December 24, 2012 – Manresa is not a restaurant; it’s an artist’s colony. Chef David Kinch and his kitchen staff present food as art at the warmly intimate restaurant in Los Gatos, California. The front of house staff, overseen by general manager Bobi Adle and maitre d’ Esteban Garibay, presents service as art. My wife and I found ourselves seated happily as this talented staff created a mélange of colors, shapes, aromas and tastes that swirled through the room to make its way to the table in front of us.
Our Christmas Eve tradition at Manresa started last year when we found ourselves sans children on the night before Christmas. Manresa purports to offer a five course prix fixe menu on Christmas Eve though they deliver far more. We left the restaurant that Christmas Eve of 2011 already looking forward to the 2012 holiday. And sure enough Christmas Eve 2012 found us being greeted as returning family members by the staff.
While we read over the menu as calmly as two children locked in an ice cream truck, we ordered cocktails from the creative selection of original libations created by the bar staff. Bryan, our congenial waiter, brought my wife a Shizuka, an extraordinary gin and tonic enhanced with muddled cucumber and mint-like shiso leaves, aloe juice and a little Green Chartreuse. I opted for Mr. McGregor’s Garden, a variation on a Pimm’s Cup, one of my favorite cocktails. In the Manresa version, strawberries are muddled with the traditional cucumber and with cherry and lemon bitters before being mixed with Pimm’s #1 and corn whiskey. A Pimm’s Cup is always refreshing; the Manresa version even more so.
As we sipped our cocktails, we sampled the Manresa bakery’s sourdough French bread, perfectly thick-crusted with a soft tangy center, and small, individual baguettes, both with a bit of salted butter. Knowing that Chef de Cuisine Jessica Largey was preparing wonderful delights for us we tried to go easy on the bread but it was a challenge.
And then the first course showed up, a broccoli royale with a shallow pool of chicken veloute’ floating on top, the whole thing set off by a small quail’s egg of caviar. As with each dish placed in front of us through the evening this one was so beautifully arranged, so artfully drawn, that it seemed almost a sin to destroy it by eating. But, heartless as it may seem, not eating it was out of the question.
A veloute’ was included by the great chef Auguste Escoffier among the five “mother sauces” of French cooking. In this case the frothy chicken veloute’ perfectly “mothered” the delicate broccoli custard, the caviar adding a welcome touch of saltiness. The tasting was every bit as lovely as was the visual.
The second course arrived with the same conflict between the visual and the tasting. Again the tasting won out. The soft egg laid over a bit of toasted brioche with just a hint of bacon and slivers of black truffle scattered over all, was blissful. The flavor strength contributed by the pocket of excellent shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano tucked under a corner of the egg elevated the softness of its companion ingredients to a new level.
Then we came to the third course. Bryan had asked if we had any food allergies. We told him we had no food allergies. Well, neither of us can eat scallops but other than that we have no food allergies. Unfortunately the centerpiece of the third course was, wouldn’t you know it, a roasted scallop. We told Bryan that we were aware of the fixed menu when we made the reservation and we really didn’t want to impose on the kitchen for any special treatment. He told us not to worry about it.
A few minutes later he was back to set before each of us a roasted piece of Atlantic cod served with slices of Asian pear and crisped leaves of Brussels sprouts, the whole seasoned by a bit of thyme. Christmas was getting merrier.
Brussels sprouts are one of our favorite vegetables but neither of us had ever tried the crisped individual leaves. They were excellent. That wonderful Brussels sprouts flavor that we love was there in more than hints and the crispiness of the leaves played well with the tenderness of the fish.
The main entrée course, a perfectly roasted sampling of beef, arrived lying on a bed of spinach, accompanied by chunks of pine mushrooms, the whole seasoned with a sauce flavored by Meyer lemon. The pine mushrooms, known in Japan as matsutake, are prized for their distinctive spicy aroma and meaty texture and taste, perfect foils for the beef and spinach. Pine mushrooms, once plentiful in Japan, are now rare there but in recent years have been harvested in the Pacific Northwest, including northern California. After tasting them at Manresa we’re hopeful that they will begin to show up more often on restaurant tables.
As though he knew we were approaching sensory overload with the wonderful succession of dishes he had been bringing us, Bryan gave us a short break with a cheese course. He brought us four cheeses, a Brie, a Camembert-type cheese, an unpasteurized version and a goat’s milk gouda. The unpasteurized cheese was my favorite because the flavor continued to bloom and increase in intensity in your mouth for some time after it had been ingested.
Dessert was as celestial as the earlier courses. A chestnut cake accompanied by brown butter ice cream, with a bit of cassis jam and a chocolate caramel sauce drizzled over the whole. The dish was impishly decorated with a twirl of dried cassis jam, making the dessert not only delicious but fun. I was reminded of David Suchet, portraying Agatha Christie’s immortal Hercule Poirot, smiling daintily as he sipped a tiny glass of cassis, his favorite black currant liqueur. My wife and I were smiling, too, as we enjoyed the Manresa treatment of the sweet cassis influenced dessert .
But we weren’t done yet. Five courses at Manresa never means only five courses. We’d already had six courses when you include the cheese plate. Now Bryan brought us a small plate of mignardises, small tidbits of sweetness, in this case chocolate.
We stopped for a moment to wish the best of the season to Bobi Adle. He asked if we’d like to visit the kitchen and, of course, we leaped at the opportunity. I have visited kitchens in other restaurants and have found them usually to be exercises in chaos. Not so at Manresa. Chef Largey was overseeing one of the calmest, best organized kitchens I have ever seen, a fine example of restaurant management.
And as if all that we had eaten and all that we had experienced wasn’t enough, as we left the restaurant the hostess held out to us a bowl of the wonderful soft butterscotch candies that we remembered from the year before. I dropped a couple into my pocket; my wife put three in her purse. All five were gone before we went to bed that night.
Happy New Year to Chef Kinch, Chef Largey, Bobi, Esteban, Bryan and all the staff at Manresa. See you next Christmas Eve!