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Restaurants & Bars 7

Manresa report-Wow--Long!

wlw18 | Jun 27, 200512:45 AM

My boyfriend, friend and I had a superb dinner at Manresa this weekend, which I wanted to share with everyone here. As a sidenote, we recently ate at The Dining Room at the Ritz, which I’d eagerly anticipated. We left disappointed and feeling that for close to $500, our money would have been better spent at the French Laundry ($500 for two of us: two tasting menus, one wine pairing, and two additional glasses of wine). In fact, after several let-downs at “the” pre-eminent restaurants in SF over the last year or so (Gary Danko, Michael Mina), I’ve tried to adjust my expectations slightly lower—difficult to do when you’re about to spend $200 on a single meal.

So that was my mindset entering Manresa. Let’s just say at the end, my expectations had been far surpassed—and even the higher bar from somewhat earlier days would have been handily smashed.

We had been meaning to come to Manresa for years, and never planned/gotten our act together, but were inspired to do so by a series of unrelated events. We easily secured an 8pm reservation on Friday night. The restaurant was full but not crowded. The ambiance is casually elegant and comfortable (though I found the temperature a bit too cold. The dim lighting is carefully arranged so that each table has a subtle beam angled onto it from the overhead lights—a welcome touch, since it’s a peeve of mine to eat where you can’t see the food—especially when it’s as beautiful as this.

Service was attentive and friendly throughout. We had one primary waitress, who at first seemed a bit less sophisticated than one might expect, but proved her mettle over the course of the meal, appearing at the right times, pairing my wines well (my two companions each got the wine pairing—I’ll get to that later—but I was driving and only wanted one or two glasses). The table was served by much of the staff over the course of our 3+ hours there, but they blended seamlessly, and the timing of the dishes was always perfect—all three dishes brought together, at the right times, etc.

We each ordered the tasting menu for $98 (the wine pairing is an additional $65). We asked that the chef be adventurous with us, and told him no holds barred (except for me—no foie gras). We may have gotten a slight extra or two, bc my boyfriend had a very tenuous connection to a staff member, but I’m honestly not sure we did, and if we did, it was probably only an amuse or two.

Our meal included 18—yes, EIGHTEEN courses—though some of these were bite-size. I can honestly say, as a relatively small person who doesn’t like to eat meals, I was never once uncomfortably full, and left the restaurant feeling completely satiated but not in any way overwhelmed. It would take me hours to write full descriptions of each course, but I’ll try to point out the highlights. Overall the style was light and elegant, each course included from one to four bright points of flavor, usually flawlessly prepared and beautifully presented. As I said, the portion sizes were perfect, and the progression of courses worked as well as any meal I’ve had. I would venture to say the only comparison I can make in this regard (number of courses and thoughtfulness of the progression) would be the French Laundry (this includes 2 and 3 star meals in Europe).

So, onto the menu. Chef Kinch specializes in his amuse bouche, both in terms of flavor and creativity, and we were not disappointed. (One note: our server did mention to my companions that the wine pairing would not start until the “official” first course, so they might want a beverage to accompany the amuses. At first that was slightly weird to me, though I appreciated that she pointed it out. It seemed like a gentle push toward running up the beverage tab—but when we saw the generosity of the pairing, I didn’t think so…more that they took so much care in pairing wines to the courses—and poured such a generous amount—that not everyone might want the extra drink.

Amuse bouches: 6 dishes, presented in rapid-fire fashion. One quickly followed the other, but we weren’t rushed. The servers were careful to bring each only after we’d finished the previous taste.
- Miniature savory black olive madeleines and a red pepper “pate de fruit.” A play on traditional mignardises to open the meal. Loved the idea…the madeleines were slightly too sweet for me and the pate de fruit texture was a bit too chewy, but the flavor was pure and clear.
- Strawberry “salad. ” Probably my least favorite dish—but excellent, small strawberries served in a martini glass, with a tart lemon/mint “dressing.” Nice palate cleanser, but a bit boring to me
- French breakfast radishes, served with a canele of butter and small pile of sea salt. We were told to dip the radish in butter and sprinkle on the salt. Again, simple, pure flavors—ingredients left to shine for themselves.
- A change of pace for the next amuse: tiny square of fried sweet corn that had somehow been liquefied in the center, so you bit into it and inside your mouth was an explosion of sweet corn flavor. Kind of like XLB, but with no wrapper…this demonstrated Chef Kinch’s technical mastery. Usually the dishes’ perfection show his command of technique more subtlely, but this was excellent all the same.
- A beautiful dish: A tiny mussel, piece of crab, and shrimp presented in clamshell, with cioppino gelee delicately placed on top. Very light flavor in the gelee, but excellent compliment to the delicious seafood.
- Soft-boiled egg, served in the shell, layered with: very finely chopped chives, slightly whipped (until foamy) crème fraiche (I think), sherry vinegar, maple syrup, and fleur de sel. Served warm. We were given tiny spoons and told to spoon all the way through to experience every flavor and texture in each bite. I know it sounds strange, but this was simply amazing. The flavors, textures, the creativity…perhaps my favorite dish of the night.

And with that, our “real” meal began:

- Broccoli soup, for the boys, served with a warm, generous portion of foie gras in the soup; for me, the soup on its own. The essence of broccoli. The boys loved the texture and flavor of the foie.
- Aji sashimi, with sesame seeds, very fine julienne of radish…and some other things I can’t remember. This dish was marred by too much salt, a rare misstep. Quality of the fish was excellent.
- Another excellent, creative, beautiful dish: a single prawn a la plancha, served with a small sliced of grilled(!) watermelon, a tiny cannele of guacamole, and few tiny drops of balsamic vinegar. Loved this. I need to make grilled watermelon.
- Rouget; perfectly crisped skin, served with a saffron/butter sauce (and some green herb essence as well, not sure what it was but the whole dish worked in a delicious way. The saffron was very subtle—I don’t like saffron, but this moist, juicy fish with the crispy skin was another that ranks as perhaps my favorite dish)
- Just as my friend was saying he thought we needed to take the food up another level, we got this dish: very very lightly fried abalone served atop shredded pig’s feet. Umm, wow. Having never had abalone, I didn’t know what to expect…this was rich, unctuous, and the textural combination was fascinating. This was one of the only “heavy” dishes—but in a good way. I didn’t finish the entire serving, which probably helped me enjoy the rest of my meal from a stomach-space perspective.
- I called this an upscale chicken mcnugget, heh. A small piece of moist, juicy "chicken wing confit," lightly breaded and fried (still juicy though!) served atop very smoky kale.
- Again, an adventurous course: lightly fried sweetbreads with a morel mushroom vinaigrette and some other green…sorry, can’t remember what it was, but this was also delicious and rich. However, the acidity in the vinaigrette perfectly cut the richness of the sweetbreads.
- Perhaps the most lovely, tiny rounds of lamb (tenderloin, I think), I have ever seen: three tiny pieces, served next to a perfect, perfect apricot, with a bordelaise sauce. Now that on its own would have been nearly perfect. However, the plate also had a small rectangle of chickpea fritter next to a small dollop of romesco sauce. This was delicious, but I felt a somewhat unnecessary accompaniment to the lamb and apricot.

We paused a bit here, then quickly moved on to the desserts. First, a palate cleanser”
- Three tiny cones each with its own sorbet: strawberry, peach, and honeydew. Of course we each tasted them all, I loved them, but took the peach for my personal cone. Yum.
- A miniature Santa Rosa plum soufflé (this was on the regular dessert menu in larger size). Very good, but I would have wanted slightly more plum flavor.
- A rich, moist quarter of chocolate cake-type thing (I forget the name of this, also on the regular dessert menu), served with half a bing cherry, a smear of chocolate ganache, and the best part: a small scoop of condensed milk ice cream. A sublte, light, creamy flavor—not too rich, but satisfying. Also a delicious bitter chocolate tuile served on the chocolate cake. Mmm.
- And, the finale, a bookend to the starter: tiny chocolate madeleines, accompanied by strawberry pate de fruit. Yum—even after all these tastes, I ate up every bite of this last course.

As for the wine pairing: 9 wines were served, each a full half-glass (4 whites, 4 reds, and a sherry). (Make sure you take a designated driver.) This was by far the most generous wine pairing I have seen, and for the price, a true bargain. Wines ranged from German Riesling to Oregan Pinot Noir, but were mostly Californian and Spanish, in keeping with the Basque/Catalan overtones of the restaurant. Unfortunately we didn’t write them down, but favorites included the Riesling, Verdejo and a red we unfortunately can’t remember the name of—some type of Syrah, we think from Santa Ynes. Darn.

Anyway, anyone who’s still with me here is no doubt sick of reading this, so I’ll wrap up. Suffice it to say, all three of us, restaurant lovers all, are certain that this meal will be on our highlights reel for some time to come, and for the price ($500 total, for three people, including tip), probably the best bargain for this type meal I’ve come across. We will definitely be back.

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