MANRESA AND REFLECTIONS ON AMERICAN HIGH END DINING
One category of restaurants that often disappoints me is high end dining in the States. Contrary to the widely held belief that the US has been catching up with Europe, I think the opposite is the truth. I have some vivid memories of memorable meals in the 1980s in New York at LUTECE (superlative canette for two, blanquette de veau), Le Cirque during the reign on the great Daniel Boulud, early years at restaurant Daniel (I still remember a lunch there in December 1994 when Monsieur Boulud prepared for us a whole menu around pico magnatum), and at LESPINASSE under Gary Kunz. The early years of LE BERNARDIN were also memorable.
California came a little late to the fine dining game, but it did in 1993 when Thomas Keller started the FRENCH LAUNDRY. My first meal at the French Laundry was a year after the opening, i.e., in the spring of 1994, and between 1994 and 2000 I had many great meals there when Tom was at the helm and inspired. Lucky people who have eaten at the French Laundry during the heyday of the restaurant should attest that Mr. Keller combined unerring precise technique with a playful but measured sense of experimentation. The result was often breathtaking, and some of the dishes were truly memorable.
There were, of course, others. In the early 1980s Jean Pierre Doignon cooked some of the best Burgundian dishes outside of Bourgogne. I think his restaurant called LA CHEMINEE in north Tahoe was about on par with the Michelin three star Lameloise.
Unfortunately California was not ready for superlative cooking and wine service outside of San Francisco. (La Cheminee dared to serve crisp, high acid California Chardonnay and cool climate wines rich in minerals, when the norm was oaky, creamy big Chardonnays and high alcohol big reds.) Critics either did not discover or appreciate La Cheminee. The restaurant closed and the two partners (the chef was co-owner with another gentleman, whose name I can’t recall, who was maître d’, chose the wines, and was a very kind person with a noteworthy palette) went their own ways.
The other great chef I know in the States was the late Jean Louis Palladin at WATERGATE. For the lovers of the gutsy cuisine of Southwest France, Jean Louis had an iconic stature. He was a passionate, emotional person, and these characteristics found an echo in his cooking. Consequently, his cooking was not as consistent as, say, the cooking of Keller, but when he hit his marks, he hit very high marks indeed.
Unfortunately all this changed in the 2000s. To me New York is now a gastronomic wasteland in the upper end since the closing of the last great restaurant there, i.e. ALAIN DUCASSE. JEAN GEORGES is a good chef and an excellent saucier who has a very good brasserie that works with average ingredients. LE BERNARDIN is a fine seafood restaurant worthy of one star. MASA is a very good restaurant, and I have no qualm with two stars, but he is really not on par with the best sushi houses in Tokyo. DANIEL is not too consistent nowadays and does not hit high marks for the average diner. My sole meal at PER SE was lackluster and did not compare even with post-Keller French Laundry. David Chang’s KO is intriquing, but I am really puzzled as to how it deserves two stars. The cooking is simply too bold and too fussy to be considered in the great league (but it is certainly recommended for some very tasty dishes, and it deserves one star). MADISON ELEVEN is a fine restaurant, but the chef relies too much on sous vide cooking, and I was underimpressed by the quality of his ingredients. There are always some good dishes and very good ingredients at THE BLUE HILL at the Stone Barns but the chef relies on a too limited range of ingredients, and one feels that dishes become repetitive and boring after a few courses. (He tries to make up for this by using humongous rectangle plates which are 90% empty, with, for example, one asparagus and a painted sauce, but to me this is awkward and amateurish.)
I have eaten quite well at CHARLIE TROTTER in early 1990s, but what I most vividly remember was a great wine service and a sommelier who had impressed me (Larry Stone).
I wrote a review of ALINEA in gastromondiale. Overall, I found the cooking unnecessarily complicated, and some presentations are theatrical. However, the chef is talented, and I am looking forward to another meal there to see how the chef evolves.
I have also tried the new Michelin three star MEADOWOOD in Napa. Some dishes were good, one dish was exceptional, but some were misconceived (like white asparagus and sea urchin). I found desserts to be outrightly bad. I doubt that when Michelin was Michelin this restaurant would have received more than one star.
As far as my pocketbook is concerned, I find spending more than $500 for two in the States in upper end restaurants to be misspent money. There are quite a few restaurants in the States where I eat very well for much less (CHEZ PANISSE is a great restaurant and has been reviewed here), and I miss the New York scene in the early 1990s.
However, there is one exception.
I probably had David Kinch’s cooking in New York at the QUILTED GIRAFFE without knowing he was cooking (how can one forget the “beggar purse”). Then I “re-discovered” him at Sent Sovi in Saragota. Finally he opened Manresa in Los Gatos where he has been cooking for some years now.
The amazing thing about David’s cuisine is the fact that he consistently turns out excellent dishes and his cooking is very consistent, despite slight changes in his style over the years.
I am in a good position to judge the consistency of the food at Manresa. My wife and I have had a total of 12 meals since 2004, and I have nine of his menus with my own notes.
I would like to rely on the six criteria of gastromondiale (we formulated them with my friend Mikael Johnson who now is at the helm of his own restaurant HEDONE in London) to argue that Manresa is a great restaurant.
1. What is the quality and rarity of ingredients?
As far as sourcing for fish, shellfish and greens-vegetables is concerned, Kinch is second to nobody, and on par with Chez Panisse. His meat sourcing, on the other hand, has been erratic and of varying quality. One big plus Kinch has compared to other chefs in California, who often source inexpensive ingredients of exceptional quality is that, Kinch sources some rare and expensive ingredients. Examples range from beluga caviar to spot prawns to amadai to abalone to European-Atlantic turbot to sea urchin to same day picked matsutake mushrooms and sometimes to white and black truffles. At the same time Kinch does not paint the eye of the customer by luxury as he is in constant search to upgrade the quality of inexpensive but rare ingredients. His “into the vegetable garden” course and his “beignets”, deep fried herbs-vegetables, from the organic garden he sources them from, are invariably exciting, multi-dimensional, courses. I have also never seen Kinch serving anything questionable, such as low grade foie gras or canned truffles or wilted greens.
2. How well do preparations respect the used ingredients, how well has the appearance and true flavors of the ingredients been enhanced and with what clarity do the ingredients shine in the preparations?
It is here that David really excels. Many Michelin two to three star chefs today, especially in Spain (the now defunct El Bulli, Can Roca, Arzak, Akelarre, Mugaritz), but also in Italy (the newest three star Osteria Francescana), and also in France (post-2000 Veyrat, Gagnaire) are guilty of not respecting their ingredients. They either try to make a carrot taste like a tomato through techniques, such as morphing, or they do not respect the texture of an ingredient and go overboard in carrying out their experimentations, or they complicate dishes to much and try to marry discordant flavors, thinking that they are being “creative”.
There is a reaction to all that which is healthy, but does not necessarily result in high-end cooking. That is, some chefs now feel obliged to respect the shape or “raw” tastes of the used ingredients. If the chef is a good shopper, one can eat some tasty dishes as a result, but, in order to create great dishes, the chef should have the discretion to modify ingredients, as long as the result respects the essence of the used ingredients. (There are of course some exceptions to this rule. I have eaten the best examples of San Remo or Denia prawns or langoustines-cigalas-scampi from the Atlantic or Mediterranean in simple restaurants, which cook a la plancha and not in gourmet temples.)
This is where David Kinch truly excels. Over the years he developed a keen sense of how much he should modify a given ingredient, and with what else he should combine it to underline a particular aspect of that ingredient. For example, I have seen him prepare “abalone” in three different ways. (This is a very difficult ingredient to deal with and during the last six months I have seen two very good chefs failing in their preparations: Michael Tusk of Quince in San Francisco and Stephan Jego of L’Ami Jean in Paris on the 7th arrondissement.) David Kinch’s dish: “Raw milk panna cotta with abalone” contrasts beautifully and emphasizes the unique rubbery texture of the abalone. His “Abalone and seaweed persillade, buckwheat” brings out the earthy-meaty aspects, and his “A late autumn tidal pool” is the incarnation of what some call the umami taste, which is achieved by the balance between sweet sea urchin, true dashi with dried tuna, and rich-concentrated abalone.
3. How much of a magic touch of the chef is displayed in the preparations and how well has the chef calibrated and married tastes to achieve greatness?
Somebody recently asked me about what I mean by “balance in the wine”. One can give the pet answer about the interplay between acid-tannin-sugar-alcohol, but the truth is that it is hard to define. Sometimes you encounter ridiculously unbalanced wines. Many wines have far from perfect balance, and rarely does one encounters great balance. Once you drink such a wine, you notice it!
I have never failed to find some dishes with perfect balance and depth during my multiple visits to Manresa. The ability to turn out such dishes on a consistent basis is the hallmark of a “great”, as opposed to a “very good”, chef. Below, under a separate heading, I will list such dishes with their respective dates.
4. What is the level of originality? Is it just a copy, has the chef actually tried to take another’s dish to a new level, or is it a completely new approach with little influence from something that has been done before?
There was once a discussion about the “Arpege farm egg” served in Manresa as an amuse. Some felt that David should not have served the creation of another great chef, Alain Passard.
I think the very opposite is the truth. This is a great dish, and there is no way to re-create the identical version with different ingredients. I like the way chefs pay homage to each other by naming certain dishes after each other. It shows respect for others and self-esteem.
One can actually claim that there is nothing new under the sun, and the search for originality is fraught with dangers and pitfalls. Instead the important thing is for the chef to develop his/her own style by taking into account the ecology and the geography of the region in which he/she is located.
Kinch is one of the very very few chefs in the States who has a style of his own.
There has been some constant and changing elements of this style. What has been constant is his love of earthy-forest flavors. His cooking is almost the opposite of the “food candy” approach I notice more in America than elsewhere. David always searches for some umami-salty-earthy flavors, and he loves to combine them by emphasizing their complementarity, rather than by painting bold strokes of truly contrasting flavors.
The result is mostly satisfactory, but not always. For example when David complements Iranian caviar with buckwheat and Brillat Savarin cheese, one cannot fault him for the cerebral approach, but my taste buds feel that something is missing to balance the discordant flavors.
But this example is the exception, not the rule. Combinations are well thought out and precisely executed. This is especially the case with seafood. “Terre et mer” dishes are now the craze of the day, and many inedible examples in fancy restaurants abound. David was practicing great examples of such dishes before they become “a la mode”.
The evolution of David’s cuisine is towards incorporating more ideas and cooking techniques from kaiseki style Japanese cuisine. Certainly he is not alone in doing this, and one can hardly find any multistarred chef in Europe today who is not inspired by Japanese cooking one way or another. But the problem is that, as my most recent meal at MUGARITZ has proved, experiments with textural components of the food and so called infusions, modeled after the Japanese approach to dashi, often result in awkward cooking and inedible food.
David Kinch certainly has not fallen into the trap of emulating Japan without understanding the philosophy of Japanese cooking. He has worked in a first rate kaiseki house in Kyoto; he is a true lover of the best sushi in Tokyo; and he interacts with Japanese chefs. Consequently, he is well aware of the limits and pitfalls Western chefs face when working with very different ingredients. Consequently when he composes dishes, such as “Shellfish with chestnut and rice, roast chicken jelly”, or “Crab with avocado and almond, citrus” (and persimmon), these are certainly not dishes one is likely to encounter in Tokyo or Kyoto, but they will certainly make a Kaiseki master proud if he is served them as part of a Hassun course paying homage to late autumn in his hometown—Los Gatos!
5. Can the dish be improved by adding or substracting an ingredient without completely changing the preparation of the dish?
I define a perfect dish as one from which you cannot subtract or add an element/ingredient without lowering the quality. In this sense, I am quite impressed by David’s non-minimalism, so to speak. That is to say, as a healthy reaction to fussy dishes comprising 10+ elements, modern chefs have been trying to incorporate fewer elements to their compositions and to highlight the clarity and unique taste of these elements. I have no problem with this approach, except at times “simple” becomes “simplistic”. Some dishes just don’t taste profound and multi-dimensional. Often the extra step to make the dish taste profound (for example, a rich broth to flavor a green vegetable) is very time consuming and chefs prefer to take shortcuts or no extra steps at all.
One hallmark of a great cuisine is the ability to fully explore the potential of each ingredient. One benchmark example is Michel Bras’ Gargouillou, where each vegetable is cooked on its own, ensuring that every component in the dish respects its true taste on its own, and where the total result is a symphony of tastes that together enhances the impression of the true tastes by offering all those clear tastes of the garden at the same time.
In that regard, Manresa never ceases to amaze me by creating some perfect and quasi perfect dishes each time I have visited. Kinch pays homage to Bras and always includes his own version of Gargouillou on the menu called “into the vegetable garden…”. This dish is a ‘constant’ in his menu although its composition changes daily. In addition, I have never failed to find a few extraordinary dishes in my visits to Manresa. Below I will cite these dishes.
6. To what extent is the chef able to build a successful flow of the meal?
David’s meals progress beautifully without repetition, and the flow of courses has always been very well thought out. Especially during the last two years, after several visits to Japan, I have been observing even more complementary variation in his cooking techniques. That is, two consecutive dishes, even though they may have some common ingredients, always taste very different.
But Japanese inspiration entails its own cost. Manresa does not achieve a high note at the end of the savory meal. This has often been the case in the past too, since Kinch could never consistently find a great source of red meat and game.
Of course, this is a problem in the States in general. American restaurants, including two and three star restaurants, often fail compared to a simple bistro in France or an osteria in Italy in terms of offering quality internal organs, veal, all kinds of game, good lamb, and suckling pig. Occasionally Kinch finds good wood pigeon (palombe) and cooks nice sweatbread dishes. In my last three visits he offered kid goat, spring lamb, and wild black buck, but none of them made an impression. On the other hand, with the EXCEPTION OF CHEZ PANISSE, which offers first rate Liberty Farm Duck and Goose, Paine Farm Pigeon, Quail, and very good lamb (not on par with what can be found in France and Spain though) from Lewis and Dal Porto ranches, I don’t know any American restaurant which satisfied me with their meat offerings (other than steak, for which I prefer corn fed first for marbling and grass fed for a short time afterwards). Worse still, one cannot find the rich internal organ-abat culture of Europe in the States, because people simply do not order such dishes. At the same time, the internal organs should be eaten very very fresh, and refrigeration should be avoided. David, in the past prepared his own foie gras. He also included cod tripe in some dishes and offered homemade high quality salumi as part of the appetizers. Personally I am missing a high note ending to my meals recently at Manresa.
There is of course a personal stake here. I like to bring one of my favorite Bourgognes to the restaurant, and nothing matches the Bourgoge better than gamey game. I would rather have three less courses at Manresa than to forgo a memorable finish, such as a game tart (L’AMBROISIE, LE CINQ, JADIS, APICIUS in Paris), a duckling for two, a great wagyu steak, true wild venison and wild buck, wood pigeon and pigeon, grouse, woodcock, etc…
Manresa serves very good bread and superb homemade salty butter. In that regard, it is unique in the States and compares with the three star French restaurants.
I had some very good Comte from Bernard Anthony and also great Portuguese cheese at Manresa, but recently they have been downplaying the cheese course. To me this is a great pity, as there are now quite a few good seasonal cheeses in the States too.
The dessert course is the weakest part of the meal at Manresa, but this is in general a problem for top end US restaurants. (I consistently eat good desserts at Chez Panisse, because they don’t overreach and stick to the classics.) On my part, I prefer to end my meal there with cheese, seasonal fruit and coffee with a piece of chocolate.
The ambience is always charming and suits the surroundings. Recently they have upgraded it with great success. The room now is airy, comfortable and enchanting. The art pieces are very well selected and suit the creative yet not avant-garde cuisine.
The sense of well-being one experiences at Manresa is enhanced by the style of service. Servers are well trained and can answer specific questions. If they don’t know the answer, they say so, and ask the chef immediately. They combine good will, efficiency, and a restrained sense of passion and pride. It is team work at its best, and the composition of the team beautifully reflects the multi-cultural mosaic of Northern California.
But there is also a sad note.
The dining room has been presided by a gentleman called Michael Kean who unexpectedly and prematurely passed away last Spring. He was also a shareholder in the restaurant. Without exaggeration I should confess that only two dining room directors gave me as much cause to rejoice when I stepped in to their restaurants: the great Monsieur Pascal of the French Laundry in the 1990s and Michael of Manresa. The common thread unifying them was that they exhibited a sense of hospitality and grace that one cannot learn. One is born with it.
Later I learned that Michael Kean was a dancer in his youth. I was not surprised.
As clients of the restaurant, Linda and I will miss him, but we rest assured that his legacy is in good hands and the ballet will continue without missteps untill Kinch retires from an active role.
WINE LIST- SERVICE AND FOOD-WINE MATCHING.
Another big plus of the restaurant is the existence of a first rate sommelier.
Jeff Bareilles, the sommelier, is a kind and intellectual person who has been doing a great job upgrading and enriching the wine list. His choices are very apt given that David’s unique cuisine calls for crisp white wines, high in acidity, and rich in minerality. Personally, if I bring two bottles to the restaurant, one is an aged Austrian Gruner Veltiner (GV) or Austrian or Mosel dry Riesling and the other is a red Bourgogne. The red matches usually with one, or at best two dishes (sometimes David prepare a meaty-fatty fish, such as turbot, and sautees it in hot pan). GV or Riesling marries well with about 50% of the rest of the meal.
So, what I bring, does not match with about 40% of the dishes.
Hence I have been requesting Jeff to match the rest with a glass of wine.
This is one possible approach.
The other approach is to not BYO wine and give “carte blanche” to Jeff.
The first approach works beautifully. For example, one day I brought 1989 Knoll Gruner Veltiner and 1990 Rousseau Chambertin. Jeff supplemented them with 2006 Domaine du Salvard, Cheverny, 2004 L. Boillot Pommard les Fremiers, 2003 GB Burlotto Barolo and 2002 Clos Saron Cuvee Mysterieuse Sierra Foothils.
The second approach works quite well. Besides Diebolt-Vallois Blanc, which is an interesting terroir Champagne that matches most amuses, Jeff makes ample use of earthy-high acid-minerally non-Chardonnay whites which accentuate but do not dominate Kinch’s subtle, complex, very precisely seasoned creations.
The only problem perhaps is that Jeff feels obliged to include some California red wines in his pairings, which dominate the very thinly cut and rather modern style-minimally sauced meat offerings. Non-elegant-robust reds, such as Kathryn Kennedy Cabernet Sauvignon (2000 and 2003), and over-extracted unbalanced reds, such as 2006 Vinoce Cabernet Franc, should be more apt with candy-crowd pleasing food that made some Californian restaurants famous, such as Mustard’s . (This is not to say that no California wine should be included. I was especially elated by Jeff’s choice of a Calera Aligote in my last visit, which brought out the earthy beauty of David’s “into the vegetable garden.”)
BEST DISHES OVER THE LAST SEVEN YEARS.
Below, I list what I have starred in the nine menus I have kept, implying that they are 19-20/20 dishes in gastromondiale criteria.
December 23, 2004: Parmesan churros (amuse), Turbot with mushrooms “vineuse”, Tasting of suckling pig…..trotters with foie gras.
September 15, 2005: Jeremy’s fennel salumi (amuse), Mi-cuit of foie gras and pickled pig’s trotters (amuse), Sweet corn croquettes (amuse), Onion and foie gras royale (amuse), Japanese bass with shellfish with sofrigit “saffron-anchovy”, our chocroute with boudin noir, local strawberries with 50 year old balsamico. MY BEST MEAL AT MANRESA.
May 9, 2006: Oyster in urchin jelly, nori croustillant (amuse), Salt fish tripe and shellfish pil-pil, arugula, sweetbreads roasted whole, asparagus with morels.
December 30, 2006: Prawn roe tartlettes, salted butter (amuse), Cauliflower with abalone, anchovy…romanesca and foie gras royale (amuse), consommé of caviar, laitue de mer, roast turbot with meat juices, truffles.
December 28, 2007: Golden beggar’s purse (amuse), Amadei and crab, sashimi style, with soy sauce and sesame, true cod and its tripe pil-pil, water and beach herbs, wood pigeon roasted in winter savory salt, cereals.
December 26, 2008: Citrus and Jasmine tea jelly (amuse)
December 29, 2010: Chestnut braised with kelp, abalone with avocado.
April 13, 2011: Raw milk panna cotta with abalone (amuse), Roasted egg yok and asparagus, caviar, Black Cod, onion-marrow broth with chervil, smoked lentil.
December 22, 2011: Raw milk panna cotta with abalone (amuse), Bay scallops, white truffles with brussel sprouts, A late autumn tidal pool.
CONCLUSION: Manresa is the best Western style fine dining restaurant in America. Chef Kinch always achieves a high level of cooking characterized by exemplary consistency. Dishes which comprise his tasting menus never fall below the ‘good’ and ‘very good’ marks and in each meal one also encounters superlative courses. While chef Kinch composes well-balanced and multi-dimensional dishes, he also knows how to build a well thought out flow of a meal without repetition. Chef Kinch’s recent incorporation of Japanese cooking philosophy in this regard is a double edged sword. While he is now able to create perhaps multi-faceted and nuanced courses, he is also sacrificing some intense flavors which set him apart from other celebrity chefs in America. Ironically this shift in cooking should earn him the three stars from the guide Michelin that he long merited, since it is more in line with the norms of the day and David Kinch incorporates Japanese philosopy in his cooking better than any other American chef.