This weekend we went to Manresa, as guests of our friends for their wedding rehearsal dinner. This sort of thing is typically as much as I ever get of “Fine Dining” as we usually either cook at home or grab something from a nearby taqueria. (I recently mentioned to someone “I’m not sure the last time we ate anywhere that even takes reservations.”) But I do vaguely stay informed of trends, mainly to see how I might apply them in my own cooking. So you can take this in the context of someone who cooks, but is not a hardcore restaurant-visiting foodie. I had never heard of the place, and indeed it was the second choice for our hosts as the other restaurant had suddenly gone out of business. From looking at the websites of both, perhaps the other might have been a better option for the stubbornly picky eaters in the group, but so be it.
The location in Los Gatos hinted at a certain pretentiousness that I typically avoid, in the same way I don’t hang out in Noe Valley. On some tables there were large arrangements of roses, clearly awaiting romantic dinner dates to arrive. But we were greeted warmly despite having to move the reservation 30 minutes for being late and several in the party obviously uninterested in the suggested business casual attire. Our servers spent as much time as we needed to explain the menu, which was helpful. It was mostly taken up with the groom’s parents, although I was able to inquire about a few things that seemed dangerously dairy-laden. The way it works is once seated you order four items from the menu and they are served in something vaguely resembling a traditional sequence of courses. (I would imagine most people do get salad/soup/entree/dessert or thereabouts, but this is not at all required.)
First arrived the bread, which was a spectacular sourdough. If it wasn’t hearth baked, then that is some mighty impressive oven they must have there to get that kind of result: a touch of carbon on the outside and chewy and moist inside with huge holes. Yes, moist, which is damn hard to get in a yeast bread that has any kind of rise whatsoever. Made me wax nostalgic for my late, lamented sourdough starter. At any rate, I ate a lot of it.
Next were two different items: a strawberry gazpacho and some sort of savory cream made to look like an egg and served in an eggshell. I was expecting an amuse-bouche and thought the gazpacho was it, but then arrived the egg. I noticed our host (who is vegan) had something else entirely. I asked the server what it contained and when I politely pushed it aside she offered to bring a non-dairy option, a grape? granita with flavored soda of some sort. So that was nice (and I liked the granita) although being unfamiliar with the menu I wish I had known I could have requested more explicitly non-dairy options. (Mostly that was not a problem until it came to dessert.)
My first course was sea bream sashimi, with olive oil and seasonings. It was laid out in thin slices to cover the center of the plate in a circle, I have no idea what the little shredded tower of something was in the center (radish?) but it tasted good. I like raw fish. Next was a soup, a puree of greens poured over some vegetables, whole and in pastes, and a mustard sauce already in the bowl. The “mustard cream” had a little dairy in it but not enough to be a concern. I liked the texture of the crunchy sweet corn and getting a little of this and a little of that from the different flavors was fun.
Dillo had a dish of vegetables prepared several ways, cooked and raw that was exceptional. Little tiny vegetables of all sorts, although in the dim light I couldn’t begin to say what most of them were. There was reportedly a fennel bulb that Dillo much appreciated. The cooking broth was made into a foam, which I’m kinda unsure about, but it tasted ok. I understand foams are a hot foodie thing right now, so whatever. The veggies were enough right there. Our hosts, one vegan and one vegetarian, always have this dish. Then he had the lobster with cardoons, pickled green strawberries, foie gras and some other stuff I can’t remember. He wasn’t a fan of the duck liver but we liked the rest. Strawberries in a savory dish was unexpected. The parents of the groom ordered the same thing and were clearly disappointed their plates with a small bit of lobster mixed with other things didn’t come with butter, lemon and a bib.
Next I had roast pork, medallions of what might have been tenderloin with a layer of fat that was crispy and fried on the outside. Like thick potato chip crispy. Fried pork fat is yummy so I really liked that and the meat was good too. Not dry or anything. Dillo had chicken, I don’t remember quite what was with it but he set the chicken skin off to the side of the plate and dangerously close to mine, so it vanished when he wasn’t looking. About now we were really feeling sorry for the staff, who had to deal with the father of the groom sending back his chicken because it was “raw.” And after the second attempt we determined that his idea of properly cooked chicken is grilled until dry so his moist chicken breast was unceremoniously pushed away, uneaten.
The dessert selections were a problem, all of them featured stuff I can’t eat like ice cream and coffee. I ordered the apple dish with the ice cream on the side, thinking that would avoid most of the dairy. Well it came layered like a Napoleon with apple, caramelized sugar and cream. Very attractive, but more dairy than I was willing to deal with. I was able to pick it apart and give Dillo the cream part (swapping it and the ice cream for his beignets) but it was a little messy. Our host had requested something entirely different and vegan. Since we ordered everything at the start, I didn’t know what was going on when I could have more conveniently done something about it. I only found out later that our host had requested basically his entire meal specially made vegan. After all the fuss with the chicken incident, I wasn’t about to embarrass him any further by pressing the subject regarding my dessert. I can deal.
All in all I enjoyed the meal, even if my unfamiliarity with the menu and the chef made a couple things a little more of a surprise than I might have preferred. The portion size was modest, but with several courses plus bread it’s not like I was hungry after. I actually prefer that to having to choose only one thing and even then taking part of it home. (We were staying in a hotel, so this was less than desirable.) I was willing to experiment so I wasn’t intimidated by various stuff I didn’t recognize on the menu. This is absolutely the kind of place where you are there for the experience and to be entertained, not merely to count the nutritional values and see that they add up.
Our servers had everything totally under control, every course came out together even for a large party and no water glass was permitted to be less than half full. (I will note that the orchestrated service is a little less creepy for those not accustomed when you don’t feel outnumbered by the staff.) They also graciously handled cranky parents, although I would not choose to bring certain people to such a place. Whether or not we go back will depend on a great many other things (this was very expensive, getting to Los Gatos is a big pain and so is a meal that runs late into the evening) but I would be happy to make a return visit. If they were open earlier on weekends I would totally go mid-afternoon, as it was I was grateful to have taken a nap earlier in the day so I could make it past 9pm without threatening to fall over.