As famous as David Kinch’s two-Michelin-starred Manresa may be among hard-core American food freaks and chefs, it seems to be still more revered by European and Asian gourmands, at least based on my anecdotal evidence. Located in Los Gatos, just south and west of San Jose and in the heart of Silicon Valley, it is a true destination restaurant because there’s little else in the area to attract the attention of—much less a visit from—most dining buffs. In fact, it seems that even for Bay Area wine and food hobbyists, Manresa is more myth than reality: I’ve been amazed over the years by how many of my acquaintances in northern California know Manresa without ever having actually had a meal there. So too with me until last month, when I had the first of what I hope will be many dinners there (pesky issues like money notwithstanding).
The food at Manresa is emphatically seasonal and local, relying heavily on produce from Love Apple Farms, an organic and biodynamically farmed operation close by in Santa Cruz. Vegetables (and local seafood) play a huge part on Manresa’s menus, which change monthly, and I’m hard pressed to think of any other restaurant in the U.S. that I’ve visited that prepares and presents them to such stunning effect.
The 49-year-old Kinch has some serious culinary bona fides. He followed up culinary school by working briefly in France and then for four years at New York’s legendary Quilted Giraffe, followed by a stint as chef at Silks in San Francisco, with consulting work in Japan. He then returned to Europe and spent two years working at Michelin star-bedecked restaurants in Germany (Schweizer Stuben), France (L’Esperance) and Spain (Akelare). His strongest influences, though, are the French chefs Alain Passard, of L’Arpege in Paris, and Michel Bras. Kinch himself has begun to spawn disciples, most notably former chef de cuisine James Syhabout of Oakland’s superb Commis, which I’ve reviewed in the past and consider one of the best restaurants in the country.
The Michel Bras influence comes through loud and clear in Kinch’s signature “Into the Vegetable Garden . . . ” dish, which is the one constant on Manresa’s menu. It’s an hommage to Bras’ famous “Gargouillou,” a sort of composed salad of up to 60 different individually prepared vegetables, flowers and herbs. I picked out over 40 different items on my plate (I was solo, so I have an excuse) before I lost track and got hungry. It’s the single most impressive dish I’ve eaten, anywhere, in some time.
Other standout dishes from the 15 I sampled were Belon Oysters with Meyer Lemon and Kohlrabi Choucroute, Dungeness Crab in Fennel Jelly, and Abalone and Artichokes with Kelp, Farro and Buttermilk. I was poured complimentary glasses of Ployez-Jacquemart’s excellent Extra-Quality Brut with my starter, since the bottle of 2010 Gérard Boulay Chavignol Clos de Beaujeu I ordered was off-site and needed to be fetched and chilled. The Sancerre ($70) turned out to be a great match with all the vegetable and seafood courses, as Kinch’s food is especially suited to strongly mineral, unoaked wines.
For the richer seafood and meat courses, including Farm Chicken and Chicken Leg Civet with Roasted Lettuces and Radicchio and an amazing Thinly Sliced Beef in Shank and Marrow Broth and Cabbage dish, I drank the 2010 Jacques Puffeney Trousseau Les Berangères ($75), which had the elegance and lightness to go down easily but the flavor intensity to stand up to the beef. All the food at Manresa, even the red meat course, is delicate and highly nuanced, so I suggest sticking to wines of similar character. This is the time for pinot, gamay, nebbiolo, trousseau and so forth rather than larger-scaled reds that will overwhelm what’s on your plate.
Manresa isn’t cheap. There are two menus offered: the classic prix fixe at $125, with a wine pairing option for $79, and “Seasonal and Spontaneous” at $175, with an optional wine pairing for $98. Premium wine pairings are also available for both menus, at $115 and $175, respectively. The wine list goes as crazy and high-end as you can imagine (this is Silicon Valley, and Manresa is the go-to spot for deal closings and wow-the-client dinners) but I was greatly impressed by what was available for under $100; steer clear of the high-roller Bordeaux, Côte d’Or and Napa sections of the list and you can drink extremely well for very fair prices. Twenty wines are always available by the glass, with another twenty chosen each day to match up with that night’s menu tweaks. Corkage is also available at $50 a bottle, which is waived if a bottle is purchased from the list.
Manresa, 320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA; 408-354-4330. www.manresarestaurant.com