. This was however more evidence of the chef’s already noticed attention to detail: silvery oyster water and rusty mushroom jus, both infused with a little xanthum gum, had been added to the dashi, giving it viscidity redolent of the greater density that seawater has over fresh whilst also aiding to detain the ingredients from stirring and forming the said effervescence that could easily have been air bubbles boiling up from beneath.
A chary taste from one corner supplied salty, briny savour from the oyster and umami from the dashi; a stray mushroom was spongy and faintly fruity – golden enoki being sweeter and more intense than regular. Its temperature was warm, just as if the plate, like the rocky puddle would have, had spent the day under the spring sun. Plunging the spoon into the pool brought it to life, animating all the elements who all scattered immediately from the intruding cutlery as if it were really a foreign foot that someone had submerged into what was really a watery habitat. From the depths of the bowl appeared geoduck clam, sea urchin, pickled kabu and foie gras. All raw, they cooled from below, whilst being warmed by the broth above – thus further mimicking an authentic tidal pool wherein the water gets colder the lower one tests it. The foie, at initial sight an irregularity, actually worked very well to enrich the dashi even further and was possible recognition of one of the chef’s own favoured dining spots – Urasawa – where Hiro adds foie gras to his signature shabu shabu.
Entrée 8: Atlantic cod and alliums, bone marrow and vegetable tears. An ample cod cheek, skin still attached, arrived sitting on sautéed sweet onions, besides a scoop of chervil cream and decorated with the same herb. Over the cool crème, hot bone marrow jus was decanted at the table, melting the celadon-coloured paste and causing it to mingle with and disseminate through the copper gravy in vivid swirls. Having already had the cod’s jowl and tripe the previous evening, tonight we ate the cheek – firm, meaty, sweet and luscious with a layer of lovely, yummy fat lying under the skin, it is clear why many consider this the best part of the fish. The aniseed note of the chervil picked up on its sweetness as the onions added crunch. Marrow, which shares a natural affinity with the herb and alliums, was very agreeable here.
Plat Principal 1: Squab roasted with sunchokes, beets and poorman orange. Breast of young pigeon and its brink pink tenderloin were presented with local Jerusalem artichoke, Poorman’s orange segments, golden beetroot slices, chiogga chips and their tops pickled in champagne vinegar, all resting atop parsnip purée and beet confit. Rustic pieces of earthy, nutty sunchoke had crisp skin; the parsnip was pleasantly sweet; beetroot mousse, intense; but the Poorman’s orange – an orangelo (orange-grapefruit hybrid) also called New Zealand grapefruit or sunfruit – was an excellent surprise. Bursting with mildly acidic, fruity juice, its flavour was light relief to the surrounding deeper savours and matched nicely the tender, soft squab too.
Plat Principal 2: Beef bavette roasted in its fat, morels. Large cubes of Kobe-style skirt steak from Snake River farm in Idaho placed on sweet pea purée was partnered with whole and chopped morels as well as pea shoots. The meat, a Wagyu-Black Angus cross-breed raised following Japanese feeding methods – slow-grown and fed Idaho potatoes, soft white wheat, corn and alfalfa hay – barely roasted in suet, was served rare and tempting dark rose. The fatty cut, aged for forty days, had texture and full taste, but was still light. The morels, having absorbed the cooking jus of the beef, were very good and the peas provided a little sweetness to lift the dish.
Cheese: Our cheeses, refined and perfectly matured. Shaded Manresa red, the restaurant’s custom-made cheese chariot from France, was wheeled round and the selection shown off. The cart – which is actually the second version commissioned after the original, having been flown over from Europe, was lost after its arrival at San Francisco International airport – carried eight varieties of which we tried each.
Florette, a goat’s milk Brie, was creamy and subtle; sour and milky goat’s cheese blue balls, soaked for a day in Californian olive oil and garden herbs, resembled palline azzure; and ewe’s tomme brûlée from mount Baigura in the Basque Pyrénées had nutty-smoky flavour, the latter a result of its singed rind. Another French Basque ewe’s milk, the award-winning Petit Agour, this time from Helette, was smooth and salty-sweet; crumbly Roquefort, another (bigger) winner from famed fifth-generation producer Gabriel Coulet, was strong and a little saline; with the Fourme d’Ambert, a blue cow’s cheese from Auvergne, milder. The platter was completed by two cow’s milks, one from the Catalan Pyrénées – Tomme Catalane Urgelia – and the other from Lorraine – Munster. The former, similar to the Petit Agour, was mild, creamy and slightly salted by its yeasty rind. The latter, a little runnier, was much more pungent and a little acidic.
Accompanying the cheeses were cranberry and walnut brioche; crackly and coarse toasted lavash; and a plate of green apple slices, plump Californian dates and Marcona almonds, all with Pim’s own pleasingly tart Meyer lemon marmalade strewn on top.
For our cheeses and dessert, we were served Graham’s 10 year old Tawny port. This was quite rich and fruity with gentle, enduring flavour.
Dessert: Strawberries in hibiscus, goat fromage blanc sorbet. Dirty Girl farm strawberries, laid over hibiscus jelly and overlaid with fromage blanc sorbet, milk skin and rocket flowers, had strawberry consommé infused with sugar syrup and Eastern long pepper sprinkled on them. The sourness of the goat’s milk (from Healy Farm) balanced well with the berries that were perked by the floral hibiscus, peppery blossoms and spicy long pepper. The milk skin, similar to yuba though slightly sweeter and more fluid, was thick and toothsome.
The petit fours and migniardises that followed were those we had already became accustomed to.
Petit Fours: “Strawberry-chocolate”.
Migniardises 1: Armagnac and tobacco truffle.
Migniardises 2: Salted butter caramels. The next day was Easter Sunday and so the restaurant would be closed; since we were the last customers that night, the house was rather generous regarding how many caramels we were allowed to run away with…
Once more, all the staff were excellent. Having already spent one evening together, a rapport had been established, thus, this time there was the added element of welcome familiarity and some friendly banter. There was also, once again, a cheery, festive ambience to the dining room – in fact, I even overheard not only one but several diners at different tables tell others that Manresa was their favourite restaurant.
The meal had commenced with another bout of assorted amuses bouche, their inspiration sourced from France, Spain, Japan and their consequence ranging from rich to spicy, savoury to sweet. The transition to more significant courses came via a common vein of foie gras, which, first enjoyed in the form of a royale, returned as a serious and quite decadent torchon. Next the chef, having just convinced of his comfort in a classical French kitchen, showed he is just as confident in a Japanese one with exquisitely executed sashimi slices of sea bream. Plates then proceeded in the same pattern, leaping between France and the Far East, until the advent of Italian risotto.
The horse mackerel with ginger oil that settled this sequence was simply the most exciting point in my life as a diner. I have never been as thrilled at a dinner table as I was between the arrival of the empty tumbler and the setting of the black slate before me. The unexpected glass, unrequested sake…the deliberate crescendo of events that preluded the actual plate was utterly emphatic. With each step, every action, the momentum matured and the suspense swelled. The anticipation was great – and I do mean that in more ways than one. What finally, actually appeared was as minimal and as understated as might be imagined. Raw mackerel, radish and ginger oil – just three ingredients, immaculately prepared and impeccably presented. Anything less than perfection would have ruined the meal or at least our mood.
We were still as giddy as schoolgirls when another of Kinch’s best known dishes was served. Expressive, graphic, imaginative and tasty, the tidal pool satisfied appetite, intellect and emotion. The chef had considered every aspect, down to the smallest detail – remember the bubbles and briny, xanthum-jellied seawater – to create something engaging and engrossing.
After two (thorough) meals here, there were some material motifs manifest.
The loose structure within which Kinch’s cosmopolitan menus reside starts with a slow ascension consisting of about five very varied amuses, the last of which links to the first entrée. Early after that, a palate-cleansing preparation of raw fish is followed by warm mar y muntanya combinations before the chef’s signatures (vegetable garden/tidal pool). Then hot seafood comes prior to a lighter meat recipe ahead of a heavier one. Dessert itself is relatively abrupt, but as the meal set off, small sweet treats end it in similarly leisurely manner.
My tastes more inclined towards fish than flesh, I must admit that the meaty mains did not maintain my interest as the preceding seafood and vegetables had done – and as an aside, I did favour the night before’s goat and lamb combo over tonight’s squab-beef brace. That being said, this part of the carte still drew my attention. The climatic meat course appears, from reading and reports, to almost always be beef or lamb cooked to a more traditionally French formula. What I thought so interesting was that after a flurry of diverse, inventive and exciting dishes, the chef seems to like to bring the diner back from the exotic and unusual to something safe, comfortable and quite classic.
The amuses are worth briefly talking about again too. It is during these initial nibbles that Kinch likes to remember those from whom he has learned, his friends and favourites. The two dishes inspired by Passard – of whom he has been a fan for some twenty years (‘the first time I went was an eye-opening experience’), by whom he is felt to possess ‘a similar soul’ and with whom he shares a ‘profound respect for the provenance of ingredients’ – evinced this over these two visits, but he has also been known to include chestnut croquettes (inspired by Marc Meneau), used to serve a version of Barry Wine’s beggars’ purses and has also referenced others such as Aduriz.
During dinner, it is clear that the chef is leading the diner on a journey – and Kinch has admitted as much himself. The first evening entailed an expedition from Asia (Yuzu…with mackerel) via the restaurant’s backyard (Into the vegetable garden…) to Spain (Atlantic cod), Italy (Vegetable risotto) and across the western Mediterranean basin (Spring lamb). The second took another route with Japan and France dominating the destinations, although Italy and Spain still featured. Fusing such dissimilar cuisines together on a single menu seems superficially frivolous and, in lesser hands, often justifies criticism. However, where Kinch makes an impact is the smooth segue with which courses flow effortlessly and in flawless fashion from one culinary culture into another. Dishes composed of oriental soba, karasumi and furikake sit alongside plates comprising asparagus and egg – a de rigueur springtime twosome of the occident. More to the point, it feels very much as if they belong beside each other.
Cuisinier sans frontiers is a label that I have already applied to another, however with hindsight, perhaps I was somewhat hasty when I did so…
Something just as impressive as his versatility was the simple fact that the chef was able to serve some forty courses in all, each different to each other and almost each different to those already eaten by my fellow diner (who has dined at Manresa multiple times), nearly everyone of which was complete and original in design and delectable in taste. The breadth and depth of his repertoire was tremendous.
David Kinch is redefining Californian cuisine and these meals left me without doubt how and why. For years, the Bay was best known for Alice Waters and fruit salads. But that is very different today. It is for chefs such as Jeremy Fox, Daniel Patterson and Kinch himself of course for whom curious and excited diners travel the world over to visit. It is no coincidence that Patterson cites the latter as a major inspiration and friend, as does Fox, his former sous chef. Actually, only recently has Fox’s successor at Manresa, James Syhabout, also set out on his own with Commis in Oakland – certainly Kinch’s influence will be felt there too.
On one’s (aforementioned) voyage, nostalgia and whimsy are two constant companions.
The latter is something that I – hopeless daydreamer and romantic – always appreciate, but have already addressed where it was most keenly felt and intelligently employed – the initial amuse bouche, vegetables with caviar, vegetable garden, tidal pool…
Nostalgia – sometimes obvious, but more often not – comes in more than one form.
First (or technically last), there are the petit fours at the end of the night that mirror and remind one of the meal’s beginning. Like coming home, one knows their adventure is over when they reach whence they started. But, whilst Kinch offers his guests quixotic, unconscious closure (and maybe a sense of accomplishment even), he also makes sure there is a little surprise awaiting them. All is not what it seems.
Memoria gustativa is a concept much contemplated by modern Iberian chefs and essentially relates to the importance of remembering the classics whilst creating cuisine anew. Kinch draws from his affinity for and instruction in Spanish cooking in several respects – his adept ability to arrange extended tasting menus, the dynamic nature of recipes, some of his ingredient choices – but this idea of ‘taste memory’ seems to play an inconspicuous yet powerful part. Taking the basic principal, he at once expands it and makes it introspective and very personal. What one experiences, or maybe more accurately, what I thought I experienced was the vicarious reliving of the chef’s reminiscences, as if he were sharing his own journey with me through an edible chain of comestible clues – each plate a photograph. Consequently, though there was a little wistfulness of my own along the way, it was really the chef’s nostalgia that I was tasting rather than mine.
Thus did I form some (sketchy) sense of his style: one rooted in French cooking, but with strong sensibilities for Northern Spain and Japan; his preference for seafood over meat; for savoury over sweet; his fondness for citrus…
More often than not, however, I am able to form a reasonably clearer and relatively quicker opinion of the character of a chef’s cuisine than I did with Kinch’s. I was struggling. I felt this way after the first meal and my feelings had not changed by the end of the second.
I mentioned as much to the chef himself. His answer was short, but poignant.
‘It’s my style’. Half assured. Half comic. Entirely true.
René Redzepi, Alain Passard, Mauro Colagreco…this may appear to be a shortlist of world’s most exciting chefs, but their names also comprise a checklist of those who have recently made their way across the world, from Europe to little Los Gatos, to cook at one specific restaurant – David Kinch’s Manresa.
Kinch first hit the national headlines in the summer of 2004, when at the behest of Eric Ripert, he prepared a meal at Le Bernadin for a group of journalists. Ripert had just eaten at the chef’s then newly-opened restaurant and was amazed: ‘that guy is seriously talented. I was like, Son of a *****! He has an incredible, obsessive knowledge of his products and the rare talent to elevate ingredients to their best.’ The assembled guests were stunned and delighted by what he had cooked with the local produce that he had brought with him all the way from the Bay Area.
Since then, inspired by Passard’s biodynamic gardens, Kinch has followed in his footsteps, establishing a partnership with farmer Cynthia Sandberg to create their own potager to produce Manresa’s produce. This search for superior ingredients, in combination with his creativity and talent as a chef, has won him loyal and growing admiration locally and globally. In 2007, he was invited to speak at Pamplona’s I Congresso ‘Vive las Verduras’ and then at the Festival International de la Gastronomie de Mougins the year after. He is currently recognised as a chef on the forefront of gastronomy.
Born in Pennsylvania, David Kinch’s first foodie memories are of his grandmother – ‘my big German grandmother’ – who would regularly cook, for tens of guests at a time, her traditional Teutonic recipes. However his family’s business being oil, he had to move around when young, before finally settling in New Orleans. At just fifteen, whilst at high school, he began bussing tables at Commander’s Palace where he became ‘mesmerised by the chefs. They were like pirates – treating people insolently and working over open flames…they had a free spirit, they were creative – I found myself drawn more and more to the kitchen.’ And that is where he moved to, making salads under local legend Paul Prudhomme; ‘from the first day, I knew I loved it and I didn’t ever want to leave it.’ Although it was not until a couple of years later when one of his best friends, a trumpet prodigy playing in the city’s philharmonic at fourteen, set off touring the entire country, that his eyes were opened to his own opportunities and he enrolled at Johnson & Wales Culinary Academy in Providence.
In 1982, having graduated with honours, he took a position as sous chef at the Hotel Parker Meridian in New York City, then as executive chef at La Petite Ferme. Fuelled by a thirst to travel and to learn, Kinch arranged a stage in France with La Petite Ferme’s owner’s brother, Marc Chevillot at the Hôtel de la Poste in Beune. France was the benchmark and Burgundy was where he wanted to be, both for the cuisine and also for another passion of his, wine. With the money he earned, he ate at the region’s top restaurants and it was on Bastille Day in 1984 that he had a meal that changed his life. ‘I remember it to this day. It made me go back to my room and cry. It made me realise that I didn’t know anything. It was so fabulous, so simple, so sublime. It was what food should be all about.’ It was a roast pigeon with fresh peas and braised lettuce at Alain Chapel in Mionnay. ‘What this guy could do with a handful of peas and some lettuce and how the purity of the flavours could be maintained and yet come together, was something I had never learned…I had completely missed the point of what makes great food.’
Soon afterwards, he returned to New York and joined Barry Wine’s Quilted Giraffe – one of the hottest spots in the city and noted for its brilliant/bizarre creativity. What he had uncovered at Chapel was reinforced and a curiosity and confidence were also instilled within him that remain driving forces even today. Whilst Kinch considers Wine his mentor, Wine thinks him ‘a very good student,’ asserting that ‘he understands food. He has great respect for food and flavours.’ Here as well he found a dish that impacted him greatly: Wine’s salmon glazed with mustard powder, sugar and water – ‘it couldn’t be simpler, but it wakes up every element on your tongue.’
Every summer, when the Giraffe closed for a month he would head to Spain. Not yet the home of all things molecular, he fell in love with the place, even running with the bulls in Pamplona for five years straight. His yearning for learning though led him instead to Japan where in 1989 he acted as consultant chef to Hotel Clio Court, Fukuoka. A year on and he had moved to Silks at the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco. This was prior to a two-year tour of Europe that entailed stages at Schweizer Stuben (2*) in Wertheim, Germany; then l’Espérance (3*) in St. Père-sous-Vézeley under Marc Meneau; a summer doing cellar work in a small domaine in Sancerre; and finally and most influentially, six months at Akelare (2*) in San Sebastian. In 1993, Kinch returned to San Francisco as executive chef of Ernie’s, a local landmark, but two years later left to start his own venture, Sent Sovi in Saratoga, which opened the day after Bastille Day, 1995 – ‘a neighbourhood restaurant that’s overachieving. That’s our model.’ Soon his cooking was attracting attention, but he felt confined by the size of restaurant and especially its kitchen with only a single oven and two electric broilers. He needed more space.
After much searching around the Bay Area, Kinch found what he was looking for just seven miles away in small, sleepy Los Gatos, a town in the Santa Clara hills sustained by the riches of nearby Silicon Valley. On a downtown side street, he bought a 1940s single story ranch-house once known as the Village House, formerly a tearoom, but by then long-empty, and hired architect Jim Zack and kitchen-designer Mark Stech-Novak (Keller, Ducasse, Vongerichten) to renovate and modernise it. Wine later said that Kinch had ‘worked and walked his way around the world in order to prepare himself for the ideal kitchen.’ That ideal kitchen was a custom-built, seven-hundred-and-fifty foot-squared laboratory (almost double his previous space). Pride of place went to a two-and-a-half tonne bespoke Bonnet Cidelcem Maestro stove from France; it was so big it had to be installed before the surrounding walls could be completed.
He christened the restaurant, Manresa. It opened on Bastille Day, 2002.
There are a couple of reasons why the Santa Clara Valley appealed to Kinch. One is the beaches. Indeed even if these are irrespective of cooking, they allow the chef to enjoy daily his (perhaps first) love, surfing – something which he discovered in his ‘skateboard and surf punk days’ on the Gulf Coast. ‘I’m a surfer. I wanted a more integrated life,’ he has said. In fact, it is from one of these beaches, just south of his home that the name of the restaurant stems from, itself so named by the early Jesuit immigrants to California from the same-named Catalan town where the founder of their order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, took refuge in a cave. Coincidentally, Sent Sovi was Catalan too, its title taken from an old cookery book – Libre de Sent Sovi – (maybe) meaning ‘sweet taste’ and celebrated throughout the courts of Europe in the fourteenth century.
Kinch believes that ‘there are two characteristics that enable restaurants to transcend the ordinary. First is that someone has a vision…the other is a sense of place – the restaurant couldn’t be anywhere else than where it is.’ He wanted the cooking to reflect who and where he was and to, like Chapel had, ‘create a sense of place’. Thus, sandwiched between the mountains and the ocean (thus bringing to mind the Basque country) and amid some of the richest farmland in the United States, he quickly fell in love with the area’s unique and fruitful terroir. Whilst in Saratoga, the chef had his own herb garden and employed a forager on nearly full-time basis, but after the move to Manresa, he expanded his local supply lines: he buys from (and surfs with) the producers at the much-loved Dirty Girl Farm; sources his cherries, apricots, peaches and nectarines from the nearby Novakovich family; and knows well the retired IBM software developer, Gene Lester, who owns twelve acres filled with hundreds of rare and exotic citrus to which he lets friends help themselves.
Each of these suppliers is important yet secondary. It is actually a two-acre plot in Ben Lomond, twenty-five miles from Manresa, which shares a mutually-dependent and mutually-rewarding relationship with the restaurant. It is called Love Apple Farm and run together with attorney-turned-farmer, Cynthia Sandberg. Several years ago, it dawned on Kinch that local chefs were ‘go[ing] to the farmers’ market and all…buying the same organic leeks and lettuces. We’re all doing the same thing. I wanted to do better.’ To him, the natural next step was growing his own. Originally, he thought about buying a farm, but after tasting some of Sandberg’s organic tomatoes, he asked her to supply him exclusively. When it came to negotiations, each had a final condition, which fortuitously turned out to be the same thing – to try biodynamics. By November 2005, the pair had made their first ‘preparation’ of manure-stuffed cow horns to be buried beneath the soil. By summer 2006, the garden’s crop was on the restaurant’s menu.
The farm has flourished, furnishing Manresa with more and more of its needs. It is on the verge of completing what Kinch describes as ‘a closed loop’ between guests and garden, farm and fork. Each day, at their usual Surf City Coffee Company meeting-spot, Sandberg and the chef exchange what she has harvested that morning for his leftovers from last night’s dinner. She feeds the trimmings to her animals, who in turn give her the ‘black gold’ that improves the soil. He feeds the pickings to grateful diners. Love Apple is not only a grower of fruit and vegetables – there are bees making honey, chickens laying eggs and goats, sheep and pigs too – it is much more than just a supplier. Manresa’s menu is now decided daily depending on what the potager has provided – ‘it’s not like placing an order with a specific produce company – I open the cooler and decide the menu based on what’s there…the garden is writing the menu.’ It is also a canny business investment, generating significant cost savings, and a source of stimulation with the chef claiming ninety-percent of his ideas transpire while walking through the farm; ‘it has been my single greatest inspiration in fifteen years and it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done.’
David Kinch is a chef’s chef. ‘I do it because I still like to. I don’t want to work in hotels. I don’t want three restaurants. I don’t want to do five-hundred covers a night…None of this interests me. Call me anti-success…but I just want to cook in my restaurant with my crew in my beautiful kitchen and make people happy.’ His collection of 1200 menus, partly hung upon Manresa’s (bathroom) walls, is evidence that he himself is a lover of good food and in his spare time, reads French, Spanish and English cookbooks and travels around the world to learn and try new techniques. His time out of the kitchen however is limited by his desire to be at the pass for every service. The first time he left the restaurant for more than two nights in a row, to visit France, ‘he was constantly on the phone, checking in.’ Behind the stove, he has a reputation as a serious, intense perfectionist and showed these colours last March when battling against Bobby Flay in America’s Iron Chef competition. For the contest’s ‘secret ingredient’ round, he had readied himself meticulously – ‘I didn’t go in blind. I tried to narrow it down so when the ingredient was revealed we had a line of attack’. He had in fact prepared fifteen lines of attack. The mystery item was cabbage. He won.
Two weeks later, Aaron and I arrived at Kinch’s lemony-mustard yellow rambler. Set within a small garden and nicely nestled in lush native fauna, it is not easy to recognise the building as a restaurant. There is a madest, wavy sign of rusted metal buried in a bed of red flowers that spells Manresa in funky type, but even this is nearly hidden by citrus trees lining the fence in front. A thin tiled column of red carpets the path to the large, reflective front door. Once within, a corridor leads to the dining area; there is a rippled glass window on the right through which one can spy the chefs in the kitchen, dressed in white and sleeves rolled up, surrounding the stainless steel stove that boasts four ovens, a continuous flat cooking surface and two salamanders.
Inside, the theme is rustic Hispanic and accentuated with its warm, characteristic tones of yellow, brown and red, the classic colour of the Iberian kitchen. The dining area, seating nearly seventy, is bound by slate-grey smooth stucco walls and a cracked cement floor that has been fashioned to resemble natural tiles. The ceiling is composed of wooden beams supported by a single steel bar. Tables are nicely spaced with two to each of the Colonial Spanish rugs that litter the ground in an assortment of miss-matched shades. It is spacious and bright with windows stretching wall-to-wall; lighting is from bulb-like hanging lanterns. The room is separated into two by a varnished oak partition that doubles as a wine cabinet. The larger, principal space is occupied by four central tables with several more lining the low-lying grey banquettes that border on two sides. They are dressed in thick white linen and are set with crystal stemware, Villeroy & Boch crockery and miniature enamel beehive candleholders. In the middle, there is a free-standing, sturdy chest laid with ornamental glass flasks, corn potpourri and large red ceramic vase filled with seasonal bouquet – Sansevieria Black Coral today. Upon the walls, crushed silk curtains are coloured gold and various vibrant, geometric art pieces hang. A curved, creamy border behind the entrance conceals the bar and kitchen. The second room, which can be used for private functions, is narrow and long. Large patio doors, fringed with sangria shantung drapes, open onto the garden behind. The showpiece is a corner fireplace, covered in tiny mosaic tiles of sapphire blue hemmed with hues of olive green and comprising a mantle bearing the restaurant’s name and fire-pit filled with candles.
First, to quench our thirst…
Aperitif: Champagne Diebolt-Vallois à Cramant, 1996. This lingering yet light blanc de blancs, with its distinctly delicate, faintly fruity scent of chardonnay, was an unintended nod to the spring season.
Amuse Bouche 1: Petit fours “red pepper-black olive”. Manresa’s signature amuses bouche – black olive madeleine and red pepper paté de fruit – were served on a thick, rustic rough slate slab. The former, memorably and forever famous for its semblance to ‘la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques’, is also with the sugar-dusted jelly, a compliment to Pedro Subijana, who has a similar habit of offering savouries disguised as sweets – polvorons of artichoke; black pudding that resembles a cinnamon swirl; even his own ‘madeleines’ that are actually cocoa-encrusted oysters – before the meal. It is an amusing play on accepted customs, concurrently comforting those uninitiated to finer dining, whilst also light heartedly teasing those who are. The small cake was warm and biscuity with the subtle sweetness of olive and consistency of cookie dough whilst the red pepper had latent vegetal sweet heat, tasting strongly of roasted capsicum, with a gummy, but not sticky, denseness.
Amuse Bouche 2: Garden beignets, vinegar powder. Two beignets of purple and green mizuna were sprinkled with a little vinegar powder. The well-fried, greaseless samples were fluffy and soft with a leafy crunch and mild peppery piquancy; the vinegar atop added salty tanginess.
Amuse Bouche 3: Mustard granité with carrot. A bright blanket of carrot foam covered granité of mustard interspersed with red leaf mustard flowers and leaves. The sweet carrot was nicely contrasted by the icy condiment whose own warmth of flavour coupled with its confusingly cold temperature toyed with one’s expectations. The tender greens added excellent texture and amplified the pungency already present.
Amuse Bouche 4: Seaweed grissini, homemade lardo. Unfortunately, I was unable to try this…
Amuse Bouche 5: Strawberry gazpacho, almond oil. A brunoise of onion, garlic, cucumber, capsicum, tarragon and strawberry sat in a bowl with amaranth shoots and Marcona almond halves; at the table, a consommé of the same components, along with almond oil and chive, was poured in. The mind games had recommenced with what seemed on sight a stereotypical gazpacho of tomato, but smelled and tasted of summer berry; Kinch, believing in the innate analogy betwixt the two, abandoned the former (often mistaken as the fundamental ingredient for this Andalucian soup), in favour of fresh strawberry. It was the deft accord between the fruit and alliums that stood out here; the savours were each clear and precise yet in total harmony. The cucumber, pepper and onion offered succulent crispness; tarragon and amaranth, a little sweetness; whilst Marcona almonds added Spanish crunch and the oil, subtle toasted nuttiness.
Amuse Bouche 6: Arpège farm egg. Controversially inspired by Alain Passard’s trademark amuse, oeuf à la coque; quatre épices, a carefully decollated egg, from Manresa’s own farm, was warmed in a water bath, but the yolk not allowed the set. On removal, it was sprinkled with chives, filled with crème fraîche and spiked with Tahitian vanilla and sherry vinegar before being topped off with fleur de sel and some maple syrup. The first smoky-sweet taste was of this, but it was quickly countered by the subtly tart cream beneath. Delving deeper down and wounding the yolk, the vivid yellow that bled out was brilliantly rich and tasty. However, although the chives helped a little, a little more vinegar would have helped better to cut through the heavy yolk and compete with the sweeter vanilla.
A comparison between this and the original is inevitable: from my experience, the actual egg at Manresa is of far superior quality, but l’Arpège’s oeuf has a finer balance.
Le Pain: Pain au levain, Pim’s butter. This single choice of sourdough proved the old adage, ‘quality over quantity’. Thick with faintly tangy crust and fluffy, soft open crumb, the excellent homemade bread was accompanied with excellent homemade butter. Made by Pim with the milk from a Normande cow she co-owns with the owners of Deep Roots Ranch in nearby Watsonville – for the record, Nutmeg is her name – the hand-churned vibrant beurre was smooth, complex and rather French in character.
Entrée 1: Shellfish in crab broth, green strawberries. Two claws of Dungeness crab, one laid as the yang to the other’s ying, were layered with overlapping cross-sections of geoduck clam, octopus and green strawberries, all strewn over with coriander flowers, fennel fronds, red leaf mustard and chervil, in a shallow crab broth laced with extra virgin olive oil. Dungeness, a local speciality, was meaty, delicately sweet and salty while its stock, quite concentrated, though clean. The clam was firm yet yielding and octopus, very tender, disappearing on the tongue. Unripe strawberries from Dirty Girl Farm were a mildly bitter, barely acidic counterpoint to the sweetness of the shellfish, with which the fennel and chervil had natural affinity. Mustard and coriander delivered pepper and citrus.
Entrée 2: Yuzu and sea salt snow with buckwheat honey, toasted seaweed with mackerel. Twisted slivers of cured Japanese mackerel, their silver sapphire skin framing maroon flesh that depreciated to pink, resting on rosemary oil, were buried beneath yuzu, sea salt and buckwheat honey infused, icy crystals and chervil flowers. Marinated with tart sherry vinegar, the mackerel was intense, but deliciously tempered with the sour, salty-sweet, citrusy snow that beautifully balanced the oily richness of the fish. A further hint of lemony-mint was imparted by the aromatic oil.
Entrée 3: Asparagus in bonito butter, toasted seeds. Blanched Julienne laces came entwined with skinny, raw ribbons of mandolined Sacramento Delta asparagus, sprinkled with furikake, in a bath of bonito butter. From the plate, an inviting perfume was immediately perceptible. An initial taste showed that the sweet, tender vegetable went very well with the salty, savoury sauce whose umami effect was enhanced by the nori, katsuobushi and toasted sesame seeds that the Japanese condiment atop was composed of; its seedy crunch was an additional benefit. The deep, beefy flavour of the frothy bonito lingered long on the tongue.
Entrée 4: Mar y muntanya; vegetables with caviar. A crisp cabbage leaf, upon which were set stems of brocollini, was smeared over with fork-crushed kohlrabi and its sauce, densely dotted with Iranian Oscietra caviar. The aesthetic was arresting. Dark green rug and ridges, shrouded with paler paint punctuated with gleaming feldgrau beads mimicked, at once, both a mountain landscape (note the undulating aspect assumed by all the elements) and ocean scene (see the dynamic rhythm of the sauce and seaweed-esque vegetables). It also simultaneously had the semblance of something refined – luxurious caviar coupled with an exotic hybrid of broccoli and kai lan from faraway China – and something rustic – roots and puy lentil-like pearls. The savour was just as successful; the briny, silky subtle caviar, prepared malossol (slightly salted) married with the gentle sweetness and firmness of the greens; there was also a nutty note running through the long stems and roe. A small detail, easily missed, was that this was a clever play on crucifers, what with cabbage, brocollini and kohlrabi all belonging to the same family.
Entrée 5: Into the vegetable garden…Scattered, deep periwinkle blue borage blossoms, pink-fringed radish flowers and colourful orange Crystanthemum ones caught the eye from a cluster of variegated vegetable roots, stems, shoots, seeds, buds and leaves that satisfied every shade of green across the spectrum; a trail of heaped crushed chicory and hazelnut suggested an appropriate starting point on the plate.
Hand-picked just that morning, having made the short journey to the kitchen never even seeing the inside of a refrigerator, the produce was as fresh as possible. Indeed though no longer living, the last vestiges of life lingered in each legume and leaf – a romantic image maybe – but they had been assembled to inspire an idea of what first light at the farm that very morn must have been like: the greens, of course, represented the plants and the chicory-hazelnut signified the soil, but there was also a delightful and appreciated attention to detail with the intermingling, melting emulsion, made from the vegetables’ cooking juices and designed to act as that dawn’s dew.
Eating was exploring. As one gathers food onto their fork, one must prod, separate, push away and uncover with their cutlery. The frothy mist fizzes and hisses as one digs into the dish, imitating the crackling of leaves one would hear as they walked around the garden. Each forkful is a new discovery: the first bite brings peppery baby rocket, succulent New Zealand spinach and sweet pea shoots together; the second, piquant glory frisee mustard, cooling spearmint and tart pansy flowers; a third… Then, beneath the foliage, there are larger elements hidden, like green onion and fingerling potato, as well as the bitter dirt and assorted purées of turnip and carrot that form the cohesive chords that bind every bite.
Entrée 6: Abalone in its own bouillon, seaweed persillade. Placed in the centre of a bright orange pool of its own broth, a whole Monterey Bay abalone, sautéed in beurre noisette, was glazed in wakame and sea lettuce persillade dressed with champagne vinegar. The rusty-coloured mollusc was, like the octopus before, juicy and yielding; Turks have a term for cooking such as this, ‘lokum gibi’. It had also absorbed the flavours of the salty-peppery topping that teamed nicely with the inherent honeyedness left behind by the brown butter, whilst the touch of subtly acidic champagne had an uplifting effect. A small surprise came from the inclusion of a little xanthum gum in the rich bouillon, which gave it a viscidity that imitated the texture of the abalone in a very intriguing and eye-catching way.
Entrée 7: Atlantic cod with fava beans, cod tripe. An Atlantic cod kokotxa was coupled with the cod’s tripe in an olive oil emulsion with fava beans, peas, their shoots and their flowers. A Basque speciality, kokotxas are actually the jowl of cod or hake and highly prized. And rightly so – they are delicate, gelatinous and utterly delicious. The equally unctuous tripa made this an even more decadent treat. The sweetness of the greens was a pleasing complement, whilst their crisp crunch, a very nice contrast. The intense sauce, thickened with the fat from the fish, had a lovely olive oil finish.
Entrée 8: Vegetable risotto and spring peas, without rice… Peas and finely diced parsnip, Swede, turnip and kohlrabi, suffused with Arborio rice water, were accompanied by trumpet royale and trompette de la mort mushrooms, sautéed, fried and dried, in addition to fennel fronds and a mizzle of turnip milk foam. The root vegetables replicated the texture of rice rather well whilst some parmesan and the Arborio water supplied pleasing creaminess and a savoury relish that served as a counterpoint to their natural sweetness. The foam was a splash of sourness and the mushrooms varied the consistency, with the royales, meaty, plump and also nutty, standing out; this nuttiness also helped bring out similar savours in the vegetables and cheese.
Plat Principal 1: Suckling kid goat, curds and whey. Mantled with an emulsion of bubbly alabaster goats’ whey, speckled with its curds, a braised cut of thigh from a baby goat lay buried. Along with their appetite, one’s humour and intellect are also fed here: the whey-curd coverlet concealed the contents beneath, thus building suspense and presenting the promise of something secret; its second purpose was to play its parts in the amusing faux-reformation of the kid – the white whey froth acting as its fluffy fur whilst the curds, the fat. The whey also worked to keep the meat moist while the slight salty-sourness of the soured milk mellowed the mild gaminess of the goat as it, through juxtaposition, also brought out its inherent, youthful sweetness. The young kid, raised locally by an English lady no less, at Harley Farms Goat Dairy in Pescadero, was so tender that each fleshy fibre separated strand by strand. Incorporating the goat’s flesh with its own milk was simple yet intuitive and clever.
Whilst awaiting the next course, we were showed the slow-roasted saddle of lamb that would soon follow. Rich mahogany and glimmering, it was presented with a fresh, green patina of parsley, thyme and garlic that bore testament to the season. This premium cut, always apt on special occasions, was evidence of the kitchen’s butchery expertise.
Plat Principal 2: Spring lamb, assorted spiced alliums, green garlic panisse. From platter to plate, Don Watson’s Napa valley spring lamb had been carved and served with a vibrant quenelle of assorted alliums, an intact ramp, pair of green garlic panisses and a confit slice of lamb tongue; ras el hanout garnished the ingredients. It was from this bespoke blend of unbeknown herbs and spices from the ‘top of the [chef’s] shop’ that an exotic, enticing aroma emanated. The milk-fed lamb’s cerise coloured flesh, thinly coated in almost amber adipose, was tender – no steak knife was needed – subtle and an excellent stage for the rich savours of the Moroccan mixture. The melange of ramp, leek and garlic was pleasantly creamy whilst the coarse and chubby chickpea-garlic fritters, having absorbed the meaty jus, were just scrumptious.
This dish was superficially a fusion of Mediterranean cuisines, namely those of southern France and northern Africa. Provençal flavours – garlic, thyme, chickpeas, rosemary, lavender, leeks, lamb – abounded on the same plate as panisse, the predominant street food of Marseilles, the most prominent city of Provence. Ras el hanout, a Maghrebi concoction, was almost an aberration, but on second consideration, it may have been an inspired representation of the cosmopolitan melting pot that this same city is. Marseilles was the main port that linked France to her Muslim colonies and so now harbours a large number of immigrants from these lands, who have undoubtedly brought with them their own cooking cultures, which over time would have melded with the native one to possibly create recipes very much like this.
One cannot help but also wonder whether the inclusion of panisse was some sort of ambiguous allusion to the restaurant of the same name…
Dessert 1: Exotic citrus with honey and spices. A covey of various citric supremes, all sauced in fennel frond-infused Meyer lemon rind purée and atop Corsican lemon curd, was covered in granité of oroblanco pomelo beneath spearmint ice cream and a crown of orange tuile. The underlying set of segments, supplied by Gene Lester, from his collection of exotic and unusual citrus in Watsonville, and which included rare breeds like temple tangor (tangerine-orange hybrid) and wikiwatangelo (tangerine-pomelo and grapefruit), were especially juicy with a tart-sweetness that was amplified by the acidic, sticky lemons and sweet pomelo ice. The ice cream was fresh and cooling, whilst the tasty tuile added crunch.
Dessert 2: Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Bisected banana, its sliced-open crust caramelised, came with espresso reduction, pralines, their ice cream, chicory cream and milk coffee foam; alongside arrived powdered beignets. This dessert, bringing new meaning to the term home sweet home, was a curtsy from the chef to the Big Easy and possibly more precisely Café au Monde, the coffee shop that sits within the city’s French quarter and is celebrated for its café au lait and beignets. In addition to these though, the other flavours for which New Orleans is famous were also here: the banana (referencing bananas Foster) was rather firm, too firm, with a hard, brittle top; the pralines, the recipe for which was brought to the area by Acadian settlers ousted from Canada, whom replaced traditional almond for local pecan, were nutty-sweet and crunchy; and the mildly bitter and sharpish chicory, which, blended with coffee, is a Cajun custom. The beignets (the official doughnut of said state) were hot, sugary and airy, dissolving on the lips into a paste; we begged demanded politely asked for more.
Petit Fours: “Strawberry-chocolate”. Manresa’s signature petit fours – chocolate madeleine and strawberry paté de fruit – were served on a thick, rustic rough slate slab. A reminiscence of the meal’s commencement, these little treats of thick, warm madeleine with excellent crispy edge and nicely-flavoured, smooth jelly, informs the diner that dinner is about to end in the sweetest way possible.
Migniardises 1: Armagnac and tobacco truffle. Before one leaves, they are offered homemade chocolate truffles of Armagnac and tobacco. Thin, crisp coats encased a thick liquid core. From within, the imbued brandy makes itself known straightaway, coming through strongly, but it fades and leaves behind a tingly spiciness from the tobacco.
Migniardises 2: Salted butter caramels. As a final souvenir, salty caramels were doled out at the door from a large glass urn. Slowly melting in the mouth, thick yet not heavy or sticky, they were perfectly balanced in savour and perhaps the best caramels I have ever eaten.
Service was superb. Throughout dinner – and we were the first to arrive and last to leave – all the staff were welcoming, hospitable and attentive. Led by Michael Kean, general manager, and Esteban Garibay, maître d’hôtel, everyone was diligent, efficient and well-choreographed – maybe not surprisingly so given the years of experience they each have and Michael’s previous life as a professional dancer. Both were friendly and endearing, engaging us with conversation, but also taking the time to visit our table and ask our thoughts. Our serveur, Bryan, was particularly impressive, showing great patience, good humour and meticulous knowledge of the dishes. There was also tremendous generosity in both spirit and practise, which sincerely made dinner more of a celebration than simply a meal. The restaurant had an excellent atmosphere. Everyone wore a smile with people clearly in a good mood and very relaxed – guests at an adjacent table even started a dialogue with us. On a warm night, with good cooking and good company, in a pretty villa on the other side of the world, it was all rather convincing and very charming.
The meal began with a series of small dainties designed to whet the appetite. Kinch prescribes to same thinking that I do: amuses are a chance to have fun, experiment, to agitate and tease or, in his concise words, ‘throw you a curve ball’. There is no necessary pattern to what ensues, but that is precisely his point, ‘it’s to make you think, ‘what’s coming next?’ Thus, today we toured the Continent, from Italy (grissini) to Spain (gazpacho) to France (l’Arpège egg) with our taste buds enticed with things sweet, savoury, sour and spicy and our minds amused and confused.
With the yuzu and…mackerel dish, dinner moved into another gear. The flavours here, crystal clear, big and bold, startled and thrilled. And this was only the first in a string of plates that provoked, pleased and impressed. The asparagus in bonito butter possessed layers of fascinating savour and supplied a strong umami slap. The mar y muntanya was graceful, refined and full-flavoured whilst testing the intellect, inducing and seducing one’s imagination.
Straight after that stimulating course came another maybe even more so – ‘into the vegetable garden…’ This dish is definitive of David Kinch’s cuisine and the most obvious manifestation of his farm-to-fork philosophy. The chef has one rule: if it arrived from the garden, then it had to be on the plate. Therefore, each ingredient is both symbolic of Love Apple Farm and a tribute to it; and thus, it is also always changing, always evolving – so although the raw materials may not be, the recipe certainly is alive. The allure of this dish is that it develops day to day, diner to diner. Initially inspired by Bras’ gargouillou (except for the dirt, which came courtesy of Redzepi), it was first a ‘reflection of the garden’, but has since grown into more, a ‘concept of a sense of place’; no longer a mirror, it is an edible translation of Manresa’s terroir.
Kinch, like Daniel Patterson, has often spoken out in opposition to the proclivity of Bay Area chefs to depend solely on their produce, without being creative – earning the area a reputation (amongst East Coasters especially) for producing good shoppers, rather than good chefs. With this dish, it almost appears as though he is practising exactly what he preaches against. But not so. Without doubt built upon a foundation of superior materias primas, it is the subtle details and nuances that make this much more than a sum of its parts – much more than a salad. It is tasty – but Bryan did tell us, ‘what grows together, goes together’ – yet also interesting, interactive and so emphatic. Over the years, Kinch has simplified the formula and enriched the ‘experience’. Initial incarnations included gnocchi and burrata, but as the garden has grown, these have been stripped away, leaving only the fruit of the farm’s labour – it is as if the cooks, having run their fingers through the bushes, through the soil, have emptied their hands out onto empty plates…
After these mental manipulations came arguably the tastiest course of all – Atlantic cod with fava beans. A mingling of Catalan and Basque staples, this fatty, unctuous and rare delicacy was simple and simply beautiful – bright green against bright white. It was also utterly indulgent.
The cooking, precise and skilled, was informed by the chef’s comprehensive culinary experiences and preferences. It was a gastronomic journey that revealed where Kinch has been and what he has liked. Tonight, the ambience, scene and the service, all came together with the food, to deliver an excellent and exciting evening that was instantly and sincerely memorable.
And there remains more to be said.
I first visited Manresa in Los Gatos, California, during the spring of 2006. I was immediately intrigued by chef David Kinch’s cooking. This is a chef with a near perfect understanding of his restaurant’s time and place, one who truly utilizes the local ingredients of the bay area; Manresa would not work if located elsewhere. Chef Kinch has a masterful understanding of when to enhance an ingredient’s flavor through cooking, and when to step back and let nature speak for itself.
I have since been back half a dozen times, each time a completely different menu and experience. Each meal has been progressively better. The ever evolving cuisine reveals a chef with tremendous versatility, precision, and passion. For these reasons, I believe Chef Kinch is currently the best chef in America.
In person, chef Kinch is soft-spoken and humble, rarely talking about himself or his current inspirations. The best way to understand chef Kinch is to understand his food. This is what makes each visit to Manresa special: each meal is a speechless conversation with chef Kinch, and he has a lot to say. During my first few visits, his food spoke of recent trips to France, revealing inspiration from Alain Passard and Michel Bras. He returned obsessed with vegetables, forging a partnership with Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms. More recently, his food spoke of visits to Tokyo and Kyoto: walks through tsukiji market and kaiseki meals at Koju. While chef Kinch’s cooking is enjoyed by everyone, it speaks even louder to diners who have eaten in Paris and Tokyo. David Kinch is a foodie’s chef.
One of the things I most admire about chef Kinch is his disregard for culinary politicking. Like Quique Dacosta of Spain, his cooking style reflects his current passions, regardless of what’s en vogue. Noma‘s ascension to the top of Pellegrino’s best restaurants list has not affected Kinch’s food in the slightest. This is a breath of fresh air. He’s a no-nonsense culinary rebel.
Manresa, named after the small Spanish north west of Barcelona, is about an hour south of San Francisco. A winding path leads from a quiet street to the restaurant. After passing the reception desk, the newly added modern dining room hangs left while the original dining room remains off to the right.
Black olive madeleines and roasted bell pepper pâtes de fruits – Our meal started with a Manresa staple, a cake-like madeline of black olive and a sugar-coated jelly of roasted red bell pepper. These two vegetal snacks, disguised as sweets, hint at the restaurant’s deep connection to local produce. It’s hard to describe these as delicious, but there is an addictive quality to them.
Paired with N.V. Diebolt-Vallois Champagne Blanc de Blanc Brut à Cramant
Garden beignets, crispy kale, vinegar powder - Warm beignets counterbalanced with the subtle acidity of the vinegar powder. The crispy kale added a vegetal bitterness. This was a small arrangement of textures all held together by the leafy green taste of the garden.
An elemental oyster - A local oyster lightly poached in its own shell, topped with an ocean water gelée, and a sprinkle of nori flakes. The oyster was impeccably fresh — sweet and briny — and the subtle poaching enhance the oyster’s natural sweetness. The ocean water gelée extended the texture of the oyster making it taste twice the size. The umami of the dried seaweed enhanced the shellfish’s natural flavors.
Paired with Hangar One Kaffir Lime Vodka
This pairing with the vodka was too intense for me. While the vodka did have a clean taste and a pleasant citrus component from the kaffir lime, the burn of the alcohol distracted from the delicate flavors of the oyster.
Fig leaf curd, coriander granita, marcona almond, strawberry gazpacho - Wow. This was summer in a bowl. A rich lather of chilled strawberry gazpacho was poured into an herbal, ice cold coriander granita. This was an exceptionally fragrant and balanced dish highlighting the fresh produce of late summer.
Japanese sardines with beets, watermelon, radish, and a garden sorrel sauce - A small sardine carried by the fresh vegetal bitterness of the chilled sorrel sauce. The sweet chunks of compressed watermelon and beets added a hint of sugar to an otherwise savory dish. This was a minimalist dish exemplifying how the freshness of raw vegetables can enhance the freshness of the sea. A simple dish with little cooking, where chef Kinch took a step back and let the natural ingredients speak for themselves.
Raw milk panna cotta, Monterey bay abalone and an abalone-dashi gelée - This was an exceptional dish, one that demonstrated chef Kinch’s deep understanding of Japanese cuisine and simplicity, and how to apply those techniques with local ingredients. With a texture like chawanmushi, room temperature raw-milk panna cotta formed the base of this dish. The panna cotta was covered with a thin layer of transparent abalone gelée. The gelée was delicately salted and dotted with chunks of warm, meaty abalone. This was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve tasted this year.
Albacore tuna, runner beans, crispy bean shell bouillon, lemon verbena, olive oil - This was chef Kinch’s sashimi course in a traditional kaiseki sequence. The tuna was lean but still buttery with an herbal note that grounded the dish to California.
Razor clams – A small bowl of razor clams with wild rice, chrysanthemum and roast chicken gelée, topped with fennel fronds. This was another incredible dish. Chewy, plump grains of wild rice topped with chunks of razor clam whose meaty flavor was enhanced by the roast chicken gelée. The chrysanthemum and fennel fronds added an anise-like herbal dimension that kept each bite interesting. This was a dish that took me back to the rice courses from some of my favorite kaiseki experiences in Japan.
Paired with a 2007 Izadi Viura from Rioja
A summer tidal pool - A David Kinch classic, a dish that has taken on various forms over the years. This was the best version yet. Chunks of Monterey bay abalone, sea urchin, foie gras, local spot prawn, and hinoki mushroom swimming in a beautifully salted dashi broth. It was as if chef Kinch took a list of my favorite Japanese ingredients and combined them into one dish. This was a simple dish with a very complex flavor; sweet sea urchin and prawns, buttery foie gras, meaty abalone and earthy hinoki combined into a broth of absolute perfection. This is a dish where chef Kinch exercised culinary restraint, letting a simple dashi broth serve as the clean canvas for the natural flavors of the sea.
Paired with a 2009 COS Rami 50% insolio and 50% grecanico from Sicily IGT
Into the vegetable garden - A handpicked showcase of the day’s herbs from Love Apple Farms combined into a beautiful, colorful potpourri. I loved this dish and Kinch’s local interpretation of the gargouillou. This dish was a collection of textures both smooth and crunchy and herbal flavors ranging from sweet to bitter. My only complaint is that it’s a bit awkward to eat these delicate, almost weightless leaves with a full-sized fork and knife; it would have been easier with a pair of fine chopsticks or culinary forceps. This is a dish that connects Manresa to its surroundings, a reminder that California has the finest produce in the country.
Paired with a 2010 Domaine du Salvard Sauvignon Blanc from Cheverny
The meal could have ended right here and it would have been one of my all time favorite dining experiences. The last seven dishes made one of the best sequences in a restaurant I’ve ever had. What came was still outstanding, but of a very different foundation from the first half of the meal. The meal took a turn from Japan and headed back to Europe.
Late season fava beans - A risotto made from late season fava beans with a farm egg, morel mushrooms, and sheep’s milk ricotta. This was a very original, creative dish where the chewy fava beans were cooked to mimic the texture of risotto. The butter and generous salting carried this dish, enhancing the earthiness of the mushrooms. The ricotta thickened the sauce making it really texturally close to a risotto.
Paired with a 2009 Bruno Clair Rosé of Pinot Noir from Marsanny
Monterey bay abalone - A firm medallion of abalone cooked in brown butter topped table-side with a pesto of pickled cucumber and walnut. A few leaves of Malabar spinach added a vegetal, tannic component to the dish. The butter really helped bring out the flavor of the abalone, and the pickled cucumber pesto brightened the meatiness of the shellfish.
Poached halibut - Thick cuts of poached halibut served with thinly sliced young celeriac and romanesco. This was one of my least favorite courses of the night. There was nothing particularly wrong with the dish, but after a heavenly sequence of abalone, razor clams, sea urchin, spot prawn, and foie gras, giant chunks of poached halibut seemed boring. This would have been a great dish as part of a smaller tasting menu, but at this point in the sequence, it didn’t make much sense.
Paired with a 2006 Domaine de la Tournelle Terre de Gryphees Chardonnay from Arbois, France
Suckling porcelet – A generous cut of young pig served with chanterelle mushrooms, apricot-anise purée, courgette velouté, and a pistachio pesto. This was a heavier course and although fatty, the crispy skin really helped diversify the texture; the crunch was the best part of this dish.
Paired with a 2007 Jacques Puffeney Trousseau from Arbois France
Potatoes and duck fat “paillasson” – A crispy hash of potatoes cooked in duck fat, garnished with fennel and turnip. There were also small drops of bitter orange and olive. This was a very balanced dish with almost no oily mouthfeel, despite having been fried in duck fat.
Paired with a 2008 Domaine Maume from Gevrey-Chambertin
Summer berries and cream - Summer berries, both roasted and raw with a lemon cream. Underneath the berries was a bed of açaí granite and yogurt sorbet. This was light and sweet with the cream sauce giving the dish some substance, but the lemon ensuring it tasted bright and refreshing.
Paired with a 2008 Pride Mountain Cabernet Franc from Sonoma County
Chocolate-caramel cremeaux – Dollops of chocolate-caramel cream with fleur de sel ice cream and a popcorn custard. I really don’t like chocolate-flavored desserts (I love pure chocolate) but this was pretty good. Mainly because there wasn’t much bitterness in the chocolate, and the popcorn added a buttery, nutty component that made this really interesting.
Paired with a 2009 Earl Champalou Les Tries de Champalou Chenin Blanc from Vouvray
The cheese cart – Bent river, Blond d’Espèce, Pleasant Ridge reserve, Amarello de beta spacious, Garden Variety’s Moonflower, Gabriel Coulet Roquefort, Redwood Hill’s Bucheret, Chèvriere Cendre, and Cypress Grove Midnight Moon.
We chose a few pieces from the cart: Roquefort, Chevrière cendre (concord grape ash), Gouda-style Midnight moon, Cow’s milk Pleasant ridge reserve, and Bent River.
By this point in the meal, we were left with a gorgeous gradient of wines.
Petits fours - Strawberry pâtes de fruits and chocolate madeleines. We finished the meal much in the same way we started, only with fruit instead of vegetables.
I loved my recent meal at Manresa. The cooking was consistently flawless, and the flavors balanced and delicious. While this was an incredible tasting, the meal really felt like two tastings in a single sitting, one of Japan and one of France and Spain. I’m tempted to return to try the shorter menu next time in hopes that it could be even more focused.
The overall experience was refined and comfortable: this restaurant has really transitioned from a local, neighborhood place to one that deserves a lot more international attention than it’s currently receiving. The restaurant currently has two Michelin stars, but if this isn’t a three star restaurant at this point, I’m not sure what is. In the meantime now is the perfect time to go; I have a funny suspicion the restaurant is about to get a lot busier.