Saturday, November 22, 2008

Manresa (Los Gatos, CA)

320 Village Ln, Los Gatos, CA 95030
Sat 11/22/2008, 05:30p-07:15p

I had two dinners in the Bay Area. For the first, I chose Coi in San Francisco. For the second, I ventured further south, to a restaurant nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains: Manresa, a showcase for Chef/Proprietor David Kinch's French- and Spanish-influenced contemporary California cuisine. I'd been interested in paying Manresa a visit for at least a couple of years, so would the place live up to my admittedly high expectations?

Manresa is located in Los Gatos' quaint downtown area, surrounded by a smattering of chic, upscale businesses. In its former life, the building was known as the Village House, a landmark tea room and restaurant.

The main dining room is luxurious yet inviting, while retaining a casual California vibe that matches the residential theme of the restaurant.

Diners are presented with two options: a four-course prix fix, or roughly 15-course tasting menu. We, of course, opted for the tasting at $155 per person. Since the tasting menu is not presented on the standard menu, we requested a typed out copy of the night's dishes (third photo). Click for larger versions.

Here we see the wines by the glass list. Click for a larger version. I had:
  • NV Sekt, Solter Riesling Rheingau [$14.00] - I liked this sparkler, with its delicious citrus and apple nose, with like flavors on the palate. A tiny bit sweet, and very drinkable.
  • 2005 Chenin Blanc, Château D'Epire Cuvée Spéciale Savennières [$16.00] - A light, refreshing wine, with lots of lemon on the nose, leading to a dry, minerally finish. Nice.
  • 2005 Tempranillo, Bodegas Victoria "Pardina" Cariñena [$14.00] - Lots of smoke and spice on this one initially, leading to more subtle expressions of cherry and minerals. A bit tight, perhaps it'd benefit from some more bottle time. Good, not great.
  • Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise [$10.00] - Unfortunately I forgot the vintage here, but I found this surprisingly light for a dessert wine. Quite good, with a lovely nose of apple and flowers, leading to plenty of honey and raisin on the palate.

One type of bread was offered: a homemade levain bread served with unsalted butter, topped with salt. The bread had a soft center, bound by an extremely flaky, smoky crust, which left a huge mess of crumbs on the table!

Petit Fours 1: "Red Pepper-Black Olive"
We started with roasted red pepper gelées and black olive madeleines. The gelées were nicely dense and chewy, but the madeleines really stole the show, with their warm, rich centers surrounded by slightly tough exteriors. I could eat them all day.

Amuse Bouche 1: Horchata and Lightly Toasted Parsnip
The horchata was topped with tonka bean, which had a lovely spice and chocolate aroma that worked wonderfully with the horchata's milky sweet spiciness. Very good.

Amuse Bouche 2: Chestnut Croquettes
Our server described these as "crumeskis(?)," a term I'm not familiar with, and told us to eat them in one bite. The croquettes had a warm liquid chestnut and foie gras center, which made a delightful pop in my mouth when masticated. Amazingly, they had a slightly liqueur-like finish.

Amuse Bouche 3: Arpege Farm Egg
The "Arpege" is a reference to restaurant L'Arpège in Paris and its owner Alain Passard, who ostensibly invented the dish. Kinch's version was topped with sherry vinaigrette and maple syrup, and was wonderful. The first thing I noted was a cool, refreshing, slightly sweet creaminess, followed by the warm runniness of the egg yolk, then followed by a sharp saltiness.

1: Foie Gras, Lightly Smoked, Quince Consommé
Very interesting texture on this one. The foie was, in a sense, halfway between a terrine and a seared preparation. The smokiness imparted to the foie during its cooking nicely balanced the sweetness of the quince, which otherwise would've been overwhelming. One of the better versions of foie gras I've had.

2: Roast Pumpkin Velouté "Blue Hubbard," Nasturtium Ice Cream
This reminded me a bit of the squash soup I had at Coi the previous night. Fortunately, it wasn't quite as sweet, and had a lovely temperature contrast thanks to the nasturtium ice cream. Surprisingly, the velouté didn't really draw attention to itself as I was expecting.

3: Into the Vegetable Garden...Their Natural Juices
Kinch is well-known for his pursuit of top notch ingredients, especially vegetables. This has led to a partnership with Cynthia Sandberg's biodynamic Love Apple Farm, where all of the restaurant's vegetables are grown. A corollary to Coi's "Garden, Late Fall" course, this dish is a seasonally-changing staple of Manresa's menu, and more than any other, is Kinch's heart on a plate. I don't know all the shoots, flowers, roots and seeds that were used here, but my favorite item was the potato. It was a fascinating study in contrasting textures and flavors, heightened by the "dirt" of dehydrated chicory root.

4: An Autumn Tidal Pool, Abalone, Sea Urchin, Foie Gras, Shellfish, Mushroom
The foie gras, along with the mushroom, lent an overarching richness to the soup, not unlike the shabu shabu broth at Urasawa. The other ingredients, specifically the uni and the abalone, were mild on their own, but together, they formed a cohesive dish that really captured the very essence of the sea. Inhaling the various aromas here was like taking a deep breath next to the ocean.

5: Black Cod in an Abalone Bouillon, Seaweed Persillade
I'm not a huge fan of cod, but quite enjoyed this course. It had a fantastic lingering saltiness that complemented the rich unctuousness of the fish. I still wasn't in love with the soft, spongy consistency of the cod, but the rest of the dish easily made up for it, especially the beans, which formed a great texture contrast.

6: Roasted Squab, Garden Carrots with Farro, Meyer Lemon Preserve
I wasn't enthralled with the texture of the breast piece, which was a bit tougher and rarer than I would've liked. I much preferred the leg portion, which was much richer, oilier, and more flavorful. The carrot was useful in cutting the heftiness of the bird, while the farro added a sweet "stuffing"-like taste to the dish.

7: Lamb Rack, Slowly Roasted, Cardoons with Bread Crusts, Tender Greens
This was a wonderful preparation of lamb. The meat itself was surprisingly light, and thus benefitted from the gravity provided by the very apparent layers of fat. I much enjoyed the addition of beech (shimeji) mushrooms, and the amalgam of cardoons and bread crusts reminded me, amazingly, of corned beef hash!

8: Meyer Lemon and Quince Vacherin
There was a lot going on here. Underneath everything was a layer of gelée and a hard cookie-like base, which, together with the meringues formed a delectable contrast with the quince and lemon sorbets. As mentioned by my dining companion, the combination of the dessert's pastry base and gelée resulted in a taste not unlike Fruit Loops! The use of candied kumquats was reminiscent of the Hawaiian Bread Pudding I had recently at Ford's Filling Station, and added nicely to the dish's key sweet/sour interplay.

9: Spice Cake with Ginger-Port Pears with Coconut Caramel
A heavier dessert than the preceding one, the cinnamon spice to the fruit was key; otherwise it would've been too one-dimensional. Meanwhile, the lime sorbet added a much needed bracing tartness to cut the sweetness of the dessert, and the chocolate cake had a bit of mintiness to it as well.

10: Chocolate Pastille with Ice Milk, Prickly Pear and Coconut Granité
The "pastilles" were actually delightful lumps of chocolate crème, with a gentle sweetness that was deftly set off by the ardent crimson sea of tart prickly pear bouillon. The coldness of the granité and ice milk further bolstered the dish. My favorite of the three desserts.

Petit Fours 2: "Strawberry-Chocolate"
The meal began with petit fours, and with petit fours it should end: here, we had strawberry gelées and chocolate madeleines. Unfortunately, they weren't as strong as the starters, with the strawberry completely dominating the flavor of the chocolate.

Going in, I had heard mixed reviews about Manresa, and I was concerned about the restaurant not being "creative" enough. I'm happy to report that my fears were unfounded, and that Manresa actually exceeded my expectations. Kinch manages to innovate in his own way, based on an unwavering respect for ingredients, unflinching technique, and just a dash of fancy: proof that progression doesn't have to be flashy.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Coi (San Francisco, CA)

373 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133
Fri 11/21/2008, 09:05p-12:10a

Though I'd always known about Coi (pronounced "qua," not "coy"), the restaurant really stepped into my radar screen after its upgrade to a two-star rating in the latest Michelin guide. After examining the menu on the restaurant's web site, I was convinced that I had to give Chef Daniel Patterson's highly-innovative, beautifully-presented contemporary American cuisine a try on my latest trip to the Bay Area.

Coi is located in the Financial District of San Francisco, amid a surprisingly large number of strip clubs and adult video shops.

When we arrived, our table wasn't quite ready, so we were seated in the lounge, a lovely room replete with beautiful burled walnut tables and furry Flokati pillows.

After about ten minutes, we were moved to our table in the main dining room. The space is just as striking as the food, with its low, washi-covered ceilings, Catherine Wagner artwork, and even more of those hirsute pillows.

There was only one menu option available, an 11-course tasting menu at $120, focusing heavily on aromatic ingredients, essential oils, and inventive flavor combinations. Wine pairings can be had for an additional $95. Also pictured is the separate lounge menu. Click for larger versions.

In addition to having a fine wine list, Coi also offers a great selection of alternative beverages. In fact, instead of drinking wine, we decided to pair beer with the meal! Click for larger versions.

I started with the Coi Aperitif [$14.00], a lovely, subtly spicy drink consisting of a long pepper and hibiscus tea infused with cassia (a tree bark used as "cinnamon") and litsea cubeba (a.k.a. "may chang," a plant harvested for its lemony essential oil), finished with Champalou sparkling Vouvray. We then ordered a bottle of the 2007 Gouden Carolus 'Grand Cru of the Emperor' [$28.00], a heady (11% ABV), viscous dark Belgian ale with lovely flavors of cocoa, spice, and dark fruit. The beer is brewed by Brouwerij Het Anker in Mechelen, Belgium once a year on the birthday of Charles V (ruler of the Holy Roman Empire from 1519 to 1556).

Next up was the Kiuchi Brewery Hitachino Nest 'Red Rice' [$9.00] from Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. It was a very different experience than the Gouden Carolus, showing sweet, fruity notes backed by rice, along with a crisp, light mouth feel. Finally, we had the Fantôme Saison [$32.00], from Brasserie Fantôme in Ardennes, Belgium. This slightly sour, citrusy beer with a touch of herbaceous spice was probably my favorite of the bunch.

The bread was a homemade smoked whole wheat, served with unsalted butter and sea salt. I found the bread rather addictive, and must have gone through six or seven of them!

Amuse Bouche: Milk & Honey
These reminded me of the "spherifications" popularized by Ferran Adrià and his disciples (see the "liquid olives" at The Bazaar). Basically liquid gels encased in thin membranes, they had a very light, initial sweetness followed by a salty finish.

1: Pink Grapefruit
Ginger, Tarragon, Black Pepper. If you look closely on the right side of the plate, you'll see a small dab of liquid. That liquid was Coi's signature scent, a perfume made from pink grapefruit, ginger, black pepper, cognac, and tarragon. We were instructed to dab a bit of the citrusy concoction on our wrists, to complement the flavor of the "sphere." That sphere was composed of an icy center covered by a creamier exterior, and had an initial, dominant taste of grapefruit, backed by a hint of spice and pepper. What was interesting is that its sweet-savory flavor just lingered in my mouth for nearly a minute.

2: Shiny Beets
Citrus Scented Gel, Vadouvan. This wasn't a particularly distinctive dish, as the beets lacked much flavor of their own, and instead relied on the citrus and vadouvan spice mixture. A bit boring perhaps, though my favorite beet was the darkest one, which was also the sweetest. The use of vadouvan gave the dish a somewhat Indian flair, and made me think of David Kinch's (Manresa) crispy mussels dish at this year's Providence 5x5 dinner.

3a: Fromage Blanc Tart
Chicories, Black Olive. The cheese was so delicate, both in flavor and in substance; it was almost airy, and formed a balance with its tough, crumbly crust. The use of chicory was key here, as the leaves provided a much needed foil in taste, but more importantly, in consistency.

3b: Oysters Under Glass
Marin Miyagi Oysters, Yuzu, Radish, Apple, Rau Ram. Also known as Pacific oysters, the Miyagis were slightly sweet, mild, with a bit of minerality. They were delicious on their own, and the use of yuzu, radish, apple, and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) was akin to a tangy mignonette sauce. What made the dish really unique was the so-called "glass," which added a fantastic textural counterpoint to the soft, tender oysters.

4: Triamble Squash Soup
Asian Pear, Pomegranate, Padron Chile Flakes, Mint. Unfortunately, this course was a bit too sweet for me, as tends to be the case for squash soups. The use of Asian pear and pomegranate was genius here, as the fruits added a much needed variation in texture, and also contributed a tartness that offset the sweetness of the squash. The chili and mint served a similar role, but I would've liked their flavors to have been more apparent.

5a: Garden, Late Fall
Root Vegetables, Cocoa, Herbs. This was a somewhat desultory, yet strangely beautiful presentation of vegetables. I appreciated the natural flavor of the veggies here, and surprisingly, the use of cocoa powder actually worked rather well, adding a gritty consistency and contrasting bitter/sweet/savory notes.

5b: Roasted Cauliflower
Smoked Bone Marrow, Pickled Red Onion, Oregano. I'm generally a fan of cauliflower, and it didn't disappoint here. I loved it by itself, with its delicious smoky-burnt flavor that worked well with the onion and oregano. I wasn't as convinced about the foam however, as it distracted slightly from the cauliflower.

6: Earth and Sea
Steamed Tofu Mousseline, Yuba, Fresh Seaweeds, Mushroom Dashi. I thought this was a very Japanese-inspired dish. The mushroom dashi broth provided a rich base on which the delicate flavors of tofu and seaweed could interact. I'm not usually a fan of yuba, but here it was the key; it didn't have much flavor, but its consistency really made the dish. My dining companion mentioned that the broth was reminiscent of a shark's fin soup.

7a: Sautéed Monterey Bay Abalone
Escarole, Caper Berry-Sea Lettuce Vinaigrette. I've never had abalone quite like this before. Its firmness was halfway in between a raw sushi style and a Chinese braised preparation. The sauce added a tart, subtly bitter, vegetal flavor that went rather well with the soft sweetness of the mollusk.

7b: Matsutake Grilled on the Plancha
Potato-Pine Needle Puree. The matsutakes were delightful, though not as strong as the ones I had at Urasawa. Nevertheless, I enjoyed their earthy aroma, deftly set off by a sprinkle of salt & pepper, crunchy texture, and wanted more! The accompanying sauce was largely unnecessary.

8a: Slow Cooked Farm Egg
Green Farro, Erbette Chard, Brown Butter-Parmesan Sauce. The chard was the ticket here, as its slight bitterness proved to be a wonderful contrast to the rich, mild creaminess of the egg yolk. The farro was also superb, in that it added not much flavor, but rather a delightful risotto-esque consistency to the dish.

8b: Bolinas Goat, Different Forms
Sprouted Beans, Seeds, Nuts, Wheatgrass. This was a surprisingly stimulating dish. The goat itself, served rare as well as braised, had a very distinctive, almost "wild" flavor. It was expertly complemented by the sprouts, with their bracing, vegetal, bitter tang, as well as the seeds and nuts, which contributed their own distinctive flavor and added a nice bit of crunchiness.

Supplement: Country Pork Pâté [$12.00]
Cornichon, Grain Mustard. Since we weren't quite getting full, we decided to supplement the tasting menu with two dishes from the lounge menu. I enjoyed eating the pâté along with the included toast points, but found the mustard and pickles a bit too strong for the pork. This was reminiscent of the pâté I had at Charlie Palmer.

Supplement: Spiny Lobster Ravioli [$16.00]
Tarragon, Brown Butter, Spinach. The raviolis seemed more like dumplings to me. I really had a tough time even identifying this as lobster (could've been shrimp for all I know), as the flavor was lost in the midst of the brown butter and tarragon. Clearly, the dishes on the lounge menu do belong in the lounge. That's not to say they're bad, but they simply lack the finesse and creativity found on the tasting menu.

9: Etude (Soyoung Scanlan)
Peppercress, Fuyu Persimmon, Black Walnuts. The Etude is a semi-hard goat's cheese from Soyoung Scanlan's Andante Dairy in Petaluma, CA (I also had their cheese at Meadowood). The Etude was mildly nutty and quite good on its own, but really benefitted from the sweetness of the persimmon and the smokiness of the walnuts.

Intermezzo: Mutsu Apple and Rose Soda
Mutsu apple, also known as the Crispin, is a Golden Delicious-Indo cross first grown in Japan. The soda had a sharp, intoxicating nose of apple, and this intensity carried over on to my palate. Sour, tart, refreshing: the perfect palate cleanser.

10: Quince and Huckleberry Parfait
Huckleberry Ice, Almond, Lemon Thyme. The mouth-watering sweetness of the quince and huckleberry was adroitly balanced by the mildness of the cream. The secret here though was the almond brittle, which contributed a fantastic crunch to the dessert. A simple concept, but delicious.

11: Chocolate-Mesquite Cake
Smoked Pepitas Praline, Kabocha Squash Sherbet. Kabocha is a type of sweet Japanese squash, and even in sherbet form, it was intense. It was thus very well tempered by the smokiness of the chocolate and pepitas (squash seeds). A lovely interpretation of the classic ice cream-chocolate cake dessert.

To close out the meal, we had Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Truffles, which were just like cookie dough, but with a delightfully salty finish, as well as Tahitian Vanilla and Olive Oil Milkshakes, which were simply delicious (think of a standard milkshake, but with just a hint of savoriness to make it interesting).

The dinner was a success. Though not every dish was a hit, there were no blatant misses either; it was a cohesive, balanced meal, though perhaps a tad light. As I expected, Coi possessed the novelty I sought out, but without the overt pretension that I was afraid of. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen such a masterful use of the sweet/savory interplay as I saw at Coi. Patterson manages to combine innovation and cutting-edge culinary technique, but without losing sight of taste and edibility, a rare combination indeed. Nicely done.