First a caveat: I worked for David Kinch 8 years ago as his pastry chef in his first restaurant, Sent Sovi, which he sold to open up Manresa. In execution and style, Sent Sovi is to Manresa what Trio is to Alinea. That is to say that what I did eight years ago has little relationship to what is coming out of the kitchen today.
There's been a lot of hype around David Kinch's recent acquisition of two Michelin stars in the recent SF/Bay Area Michelin Guide for his restaurant Manresa
. These stars are not without merit -- Kinch has been cooking in the bay area for well over 20 years, refining his own type of cuisine that has been called "French Californian" and alternately "New American". Whatever it is called, it is simple, well-prepared and elegant.
When I made my reservation and checked in, I decided to dine anonymously - I didn't want to make a big to-do about my dinner and, since I hadn't been in touch with Kinch since I left, I didn't want to create an awkward situation. I shouldn't have been so paranoid...I was recognized and greeted by one of the servers who told me, too late, that Kinch was gone for the night.
We were seated by a fireplace, in the corner of the dining room. The dining room had music piped in, which I found distracting, and one of my dining companions found disagreeable. I'm of the school that shuns music for silence in places where food is center stage. The room is rather noisy, with little to buffer the sound when the dining room is full.
One pleasant feature was a 'candle place' -- a fireplace that, instead of fire, had a warmly glowing row of candles:
We opted for the four-course prix fixe, which was $85 plus $52 for wine pairings.
The first amuse buche to come out was liquid foie gras.
The idea was straight out of Molecular Gastronomy 101: cubes of deep-fried 'essence' that burst in the mouth. Unfortunately, the crust was thick, too thick for the subtlety of the foie essence.
The next course was a Maine oyster (I forget the exact provenance) with a thimble of uni in an uni gelee.
This was quite lovely, although the textural contrast was minimal. The uni gelee was light and contrasted nicely with the briney oyster.
My first course was a 'farm' egg with potatoes and spinach with a $65 upcharge for fresh shaved white truffles. I used to hate white truffles. Back when I was doing my culinary school internship at Hamerley's Bistro in Boston, I had a scallop dish on my station that required five perfect shavings of white truffles before it was sent out. Entrusted with the white truffles and the shaver, I always helped myself to a shave or two before service to 'train my palate'. Later, at Sent Sovi, I made a 'white truffle and port' ice cream for New Year's Eve - and in the process of tasting my sample, grew to despise the overpriced tuber.
I figured Manresa, 9 years later, was as good a place as any to try to reverse the spell:
It was wonderful -- there were contrasts in texture and temperature and flavor, and it came together perfectly. Just one minor adjustment would have made it even better - the inclusion of something crunchy.
My dining companions all order the sweet onion and brioche soup, which was poured from a cast iron tea pot over a small piece of cheese (not remembering what it was). It was sweet and silky:
My next course was a shellfish risotto with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. The fish/parm thing struck me as unorthodox (or verboten, depending or where you are in the world) but did, in fact, work.
I enjoyed squab for my main course. It was served with 'forgotten fall vegetables', which were explained to me as root vegetables grown in Kinch's biodynamic garden (the word 'biodynamic' appeared on the menu in quotes in the description of another dish, which my dining companions found absurd. I guess quotes weren't really necessary). It was served rare.
One of my companions had salmon. Those fried cubes on the side are an oyster-based essence, encased in a 'croquette', that are meant to be broken and used as sauce for the dish:
Another companion had the pork porcetta (stuffed loin):
And there was the Artic Char with chanterelles:
I think I liked mine the best. It was very simple and well prepared.
Dessert was more limited, but significantly more sophisticated than anything Kinch had served at Sent Sovi.
The Chocolate Marquise with pistachio cream was tasty, although my companions didn't like the addition of salt to the pistachio cream. I thought it offset the chocolate rather nicely.
The cheese plate broke my heart - so much so that I did not take the picture. My desire to become a cheesemonger came out of my time plating the cheese course (composed) at Sent Sovi. Until I took my first cheese job, everything I knew about cheese was gleaned on the job working for David Kinch. The Manresa cheese plate was nothing to write home about. There were three cheeses -- Shropshire Blue, Boucheron (!!!!), and Gran Canaria. The Gran Canaria was the only notable cheese on the plate (and one which I really do not care for). The others? Pft!
There was a lovely petit four plate served on a small flagstone tray that appeared after our desserts had been cleared. I must have been delirious as I forgot to take the picture.
We did go back into the kitchen where some of the pastry chefs were putting together a small petit four plate:
Apparently the full tasting menu has many more courses and is much more adventurous than the prix fixe menu we ordered. We saw intermezzos go out to other tables as well as other small treats we did not get to try that looked rather interesting.
While everything was delicious, I'll admit that Alinea has spoiled me and raised my expectations to such a degree that almost anything less is a disappointment. The food was good, the service was good, the dining room was pleasant. But I guess those two Michelin stars made me think that the food would be non plus ultra
(considering that the third star is usually tied to service, dining room, china, a view).
I realize that I have left out all mentions of the wine we had paired with the dishes. That was a disappointment. While the pairing itself was expert, the wine was not remarkable or noteworthy. The pours were very small, although toward the end they did not hesitate to refill once a glass was drained.
Would I go back? Maybe, but I would first want to try other restaurants around the bay area who also have good word of mouth but may not have earned high (or any) accolades from the folks at Guide Michelin.
Manresa is a marked improvement over Sent Sovi, no doubt about it. The restaurant's kitchen is large and impressive, the food is much more ambitious, the dining room more refined. Is it one of the top restaurants in the world, as a recent UK paper once claimed? I can't imagine that it is. But as they say, de gustibus non disputandum est