Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Manresa is a restaurant in Los Gatos, California that is always getting on various "top" lists, including one that claims it's one of the top 50 restaurants on the planet, and has been called a French Laundry without the difficult reservation. Well, high praise indeed, and since I find myself about 10 miles away about every week in 7, I figured I'd give it a try. My friend John joined me, and we went for a fairly late seating (8:30pm). Los Gatos is one of those towns in which if you're standing on the right corner you almost forget that you're in the sprawling wasteland known as Silicon Valley.

They claim to serve "contemporary French cuisine with modern Spanish flair," which means exactly what I'm not sure--French Laundry + El Bulli? I guess so. Anyway, if the whole table orders it, a tasting menu is available ($110, plus $72 for wine pairings), so we got the tasting menu. It was late, John was sick as a dog so he didn't get the wine pairings, and I've since gotten the same cold, so I haven't felt like blogging about it until now. So, I might not remember everything we had, because there were a lot of dishes. I've certainly forgotten most of the wines.

The restaurant is in a small one-story building down a narrow lane. It's done in a low-key California chic, with painted concrete floors, lots of wood (vertical-grain fir, I think), etc.

We started off with five amuses-bouches. The first was a tiny black olive madeleine and a red pepper gelées. The olive madeleine was billed as "savory", but was a little sweet. Next we had a martini glass with orange granita, some sort of gelatin (orange again I think), and some foam (for lack of a better description, what I'd call "culinary foam") on top. After that, an oyster in a clear gelatin with a dab of meyer lemon gelatin on the bottom, and then a barely cooked egg layered with various stuff which I didn't quite get, and some cream on top. (I didn't hear every dish explanation that was announced, and didn't feel like asking again.) Michael Bauer claims it's his "signature egg shell filled with soft eggs, maple syrup, sherry vinegar and a topping of cool cream." OK, that. Finally, they brought what they described as "croquettes" of foie gras, but I'd call a "foie gras popper": a little deep-fried cube with a liquidy foie gras center. We were instructed to eat it in one bite, as the center really is quite liquid, and would spurt out if you tried to bite it in half.

The subsequent courses are a bit of a haze. If I remember any more, I'll add them in later.

The first course pre-announced itself by having them bring me a bit of Sauternes. This usually means "foie gras is coming" in restaurantese. I should say the wine pairings were fairly small, which is fine given the number of dishes. This is for me better than some of the tasting menus I've has which would have left me puking drunk had I drank every glass to the bottom (and felt glad about leaving very expensive wine in the glass), but I can imagine many people might find it a little skimpy for $72. So the duck foie gras arrived, and was served in slices. It was mesquite-grilled, which is the first time I've encountered that. I guess they don't use much charcoal, so it heats slowly and the outside gets a heavy mesquite flavor without overheating the foie gras. The mesquite was an interesting complement to the rich flavor of the foie gras.

The first fish course was amazing. It was the "first of the season" fresh sea bream, along with some very fresh squid, and some other fish I didn't catch the name of, served raw in a bowl, onto which miso consommé was poured at the table. The consommé was not extremely hot, so the fish barely cooked. It was a really successful dish.
Next we had raw slices of freshly-opened scallops, covered with thin ribbons of "scallop tripe."

John and I agreed that the sweetbreads were the most successful dish of them all. One slice of sweetbread was served with some other stuff that I don't even remember now, in a bowl with a bit of consommé. The sweetbread was perfectly cooked, unctuous inside with a slightly crisp exterior

Next we had little slices of squab, and then some goat with curry spices. John thought the curry spices were a bit much in the context of the rest of the meal, which was pretty subtle.

The best dessert by far was a vanilla soufflée, which was an amazing little morsel in a tiny dish served with little bits of bourbon and vanilla ice creams. After that was a chocolate rice pudding that was pretty good. I think there were three desserts, but I can't remember the last one.

Finally, we had a chocolate madeleine and a strawberry jelly, which would have been fine but the waiter had to go and say "now, we come full circle," as if we were being beaten over the head with its Significance. Silly proclamations aside, the service was impeccable. I never felt uncomfortable or rushed or waiting longer than I wanted to for anything.

All in all, a very enjoyable meal. If I were to put it in my hierarchy of most enjoyable Bay Area dinners, I'd put it a notch below La Folie and downstairs at Chez Panisse, and right around the same level as my second tier that includes Jardiniere, Fleur de Lys, etc. It's certainly the best food I've had in "The Valley." We still haven't made it to French Laundry, because our few attempts at getting a reservation were fruitless.