Christmas Eve at Manresa

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!

 

Ceiba

December 10, 2012 – It’s the sauces that make the food at Ceiba, the popular Latin American restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Named for the ubiquitous trees found in tropical climates that can reach 80 feet or more with buttress roots that can be taller than a man, Ceiba is one of seven D.C. restaurants opened in recent years by the Passion Food Restaurant Group.  Well known chef Jeff Tunks is the creative member of the team and has fashioned an elegantly comfortable atmosphere with an enticing menu at Ceiba.

I was to meet two long time colleagues at Ceiba and was the first to arrive.  The watermelon margarita, for which the bar makes its own watermelon puree’, seemed irresistible.  While I waited for the cocktail and for my friends to arrive, the Latin music piped through the restaurant was relaxing, not at all intrusive.  It encouraged a festive feeling that made me smile.

When the watermelon margarita arrived, however, it was a disappointment.  There wasn’t enough taste of watermelon to make it a truly refreshing drink.  It was a good tequila mixer, not a refreshing cocktail.  It was bland.  That seemed, frankly, to be a theme with most of the dishes that arrived in front of me through the evening.  But for the sauces, and the company, it would have been a thoroughly bland meal.

I ordered shredded duck flautas with fresh masa and pepper jack cheese for an appetizer.  The flautas rested in a pool of mojo, a Spanish sauce usually made with olive oil, garlic and citrus.  In this case it was oranges and it was terrific.  The flautas eaten alone were, well, flautas.  Dipped liberally in the mojo they came alive.  My companions both ordered Cuban black bean soup, served with panache.  A bowl containing a ham and cheese croquetta was placed before each of them and the soup ladled on top.  Both seemed pleased.

For an entrée I ordered the slow roasted pork shank cooked in the style of a feijoada, the thick Brazilian stew usually involving rice and beans.  The pork shank was accompanied by collard greens and when a Louisiana boy is offered pork, rice, beans and collard greens resistance isn’t an issue.  The shank was huge and fork tender, laid on a generous nest of black beans and rice with the collard greens adding color to the bowl.

Two small containers were served alongside, one with dry spices, the other with a red sauce.  When I asked the woman who accompanied the service what they were she said the dry one was a thickener, the other a sauce for the meat.  Not much of an answer.  The waiter didn’t know what the “thickener” was but said the red one was a chili sauce.  The dish didn’t need thickening so I left that one alone.  The chili sauce added spice and light to the otherwise disappointingly bland pork, rice and beans.  I asked for more and the waiter said, “You must have a high tolerance.  That stuff is hot.”  Well, I do but it wasn’t.  Mildly spicy.  Not hot.

One of my companions selected crab cakes, the other enchiladas de mariscos.  Mariscos simply means seafood, and in the Latin food context can be most any combination, in this case grilled lobster, rock shrimp and lump crab with jack cheese and accompanied by a roasted corn and poblano salsa.  My friend seemed satisfied with the dish.  The crab cakes were pronounced excellent, high praise in a region known for its crab cakes.

We asked the waiter to bring us the Mexican chocolate and banana mousse cake with three forks.  The cake arrived in a pool of peanut butter anglaise.  The peanut butter variation on this cream-based dessert sauce was so good I could easily have eaten it by the spoonful.  It was the perfect binder for the deep chocolate and light banana flavors of the cake.

Mojo with the duck flautas.  Chili sauce with the braised pork shank.  Peanut butter anglaise with the Mexican chocolate and banana mousse cake.  At Ceiba it’s all about the sauces.

 

 

Brabant Potatoes

December 4, 2012 – The origin of Brabant potatoes is something of a mystery.  They’re a tradition in New Orleans restaurants but it’s not clear when they were first served or by whom.  I’ve heard it said that the dish was created by the Brennan family in the 1950s.  But it’s also been on the menus of Gallatoire’s, Antoine’s and other New Orleans restaurants for many years.  I’ve even heard it said that the name refers to the shape into which the potatoes are cut but I don’t think so.

The name is curious.  Brabant potatoes.  For almost 500 years, until the mid 17th century, Brabant was a duchy in the Holy Roman Empire.  Today the region is split between Belgium and the Netherlands.  So this traditional dish of French and Spanish New Orleans might actually be Belgian.  Or Dutch.  Well, there’s also a Brabant, West Virginia, but that’s probably not in the running.

Brabant potatoes are New Orleans’ version of French fries.  Crispy fried cubes of potato tossed in butter with minced garlic and parsley.  They’re very rich.  Sometimes maybe a little too rich.

When we prepared them in our kitchen as a side dish to steaks, we found that the raw garlic was just a little overpowering.  Though we love garlic, it was too much.  It didn’t really compliment the steak but detracted from it.  So we experimented.  We wanted to retain that traditional garlicky quality of the dish but see if we could prepare it in a way that it was a little more subtle, a little more complimentary to meat.

We decided to roast the garlic.  We chopped and mashed the roasted cloves, then mixed them with the clarified butter and chopped parsley.  When we dressed the crispy fried potato cubes with this mixture we got a deliciously smooth, mildly garlicky dish.  We served the potatoes with a roasted lemon chicken and the combination was perfect.

So here’s our version of Brabant potatoes.

 Brabant Potatoes

 Peanut oil                                                                     1 head of garlic, roasted

3 potatoes, peeled & cut into 1/2” cubes                       ¼ C parsley, chopped

½ C clarified butter                                                        Salt & pepper to taste

To clarify butter:  Melt a stick of butter in a small saucepan over very low heat.  Let it cool for five or ten minutes.  Skim the milk solids from the surface.  If you have a thin mesh strainer, use it to remove any remaining milk solids.  What’s left is clarified butter.

To roast garlic: Preheat the oven to 400.  Remove the tough outer husk of the garlic leaving the cloves still attached and with their individual skins intact.  With a sharp knife slice off about a quarter of an inch of the head, just so the tops of the individual cloves are exposed.  Rub a little olive oil on the exposed top of each clove.  Wrap the head of garlic in aluminum foil and roast in the oven for about half an hour.

To cook the potatoes:  Fill a heavy bottomed skillet with about an inch of oil.  Heat the oil until it registers 350 on a candy thermometer.  Leave the thermometer in the oil and monitor it through the cooking process to keep the oil as close to 350 as possible.

Add the potatoes to the hot oil and cook until the cubes are brown and crisp, ten to 15 minutes.  Monitor the temperature of the oil as well as the progress of the browning and crisping through the cooking process so as to avoid overcooking.  The potatoes should be crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.  When they’re done, use a slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes to a plate lined with paper towels to let them drain for just a few minutes.

Squeeze each clove of roasted garlic from its skin.  Chop and mash the cloves, then mix them with the clarified butter and chopped parsley.

In a large bowl, toss the potatoes thoroughly with the butter, garlic and parsley mixture.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Bon temps!

Cooper Landing

August 21, 2012 – The view from the porch is spectacular.  The porch fronts a cabin in Cooper Landing on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula where every view is spectacular.   But none more so than this one.

B.A. had called me earlier in the week to invite me down to his family’s cabin.  We’re old friends, B.A. and I.  It had been a while since we’d had the time to just sit and talk, to share a bottle of wine and laugh at everything and nothing.  Now I stood on the porch looking down on the green glacial waters of the Kenai River, remembering other visits in years past, floating the river with B.A. at the oars, the thrill of reeling in a fighting silver salmon, a warm fire and a cold martini at the end of the day.

I had to go back to Anchorage the next morning and B.A. was going to stay at the cabin for a day or two so we drove down separately.  I left early in the afternoon for a lazy drive down the Seward Highway, one of the world’s most scenic roads.  Driving south, the highway is squeezed between the waters of Turnagain Arm on the right and the Chugach Mountains on the left.  The road crosses the mountains at Turnagain Pass and splits just south of Summit Lake with the eastern route continuing on to Seward.  To the west it winds alongside the mountains to Cooper Landing and then on to Kenai, Soldotna and Homer.

I stopped for a few minutes at the 20 Mile River near Portage where the hooligan run in the spring.  Hooligan are a smelt-like fish, sometimes called candle fish because their meat is so full of oil.  They’re a favorite meal for Beluga whales and people alike. Delicious the way my mother used to cook’em up, fried in a corn meal batter with French fries and hush puppies on the side.

The Belugas chase the hooligan up Turnagain Arm every spring.  If the little fish make it to the 20 Mile River they can duck into the shallow water and escape the whales.  Unfortunately for them there will be a line of people with dip nets waiting at the river.  It’s not easy being a hooligan.

B.A. had left Anchorage after I did but I had lingered along the way so long that he was only a few minutes behind me getting to the cabin.  Now he was in the house putting some things away and getting other things out, prepping our dinner.  And I was standing on the front porch mesmerized by the flow of the river far below.

B.A.’s parents, Buster and Eleanor, found this piece of land in 1966, a breathtaking home site, high on a hill overlooking the river.  The house went up sometime in the ‘80s. Buster and Eleanor spent much of their time here after they retired.  I wondered how many evenings they had spent together watching the river rushing by.

It’s a picture post card perfect Alaska log cabin right down to the old fashioned cache on the far side of the driveway.  When I arrived in Alaska as a boy the cache, set high on upended logs, was a common sight.  Some were still in use in those days, storing food in the cold Alaska night out of reach of bears and other freeloaders.  Now there’s a far more efficient refrigerator in the house but it’s comforting to see the old cache standing ready for duty if called.

Dinner with B.A. is always memorable.  I like to experiment in the kitchen and sometimes get lucky. He makes magic happen with food and a fire.  Tonight he was preparing coals in the grill, a large tray sitting alongside holding a slab of red salmon, a couple of potatoes he had sliced in half, a bunch of asparagus and a peach, also sliced in half. 

While he tended the grill I poured the wine.  We sat on the porch listening to the salmon sizzle on the coals and talked of old adventures and new challenges, laughing at jokes whether they were funny or not because jokes were more fun than serious stuff.  Sometimes we just sipped wine and listened to the salmon sizzle.

Dinner was served in the cabin’s sun room.  It was very simple, very Alaskan and very good.  Salmon has such a wonderful flavor all its own.  The best way to prepare it is as unadorned as possible.  Grilled with butter, in this case spiked with a little sundried tomato and roasted red pepper, is perfect.

We moved inside after dinner and opened a couple more bottles of wine.  Two large windows overlooking the river allowed us that magnificent view without the chill already beginning to creep into the air on a late August Alaska evening.  Above the windows the racks of two Dall sheep looked down on us.  “The big one on the right is mine,”  B.A. told me, matter of factly.  “The one on the left is my dad’s.”  Same story with the two mountain goat racks and the two black bearskins.  The other two racks, a roebuck from Bavaria and a chamoix from France, were Buster’s.

We listened to Willie,  Dr. John and old John Cash, opened more wine and talked late into the night about nothing in particular.  Sometime around two o’clock, or maybe three, I fell asleep on the couch.  B.A. was still sitting in a chair across the room, wineglass in hand, watching the river flow by.