Monday, July 03, 2006

Manresa: Seppo


Took Ei-Nyung to dinner at Manresa, in Los Gatos. She's been eyeing it for the better part of the year, and the tasting menu sounded really interesting. So, since the tasting menu is the sort of thing that everyone at the table should order, to have the whole experience, that's what we did.

And good lord, what a variety of stuff (apologies for the poor focus in many of the shots):

Olive Madelines & Red Pepper Jellies

Olive Madelines and Red Pepper Jellies: When you look at the plate, it looks rather straightforward. You get a madeline, and a little sugar-covered jelly. Everything in your brain says, "Sweets!" and when you take the first bite, that thought is justified. My first bite was of the madeline, a slightly crusty, soft, sweet, typical madeline in every way - an extremely good, velvety sort of texture. And then it creeps up on you slowly, this sense of, "Huh. This is like the Transformers," as the subtle olive taste becomes the dominant note. It never feels overpowering, and the sweetness and savoriness really sets the stage for the major flavor contrasts for the rest of the night.

The red pepper jelly is similar - it takes a moment as your brain processes the little bursts of sweetness that come from the sugar that coats the jelly, and then tries to re-sort the flavors you're experiencing, because at first, it just doesn't make any sense. It's like eating a red pepper, in jelly format, and it's really clear that the pepper's been roasted, with a sweet, smokey, charred flavor. In the future, when all nutrition comes in condensed, abstract form, I hope the chefs at Manresa are around.

Breakfast Radishes w/ creme fraiche

Sweet French Breakfast Radishes and Creme Fraiche w/ Tarragon & Chervil: This dish establishes the other major melody of the night's eating - really, really fresh ingredients whose flavors are allowed to shine. The radishes were bright, crisp, and slightly sweet - perfectly delightful to eat raw. But the creme fraiche complemented the vegetable's brightness perfectly - the tang of the creme fraiche highlighted the sharp "fresh" flavor of the radish, while adding a nice herby harmony to the whole thing.

Citrus Foam w/ Rhubarb Gelee & Horchata Foam

Citrus Salad w/ Rhubarb Gelee and Horchata Foam: Tasted like orange, grapefruit, and possibly some lemon & lime in small pieces under chunks of a sweet rhubarb gelee, as the title would imply. We didn't make out what our waitress said the foam was at the start, so it was really confusing, as the horchata provided a really familiar, but not-instantly-recognizable flavor. This was odd, in that it was purely sweet - sweet and tangy citrus + sweet rhubarb + sweet and creamy horchata foam. Still, it wasn't overbearing, and didn't feel out of place at all.

Ei-Nyung Eats a Croquette

Sweet Pea and Spring Lettuce Croquette: I'm not sure Ei-Nyung's recollection that this was a Pea & Spring Lettuce croquette is accurate - the pea part, definitely, but I didn't clearly hear the waitress, and I don't think Ei-Nyung did, either. This was a small cube that we were advised to eat in a single bite. So, I popped it in my mouth, and the outside was crisp and crunchy. As I bit through it, I can't even recall a specific flavor, other than the sensation that the interior of my mouth had been coated in "deliciousness." It had the sweetness of the peas, but was otherwise just a slightly sweet, earthy, velvety kaboom of flavor. And then it was gone. I wouldn't mind having had two of these, one of which to experience in exactly this way, and one to pick apart, and figure out what, exactly, I was tasting.

The Egg

The Egg: This came in an eggshell. We were told it was a layered dish, and the recommendation was to dip the spoon in to the bottom, and scoop out that way. It was basically a whipped egg white mixed with sherry vinegar, a couple layers of some sort of other creamy stuff, chives, and the yolk at the bottom, gently cooked. Then, a small touch of maple syrup was added. This actually really stymied me, because when I dipped my spoon in, I hit the solid edge of the cooked yolk (just barely solid, but still solid), and what happened was that the yolk pushed to the side, "turning" the entire interior of the dish. So, I ended up with a spoonful of the white, which was really vinegar-y, and since I didn't have any of the other cream, and the maple, this one spoonful totally blew out my palate for the rest of the dish. It's really unfortunate, because as I scooped around, trying to reconstruct what it *should* have tasted like, I got a sense that the sweetness of the syrup, the tang of the vinegar, and the creaminess of the other layers, whatever they were, would have been quite pleasant, indeed. But, unfortunately, my experience was a bit less than ideal.

Foie Gras & Strawberries

Twice Cooked and Mesquite Grilled Foie Gras With Balsamic Strawberries a la Plancha: This was a quarter-inch thick slice of foie gras, sitting over a grilled, balsamic marinated strawberry. The smokiness and buttery-ness of the foie gras, mixed with the slightly firm, juicy, tart, sweet strawberries was a very interesting combination. There was a very fine dice of some other vegetables as well, but I couldn't make out distinctly what they were. As tasty as this was, it actually brought up an issue I wish I'd raised earlier, when the waitress asked if we had any dietary restrictions. I don't have anything I *can't* eat, I just have things I'd prefer not to eat. Not because of taste - I'd eat pretty much anything at a place like this - but rather, I'd simply rather not have foie gras and veal, and I'd hope that if I requested not to have them at a place like this, that's pretty well the only way I can really "vote with my pocketbook," in the dim hopes that veal & foie gras stop being "made."

Sea Bass Sashimi

Sashimi of Summer Sea Bass: This was, I believe, marinated in a white Dashi, and was accompanied with some julienned radish, nori, and white sesame seeds. The bass was cut thick enough that you got a good sense of its texture and flavor. THe first few bites were excellent, but by the end of the dish, I'd realized my only noticable complaint of the night, which is that a couple of the dishes (noted later) were a touch overseasoned. Still, we've had similar dishes at Morimoto, and Chez Panisse. Though the seasoning was better at the other two, I'd put this in the middle, for the actual components of flavor, with Morimoto's version head and shoulders above the rest.

Parisian Melon Soup w/ Almond Tofu

Cool Persian Melon Soup w/ Almond Tofu: This, to me, was the most bizarre and confusing dish of the night. It was basically a yellow soup, with a dab of a beige-ish blob in the middle, and a couple very, very small balls of the melon that made up the soup. Don't get me wrong - this was *delicious*, but it was really weird, to me, because the three dominant flavors were the sweetness of the melon, the earthiness of the almond tofu (which was basically almost liquid), and butter. The particular interplay of butter flavor (which was probably, in fact, butter) and the almond flavor was really weird, and the weirdness was heightened by the sweetness of the melon. It felt like an awkward date, where the best friend of one of the people keeps telling weird and slightly inappropriate jokes.

It took a good portion of the dish to get my brain to understand what the heck it was eating, and once that happened, it was remarkably good. Deep, interesting flavor, unusual contrasts, and again, a delicately balanced contrast of savory and sweet. Good stuff.

Dover Sole & Vegetable Gazpacho

Dover Sole Roasted on the Bone With a Vegetable Gazpacho with Cardune and Chantrelle Mushrooms: I've never had Cardune before. It had the texture of bok choy, and the flavor of something like artichoke. It was so completely unexpected and delicious that short of the first bite of the olive madeline, this was my favorite bite of the entire night. I'd love to find more of this stuff, just to spring it on friends in some random dish. The sole was very well cooked, and the whole dish excellent - a couple of perfectly cooked vegetables, and a very smokey, crisp-on-the-outside-delicate-on-the-inside piece of fish. One of my favorites. (very slightly overseasoned)

Veal Sweetbreads

Braised Sweetbreads w/ Chantrelle Mushroom With Charred Lettuce of some sort and corn and something pudding: The description was too long, and so neither of us could remember the specifics. The sweetbreads were surprisingly good, and the grilled lettuce (?!?!) complemented it well. But the notion of eating veal really put a damper on the dish for me, so that was that.

Roasted Rabbit

Roasted Rabbit w/ Rabbit Consomme: Man, this is getting long. This was a small cut of a roasted piece of rabbit, with some sort of stuffing, fingerling potatoes, and a small quarter of a carrot, which I thought was a very odd touch. This was really good, but honestly, if they had said it was chicken, and not rabbit, I'm not sure I'd have been able to tell the difference. (slightly overseasoned)

Curried Goat

Curried Kid Goat w/ Sweet Peas: When the waitress put this on our table, the first thing we noticed was just a punch in the face of curry aroma. Tasty, sure, but *POW*. So, it was really weird when we ate the dish, and found the curry flavor to actually be mild enough to clearly make out the flavor of the meat, and be complemented by, instead of overpowering the peas.

Hibiscus jelly & Watermelon Sorbet w/ Strawberry

Hibiscus Jelly with Watermelon Sorbet and Strawberry: The strawberry was good - not extraordinary, but definitely good. THe hibiscus jelly was incredibly floral, and pungent (in a good way). Very clean-tasting, and sweetened just right. The watermelon sorbet was *awesome*. I could have eaten a huge scoop of it, but alas, the scoop we got was tiny - maybe a #20 melonballer. Great stuff.

Cherry Souffle & Basil Ice Cream

Cherry Souffle with Basil Ice Cream: The cherry souffle appear to have been made in an egg holder. It was this little tiny souffle, with a small scoop of light green basil ice cream. Both were creamy, and beautiful. The souffle was hot as all hell, and it was hard to eat at first because to get a good scoop out, you had to steady the egg holder it came in, but you couldn't, because it was ripping hot. Still, once it had cooled a touch, it was just a great, fluffy consistency, with a subtle cherry flavor that went well with the also subtle, but distinctly basil ice cream.

Churro w/ Tonka Bean sugar &

Churro with Hot(?) Chocolate: The small churro was dusted with sugar and tonka bean, which is a bean that's sometimes used instead of pure vanilla when making vanilla extract. The chocolate came in an espresso cup, and was surprisingly not at all hot. Cold, in fact. Intentional, I believe, but weird. I've never had chocolate that was liquid at that temperature, and still as thick as that, and as chocolate-y. The churro was like eating air - incredibly delicate, yet still crispy and flavorful.

The Mess at the End (plus Strawberry Jellies & Chocolate Madelines)

Strawberry Gelee with Chocolate Madelines: The strawberry gelee was incredibly flavorful, and the chocolate madeline was also excellent, but to be perfectly honest, after the other dishes, which were almost all challenging, unexpected, or surprising in some way, this, which was exactly what it looked like, was a bit of a letdown. Which may have been the surprise, in and of itself.

All in all, an excellent meal. Not cheap, by any stretch, but an experience I'd heartily recommend.


Blogger ei-nyung said...

My abosolute favorite dishes -- the ones I which I could eat by themselves as a main entree to the point of stuffedness -- were the croquettes, the egg, and the melon soup.

I can't add much to what Seppo said about the croquettes, except that in order to get the pic, I had to pop mine back out of my mouth then hold it back in, since Seppo had already eaten his without taking the pic. Oh yeah, that's how you spell c-l-a-s-s-y. They were astoundingly delicious.

The egg was such a surprising mix of flavors, but then again, it really wasn't surprising. I commented to Seppo that it's sort of the Holy Grail of subtle flavors that people are trying to hit when they mix sweet & savory (and slightly vinegary) on a protein-y dish, like chicken & waffles w/ hot sauce, or sausage & maple syrup. The waitress commented that the egg is made by cutting the top of the raw egg off with an "egg top cutter" or something, then scooping out all the egg, lining the botton with salt and chives, scooping back in the yolk and gently cooking that, and topping that with a soft-peak whipped egg white foam with sherry vinegar. I forget if the maple syrup came in before or after the foam, but I suspect after, based on the appearance of the egg when serves (slight brown streaks through the foam).

Oh man, oh man, the melon soup! My favorite dish of the night. As Seppo said, definitely an odd assortment of flavors, but for some reason, it didn't take me past the first bite for the flavors to click in place in my mind and make sense, so I was able to fully enjoy it all the way through. I thought I detected the flavor of chicken stock in the soup rather than butter, but in either case, there was a savory note.

The biggest thing about the dishes at Manresa was that nothing was "interesting" merely to be interesting. Every dish was delicious to varying degrees, whether it was merely tasty or stunningly flavorful.

I didn't find anything to be overseasoned, but I'm sort of a seasoning freak, and I drink lots of water as I eat, so the salt doesn't accumulate on my palate. YMMV.

As for the foie gras dish, this was the first time that I've thought to myself, "Oh! This is why people eat foie gras." I don't go seek out foie gras, because of the ethical implications, but when it's been present on the plate without my necessarily having foreknowledge of it, I've eaten it with no problems, but it was never prepared in a way that I'd "get" it. Even at Morimoto, the piece was so small and so overwhelmed by the distinct taste of kobe beef that was on the plate with it that it didn't have a chance to shine. Now that I "get" it, I think I can start actively avoiding it. I enjoyed it immensely and I didn't want to never have a chance to "get" it, but my quest can now be over. :)

For me, the best savory dish was the curried kid goat. Perfectly balanced and fragrant, the curry brought out the flavor of the goat, which was surprisingly clean and, er, meaty (I think I expected something between pork and chicken for taste, with some gaminess).

All the accompanying vegetables were perfectly prepared.

All of the desserts were delightful and delicious. The basil ice cream stands out in my mind as being something I wish I could get again. It wasn't as punchy as mint ice cream -- it was definitely basil -- yet it held its own next to the warm and creamy souffle, which was the perfect size for one person, by the way. The cold chocolate and accompanying churro were sooooooooooo good. The watermelong sorbet, as Seppo said, was really great -- fresh & watermelony without additional sweetness.

I can't think of a single dish I had that was less than delicious. I had some mental issues with the sweetbreads, so I couldn't properly appreciate its delicate texture, but that's about it. Even the dishes I don't call out by name were worth having.

In particular, the amuse bouches and desserts were wonderful in their balance and surprising elements. The mains were very much in line with Chez Panisse's concept of locally grown ingredients cooked carefully and tastefully. In particular, the rabbit was prepared very similarly to the chicken we had at Chez Panisse a few weeks ago with Seppo's parents.

All in all, I would heartily recommend it and go back for special occasions.

11:33 AM  

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