Among the foodie-community Manresa holds a quasi-mythical
status. It is said to be one of the best, if not the best restaurant in the
States, serving dishes that present high-quality ingredients in a puristic
fashion. However, apart from a few foodies, the wider public doesn't seem to be
aware of Manresa's existence. The reasons for this, we believe, have nothing to
do with the food.
For there really isn't anything wrong with David Kinch's cuisine. As a matter of fact, it is without question some of the most intellectually challenging and convincing food around. What makes it special are three characteristics: Product quality, technique and restraint. The product quality is really what sets it apart from most other restaurants in the States. Kinch is without doubt one of the most obsessive chefs in the Bay Area when it comes to sourcing and this clearly shows in his plate. A great example of this would be a dish of spot prawn. Served with nothing but a few tomatoes, quince and some of the head juices, this crustacean shows its very best side in this dish. What you get is a plump, nearly crunchy and meaty prawn, with an incredibly complex flavour. Having products of this quality at hand, Kinch knows how to best present them: Simply and perfectly cooked. This is exactly what happens in this dish. The supporting elements don't distract, there isn't much else on the plate anyway. However, as the prawn itself is so beautifully cooked and of such high quality, anything else would be heresy. In a way, this respect of the produce might stem from Kinch's admiration for Japanese food, which follows similar guidelines.
A more famous, but no more impressive dish is a
complex vegetable composition entitled: "Into the vegetable garden..." This dish
is one of the few that never leaves the menu here, and shows up in countless
different guises throughout the seasons. What turns it, essentially a twist on
Michel Bras' garguillou, into such a convincing and varied dish are the vegetables
from Kinch's Love Apple Farm. As the seasons go along, his farm obviously
produces different vegetables and fruits, which find their way onto this dish.
This means that whilst the characteristic of it will change throughout the
year, the concept remains the same. And this is what makes it an interesting
dish: It is so diverse that it fascinates you and keeps your mind constantly
focused on the dish.
That Kinch's food can also be simply delicious and not just intellectually challenging, is best shown by a dish called: "late fava beans like a risotto, egg yolk confit". Here he creates a superb combination of chopped fava beans, that have a texture that is not too different from actual rice when prepared in this fashion and a slowly cooked egg yolk that makes it all that much more decadent and hedonistic. It might be the least "interesting" dish in a menu here, but could well be the most delicious.
As you can probably sense, the food at Manresa really lives up to the expectations blog posts such as this or this one create. However, a restaurant experience usually encompasses more than just food. Whilst Kinch's wine list can't be criticised, it is only the service that lets the whole experience down in the end. For contrary to what you might expect when seeing the room, this is probably one of the world's most serious and stiff service brigades. Whilst formal service is no problem at all, especially when the food is good, Manresa is unfortunately the perfect example for the archetypal "stiff gastro-temple" that people often associate with Michelin stars.
That really is a pity in the case of Manresa, its chef clearly is passionate and most importantly incredibly good at what he does. But with an experience like this, you simply can't help but remember this question that is put to you after every course: "May we clear this presentation sir?"
If David Kinch can create a more friendly and accessible atmosphere in his - beautiful - dining room the experience for the diner would be a much more memorable one. If this were the case, Manresa would be one of the world's very best restaurants, without doubts.