Before leaving for California, I did some research and was excited to find Manresa, which is consistently on top 10 lists, including epicurious.com‘s top 10 farm-to-table restaurants in the US. Logistically, it would have made sense to eat at Manresa on our first night driving the coast, as it is a hour plus drive south of San Francisco. But, Manresa is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays which is when we would have been passing by, so we drove there and back from Christina’s apartment where we were staying in SF.
The service at Manresa is flawless. From the minute you enter the restaurant you feel welcome and well taken care of, and not at all in a overbearing way. The menu is structured such that you have two choices: order any four of the courses on the menu, which change daily, or order the chef’s tasting menu. We went with the four courses, and were very happy with our choice (not wanting to sit forever, and also knowing that we had a lot of eating ahead of us in the days to come).
The food was beautiful. Usually I’m not into overly-composed dishes with lots of fancy garnishes, but something about the food at Manresa transcended all of that. It was quite composed, but still managed to feel approachable and non-pretentious. Every bite was a pleasure, and sometimes a surprise. It was the first time in a while that I felt truly challenged thinking about what ingredients must have gone into each dish.
After we ordered, we were presented with two amuse-bouches. The first was a strawberry gazpacho, served in a shot glass. I had never had strawberry in a savory preparation before, and was surprised at how well the flavor went with whatever spices were used (I think there was some onion in there as well). My only complaint here would be that I didn’t have a small spoon to scrape out the thick layer of soup that remained stuck to the glass.
For our second amuse, an Arpege egg arrived with a small demitasse spoon. Made with vinegar and finished with maple syrup, the egg came served in an egg shell that was perfectly decapitated. (When I visited the Per Se kitchen, I saw one of the chefs prepping egg shells for a similar sort of dish.) Our server instructed us to make sure we dug deep into the shell so as to get the many layers of flavors in each bite. Once you plunged your spoon in, the egg’s runny yolk mixed with the sour or the vinegar and the sweet of the maple syrup. Dave summed it up well when he said, “I’ve never tasted anything like this before.”
Due to the fact that the menu changes daily (unlike most restaurants where I can easily access the menu online as I write), I’m a little hazy on the exact descriptions of some of the dishes, but I will try my best to report what was in them.
I started with a summer squash and zucchini “risotto,” garnished with crispy mushrooms. The dish was made, not with rice, but with very finely cubed pieces of zucchini and squash. Each cheesy bite was better than the next. As I ate, all I could think about was the poor intern (or maybe cook) who had to fine brunoise (a cut that yields uniform cubes that are 1/16″ cubed) the vegetables for the dish.
Dave’s first dish was a summer bass, served sashimi style.
Next, I had mixed seafood in a young tomato broth, garnished with a stunning array of edible flowers. The broth in this dish was a revelation, it was light and flavorful in a tangy, yet sweet, way. My best guess is that it was made with dashi and the guts scraped out of a green tomato.
Dave’s second course was the season’s first albacore, served with sea urchin and hazelnuts. Dave’s favorite course of the night, it was “almost rare, and practically melted in your mouth.”
For my final savory course I had the chicken breast. It came with deliciously soft pieces of squash and some micro greens. I tried very hard to determine what the green flaky garnish was; my best guess is something with shiso, but I’m not sure.
Dave had the Napa Valley spring lamb and tongue confit, served with cranberry beans and a yogurt sauce. His least favorite of his courses, Dave described it as a, “woodland forest meal.”
For dessert I ordered “A tribute to New Orleans:” a piece of pecan bar topped with a caramelized banana and some chicory ice cream. It also came with a side of beignets. The highlight was certainly the banana, as well as the pecan cake. I thought that the beignets were not at all what they are supposed to be, too airy in the middle, with little flavor.
Dave had the hazelnut and cocoa tart with bitter chocolate sorbet and beet granita. Dave said that the chocolate sorbet was the best part, with its deep chocolate flavor. The beet granita made the dish quite unique.
At the end of our meal we were invited to see the kitchen (I don’t know if this is something they offer to everyone or not, Dave thinks it was because I was taking photos or maybe because our server overheard me saying I wanted to). It was smaller than I expected, but very clean and well-organized. The head chef was not in that day, but everyone else was busy at work, plating and cooking. The visit to the kitchen was the icing on what was already a very impessive cake.
On our way out, the host was talking to us about our trip, and took the time to write down some restaurant recommendations in the towns where we were stopping along the coast. Again, that just rounded off the already wonderful service.
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