February 25, 2007

Meandering Psuedo-Review: Manresa

Last night, E and I had a very enjoyable evening with C&V at Manresa. It had been on our to visit list for quite some time after H&O had such a great meal for their anniversary last year.

Plus, the first Bay Area Michelin Guide gave it two stars. And, well, I've never been to a two star Michelin restaurant before. (Actually, I just grabbed the guide, and realized that's not a true statement. I hadn't realized that Aqua had received two stars. I've been there once, in 1999, long prior to the Michelin man's endorsement. I was annoyed by the pretension of the staff and crowd to the point where it overshadowed my memory of the food. Of course, that was during the first bubble. I have no idea how I'd find it now.)

So, when C sent an email announcing that they had a baby sitter and were looking for people join them at Manresa, we jumped. I'm glad we did.

By far, our favorite part of the night was the 4 hours of conversation with C&V. We haven't hung out with them, just us, in at least 5 years. Doing so surrounded by good food accompanied by good wine made the experience even better.

So, the night gets 4 stars. And, perhaps, that is why people select restaurants like this. Because even when the restaurant is slightly disappointing, it is still very, very good.

While much about the experience was very impressive, and, no doubt, the reason for the restaurant's repute, the honest critique must say that the restaurant itself was hit and miss.

In my opinion, the amuse bouches were the best part of the dinner, culinarily speaking.

We started our journey with tiny black olive madeleines and roasted bell pepper gelées coated in sugar crystals. Very interesting.

Then, we were presented deep fried finger-bites filled with a liquid center of cream and foie gras. The warning to pop the entire thing in your mouth was *much* appreciated as the liquid would have dripped down your hand and chin if you tried to bite it in two. Delicious. Oddly, not as heavy as the description would make you think.

The entire table agreed, that the last amuse bouch, the Golden Egg was every bit as good as the hype would indicate. The soft boiled egg sprinkled with sea salt on chilled sherry cream, topped with baby chives and a drizzling of maple syrup was one of the more subtly complex melody of flavors I'd ever experienced. I must admit, when C emailed that we would have to call ahead for more than one egg per person, I was a) impressed that she was doing her research; b) chagrined that I had no idea what she was talking about; c) too busy to follow up; and d) comfortable in the general certainty that I probably wouldn't go hungry with just one of anything. After dinner, when V said the egg was a tribute to another chef, I was impressed with his research too. None other than Alain Passard, huh? I think that was his signature on a menu in the women's restroom, but I can't be sure.

Another thing Manresa did well was modify the tasting menu to the tastes of C, who is a bit of a picky eater. To C's credit, I've eaten multiple meals with her and was completely unaware of her food needs, which in my opinion, is the mark of a courteous dining companion. Further to her credit, she took the opportunity to be a bit adventurous with food and try things she'd never had before, like sashimi. Given that I enjoy watching people eat something for the first time, this discovery about C was like a special bonus prize for me.

The misses were bummers, however. The first miss was the appearance of the restaurant near our table. As C pointed out upon seating, the curtain rod above our table was an exposed, non-ornamental brass rod, and not completely screwed into the wall. Plus, we were seated with our table pressed up against a glass door. I know restaurants need exits, but, given that no one was going to be using this one while we were seated here, I would have preferred that the curtains actually covered it, both to keep out the draft and to make the sight to my immediate right a little more pleasing than the metal push bar.

The second miss was the timing of the drink service. While C and I enjoyed our cava with the amuse bouches, the gentlemen were left with water. This seemed odd to me for two reasons: 1) C&V had ordered the wine pairing and the amuse bouches portion of the meal took at least 45 minutes. 2) E and I had ordered a bottle of wine to share throughout the meal but were not asked when we would like to enjoy it. At the laundry we enjoyed one amuse bouche with our water while we selected our wines. From then on, our glasses were silently filled with our selections or we were asked whether we would like something with each presentation. Local favorite Chez TJ has been blessed by the tire company with only one star, but it also provides constant communication and service on the drink service. In fact, in my recent memory, I cannot recall a single meal where the servers ignored the fact that the patrons had ordered drinks but that they had not been served. Granted, this is probably because most restaurants make up the majority of their profits from alcohol sales, but whatever the reason, it was a very noticeable omission of service.

The third miss would explain why the gentlemen did not order cocktails. E, because we ordered a bottle of wine to enjoy plus the timing, but C didn't order a cocktail because Manresa only serves beer, wine, sherry, and port. I have no idea how important this is because E and I rarely drink hard alcohol. However, on many occasions I've sat across from dining companions enjoying a scotch or martini before the main courses. Perhaps this would be a serious deterrent to them with regards to Manresa?

The fourth miss, is just a general theme. I felt that there was not enough communication between the wait staff and our table. The tasting menu was not on the printed menu, which is completely understandable. However, the server did not provide enough detail when discussing the meal with us, merely saying the type of the protein in each course, often skipping the preparation style and entirely skipping the accoutrements. For the wine pairings, she only vaguely knew the style of the wines. Her presentation of the tasting menu was boring, and not very informative. I know, it's a French restaurant, I'm supposed to want to experience the genius of the star chef and not need to be sold on it like the American that I am. But, truly, after her presentation, I was leaning towards the 4 course menu over the tasting menu if only because I'd know what I was about to experience.

While the amuse bouches were consistently amazing, the actual courses, were hit and miss. The foie gras presentation was just too much. I literally had a piece of seared foie gras that was 1/2 an inch tall and at least 3 inches square in area. Although it was presented with pears, and a few other side items to cut the overwhelming fat, it was not enjoyable and 3 of us requested our plates to be cleared with half of the foie gras remaining.

The next course, if I remember the ordering correctly, was Oyster with Sea Urchin in its own jelly with a bit of nori. I was very impressed with this dish. Sea urchin is not something I love, what with the warm cat tongue texture thing, and all. But oysters are. So, it could have gone either way. The sea urchin jelly was delicious and a texturally perfect complement to the oyster. The nori was crunchy as a slight distraction. This preparation minimized the sea urchin texture while maximizing the flavor. Impressive and delicious. At dessert, C realized that her modification was actually a serving of the citrus dessert course. If she loved it, this would be fine. But I got the impression that she would have preferred the same number of distinct courses as the rest of us received. On the other hand, she wouldn't have eaten oyster and sea urchin, so perhaps it was better to have a repeat. I tend to think that while ordinarily, picky eaters should be willing to graciously compromise, when at a restaurant where the chef claims to be willing to modify the menu to suit any need or desire, either the chef or the server should have paid enough attention to ensure that the modifications didn't result in a course repeat in the tasting menu.

The next course, amberjack sashimi, was fabulous. It was sliced so thin that it was almost see-through and it was presented in a flower arrangement of thin petals in a circular indentation in the middle of a large white plate holding a shiru dashi with roasted sesame seeds, minced baby chives, and minced nori. C's vegetarian option was fresh parmegiano in a bright green vegetable puree that was poured over the cheese at the table for a gorgeous presentation that we all enjoyed. The combination of these two courses at the table at the same time was one of the high points of the evening. Also, the wine pairing allowed for an option of sake or wine (V went with sake that was dry excellent) and the white wine paired with C's modification was my favorite white of the evening (a crisp sauvingnon blanc blend).

The abalone was interesting with its bagna cauda crust, but it was too tough to cut. The white fish, on the other hand, was a simple delicious presentation that was amazingly tender and perfectly cooked. The local spot prawn on half its exoskeleton (I'm sure that's not how you say it in foodie terms, but you get my drift) with exotic Indian herbs (that looked like caviar) on a bed of sauteed spinach was a gorgeous presentation but just above average in terms of flavor and, again, very difficult to cut.

The chicken, an ingredient I find almost universally uninspiring, was phenomenal. Poularde may just be better than what I think of as chicken in the United States. Because I do find that chicken outside the US is less lame, on average. Whatever the explanation, this dish was amazing. The breast was stuffed to a perfectly round cylinder and sliced to a circle presentation of tender, juicy, delicious chicken filled with a delicious chestnut stuffing. I was amazed that chicken could be so flavorful and thankful for the chef's reminder that my dislike for chicken is, at times, unjust.

The lamb was similarly excellent to the chicken, both in terms of presentation and in terms of flavor. C's alternative of suckling pig topped with a small frozen chocolate sheet was very rich, and perfect for the one bite that I sampled, although I'm not certain I'd want an entire dish of it.

Dessert came in three stages and like the amuse bouches, was consistently excellent. First, we were presented a martini glass full of citrus based gratinée over citrus fruit and whipped cream. Clean. Bright. An excellent palate cleanser. Then, we were given a shot glass full of thick dark warm chocolate happiness surrounding a few cherries topped with foam of some sort and chocolate paper. Damn. Gorgeous presentation and delicious.

In an excellent circularity, the final presentation was a silver tray that looked exactly like the first amuse bouche. This one was chocolate madeleines and raspberry (I think) gelées. I thought this visual repetition for the opening and closing was very clever and symbolic.

As a final note, the wine pairings were generally superb. They modified them for C's modified menu where appropriate and we were able to sample two sets of wine pairings, which we unabashedly passed around the table. C's favorite was a 2000 arneis. I'd never heard of this grape before, which apparently was almost extinct and is now making a comeback in Piedmont, so I'm excited to learn of a new wine that fits my wine tastes (somewhere between a floral sauvignon blanc and a cleaner, dry viognier). It looks like my local winestore even carries a few. E and I ordered a bottle of the Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel pinot noir rhone blend (see the comments where Jason Haas from Tablas Creek politely corrected me. How cool is that?) which was excellent. I love going to a restaurant and ordering a bottle in the hopes that it will be good only to have it exceed my expectations. I savored this wine with each sip and enjoyed the table's (and particularly C's enjoyment of it) as well. Just another great thing about the evening.

The only exception to the otherwise excellent pairings, the burgundy they selected for pairing with V's lamb was a bit on the sedimenty, syrupy side. It reminded me of France, so I smiled. But C pointed out that just because it reminds me of memories doesn't make the wine taste good. She was right. They could have done better. In fact, since we tasted the lamb with it, in my opinion they would have been better off going with Tablas Creek.

The final thing I sincerely enjoyed about Manresa was their obvious commitment to allowing patrons to fully savor the eating experience. We didn't order until 9 PM and we did not leave the restaurant until midnight.

All in all, a wonderful night.

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