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Manresa – Los Gatos, CA

My meal at Manresa did not begin at the restaurant, but at Love Apple Farms, 13 miles away. I’ve long wondered if the farm was chef David Kinch’s secret weapon to deliciousness. Is this what separates Manresa from other restaurants? Is this why David’s cooking is so reflective of the surrounding area, like a fine Burgundy wine?

Visiting the farm and chatting with owners Cynthia Sandberg and Daniel Maxfield clarified everything. It would be remiss to think about Manresa without thinking about Love Apple Farms and vice versa. David forged a relationship with Cynthia around 10 years ago, and it has grown into an exclusive partnership. David is given carte blanche on deciding exactly what to plant, resulting in access to ingredients that I imagine few other chefs in the country do.

Walking the farm’s rows engages your senses: every few steps and you smell something new. Herbs, fruit, and vegetables –many of which were foreign to me– are everywhere. I wish I had more time to spend at the farm, but dinner beckoned.

As part of Manresa’s 10-year anniversary celebrations, chef Kinch partnered up with chef John and Karen Shields, formerly of Town House Restaurant in Chilhowie, Virginia. Together, they served me nine courses that were amongst the most memorable I’ve had in recent memory.

***

As I raced back from Love Apple Farms to Manresa along the 17N -a thrillingly twisty road flanked by towering trees, practically a racetrack hewn from nature- I quietly wondered if David Kinch was blessed with the best commute in the world.

Minutes later, I pulled up to familiar sight: an impossibly charming wooden house. I enjoyed a meal at Manresa in early September last year and always take pleasure in walking the small winding path that leads from a quiet street into the restaurant’s patio, and finally through a large door where an elegant dining room awaits within.

Upon being seated, a bundle of lightly smoked vegetables with albacore from Chef Kinch alighted on my table. It would be the first of a succession of courses that would seamlessly take me to the sea and land and back again.

Then chef John Shields took me for a stroll along the coast with his dish of an oyster seasoned with spruce and sided with seaweed and black radish milk. One bite and I found myself standing on the edge of a moss-covered cliff, listening to the crashing waves of the ocean hundreds of feet below. It was like breathing in the ocean’s salty mist with the smell of moss-covered rocks. This dish pulsed with life, and it was my favorite of the night.

Subsequently Chef Kinch took me to the bottom of my imagined cliff to a sandy beach, where I ate his dish of abalone with roast chicken jelly resting on a smear that had the texture of sand but tasted like spiced toast (photo of the dish in the header). Reminiscent of a beach campfire, this was the intersection of land and sea, where meaty abalone danced in perfect harmony with the roast chicken jelly. This was the California coast on a plate, and it was delicious.

I was then whisked back inland as Chef Shields brought over a “salad” aptly named A Celebration of Herbs. This dish was especially meaningful given my time at Love Apple Farms’ herb garden just moments before. Like previous dish, this was cooking that spoke of time and place: a microcosm of Northern California. Here, Shields let nature speak for itself. Perhaps this is his version of Kinch’s signature dish, Into The Vegetable Garden?*

The final two savory courses would again transport me between sea and land. From Chef Shields came the apex of our meal: new garlic and various crustaceans punctuated with tongues of uni and sheathed with a sheet of crispy pork stock. This dish was a study in tension with each ingredient nearly overwhelming with flavor, yet balance was achieved.

Chef Kinch followed with beef plated with warm blueberries, yogurt, and juniper. Wagyu beef from Australia arrived glowing ruby-red and marbled with fat, and the interplay between the blueberries and beef was unexpected but pleasant. It was an excellent last savory course, one I believe was not meant to shock but lend a gentle satisfaction, allowing the inherent qualities of the meat to shine through. I suspect if beef from Japan were not embargoed, Chef Kinch would’ve used that instead.

***

As we moved onto dessert, I quickly realized that Chef John Shields is a very blessed man. He married Chef Karen Shields, and after tasting her desserts tonight, I’m convinced she’s one of the wittiest pastry chefs of our time.

Consider our first dessert course: shards of cocoa shielded berries and a quenelle of burnt ember ice cream accompanied by a shot of elderflower & beet juice. My picture does not do this dish justice. With each bite, eyes widened, lips curled into a silly grin, and neurons fired. When was the last time you had had a dessert anchored on smoke and savor but rounded out by the sweetness of blackberries and cocoa? Mysterious, bewitching, and the perfect segue from savor into sweet, each bite led to more questions- how was it conceived, what inspired it, how was the burnt ember ice cream made?**

And let’s not forget Karen’s other dessert: a single dried carrot with a muscavado sugar & tonka bean spread to the left and a quenelle of white chocolate yogurt topped with sweet woodruff to the right. It was like a deconstructed carrot cake, but one where each ingredient went through an insane flavor-enhancing process. The lone carrot contained the sweetness of a thousand carrots (was the carrot slow-roasted with some brown sugar to enhance it’s sweetness? I don’t know). The muscavado and tonka bean spread tasted like the essence of carrot cake crust. And the white chocolate yogurt with woodruff was a light floral play on the traditional carrot cake frosting.

As the night came to a close, I noticed the Manresa dining room was filled with some of the best chefs in our nation. Two tables to my right sat Grant Achatz of Alinea (3 Michelin Stars), and two tables behind me sat Chris Kostow of Meadowood Restaurant (3 Michelin Stars). It is often said that David Kinch is a chef’s chef, and this night was proof of that.***

Thank you David, John, and Karen for treating me to one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory. This was truly inspired by the surrounding land and sea, and I loved the progression of flavors, soaring to an apex followed by a gentle landing, then building back into another high with Karen’s desserts.

John and Karen, best of luck in opening your restaurant in Philadelphia. I know it will be a resounding success. David, I can’t wait to return to Manresa, and I hope you don’t mind I took more than my fair share of salted caramels on my way out. They’re still the best I’ve ever had.

Manresa Restaurant
320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030
(408) 354-4330

* I am oversimplifying here, but Kinch’s signature dish, Into the Vegetable Garden, is essentially a mix of a few dozen herbs and vegetables from Love Apple Farms on a plate. It made my list of Best Dishes of 2011.

** I cannot speak on inspiration but my best guess on how the ice cream was made: milk is first infused with burnt embers, which are eventually strained out. Then the smoke-flavored milk is incorporated into the ice cream base and churned.

*** It is baffling Grant Achatz and Chris Kostow have three Michelin stars while David Kinch only has two. Having eaten at both Meadowood and Alinea, I am certain Kinch is deserving of 3 stars.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beautiful words and photos, D! Considering that I have family in Los Gatos, I am surprised that I haven’t had a meal here. Next trip, for sure. Did you save me a caramel? Better than Le Bon Garcon?!

    August 13, 2012
    • Yes, Cathy – they’re better than Le Bon Garcon!

      Though after Manresa’s, Le Bon Garcon’s caramels would be second.

      August 13, 2012
  2. Wonderful photos and writing! Manresa is on my bucket list of places to visit when I make it over for a food tour of the SF area. Love the blog! Looking forward to your future write ups.

    August 26, 2012
  3. Cage #

    Just so you know from an actual South Bay resident with family in Santa Cruz, everyone here absolutely HATES 17. It’s essentially the only route to Santa Cruz and always has traffic. Scenic sure but you’re too busy yelling at the person in front of you to notice.

    March 26, 2013

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