Monday, November 28, 2011

MANRESA - On the Occasion of My Last Winter Garden

A little over a year ago, I had the privilege of dining at Manresa in Los Gatos.  It was my birthday celebration, and what could possibly be more special than dinner for two in one of the world’s premiere restaurants?
An Imaginative Amuse Bouche

While sitting in the tiny foyer waiting for our table, my glee at glimpsing the kitchen preparing the night’s repast became evident to the well-dressed man who I mistook at that time for the Mâitre d.  He approached and we chatted.  Being a food writer, I asked about the restaurant’s upcoming plans, and he told me that they were building a sort of garden bar, the specifics of which he did not disclose as it was to be something of a surprise.  Polite and informative while holding back any real detail about the planned project that might spoil it’s launch, I found him charming.  I’d met him before, on a previous trip to Manresa, and he was no less gracious on this second occasion, remembering me and addressing me by name.

Grapefruit & Fennel Ceviche of Scallop with Truffle
At some point during the meal, Michael and I (he’d introduced himself by this point) got to talking about the wait staff.  I’d become increasingly transfixed by their orchestrated movements, the way each one always came in one side of the room and left by the other, circling the tables as naturally as water flows downstream.  They were graceful, more graceful than many I’ve seen, and I’ve been to quite a few Michelin-starred establishments.  It appeared to me that they were actually choreographed.  Since I have a theatrical background, I wondered if they were indeed rehearsed in this seamless ebb and flow of perfect service.  I asked Michael if this were the case. He smiled, beaming, clearly proud of the effort and pleased that I had recognized this attention to detail.  I asked him if I might come back and interview them (and him) on the intricacies of their specific routines.  He replied that I would be most welcome to do so.  I wish now that I had managed to find the time to schedule the interview.  The opportunity has passed.

Michael Kean was Manresa’s Manager, but he was more than that.  Losing him, they lost a friend and a presence that cannot be replaced.  Certainly the restaurant will not suffer any lack of attention to detail, nor will it become less than it was, they will see to it that a great talent is brought in to fill the void.  But I felt it important to take a moment to let the world know that anyone who missed out on an evening with Michael Kean, missed something truly remarkable.

He wasn’t just the Manager, he was your host for the evening.  The kindly uncle who politely saw to it that each patron’s experience was something better than flawless, something even bigger than memorable.  I met him only twice, but he knew who I was on that second occasion, and I felt as though the restaurant was open just for me.  That everyone else dining there were guests at my table.   I'm sure all the other guests were made to feel the same way.  And that’s just how Mr. Kean would have wanted it.

Into the Vegetable Garden
At the conclusion of this magnificent meal, Michael asked me if I would like to stop by and visit the Chef in the Kitchen. An invitation to The Inner Sanctum! Of course I said “yes!” faster than a smitten teenager responds when first invited to the prom.  I cannot emphasize enough how lovely the experience was, and how much it was enhanced by Mr. Kean’s smooth management of the environs.  We rarely notice those who manage.  We don't notice because nothing goes wrong. The people who make things run smoothly, who spot problems before they happen, who solve, who labor to protect us from the things that might lessen our adventure protect us from the things that might spoil the moment.  Michael Kean was such a man, more guardian angel than administrator, he cradled you in the warmth of blissful abandon inside the cocoon of experience that is Manresa, until it was time to return to the less than perfect world outside those doors.  It was for me a perfect birthday, in large part, because Michael Kean had made it so.

Don't get me wrong, the meal was remarkable as well.  Chef Kinch is a master of the perfect meal.  We began with petit four of “red pepper-black olive” which was a red bell pepper pâtes de fruits mingled with black olives.  Next up were garden beignets seasoned with a lovely concoction called “vinegar powder.” The wine that was poured to accompany this delectable treat a Bailly La Tiere.

Enchanted Oysters
The oyster, aptly titled “elemental oyster” arrived on a bed of seaside rocks, looking hand sculpted of some beautiful, exotic stone ---  opening to reveal a large and luscious bite of meat.  Salty, seaworthy, the water refrain continued.

Next was a red enamel bowl of raw milk panacotta, and beautifully prepared Monterey Bay abalone, the hint of radish giving the briny dish a bit of earthy balance.  It was followed by a lovely garden green velouté, a sort of soup with Orleans mustard cream, assorted vegetable purees, and a delightful Riesling from Marin County.  The wine pairings are as precise as the feet of the dancing waitstaff.

We savored the scent of house made bread and sampled our Nantucket Bay Scallop Ceviche, delightfully enhanced with grapefruit, fennel & black truffle.  Divine.  As we nibbled we sipped a crisp, refreshing Ryan Chenin Blanc from Monterey, our wine tour of California landing in every major wine-producing port.

The shellfish in bonito butter was a mix of octopus and dungeness crab accompanied by a Cheverney Domain de Sabard Sauvignon Blanc.

One of the highlights of the meal was the next dish an amusing and whimsical salute to the winter “garden” theme of the evening: a platter of warm greens on a bed of faux “dirt” — picturesque and toothsome.  The wine, a Chenin Blanc, Chateau de Pierre.

The garden itself was followed by another bowl of liquid enchantment, the Winter Tidal Pool, warm, inviting and delicious.  The colors somber but the flavors inviting and reinvigorating.  Served with an Arvois red wine from the Jura region.

Sea Bass
After warming us with the soup, we were presented with a lovely serving of black bass, set off with sweet onion and marrow broth, and seasoned with chervil, and smoked lentil.  The next dish a crispy roasted portion of squab, on a bed of carrot, potato and truffle croquettes.  The wine a Sangiovese Pleiades.

As our evening drew to a close, the dishes got richer, each portion a partner in a dance, the music lasting just long enough to tantalize before that particular partner was whisked away to be replaced by another.  Our plates suddenly contained a roast rack of veal prepared tonnato, chilled and drizzled in a sauce of tuna.  The veal atop a mixture of assorted garden cabbage, porcini mushrooms & onion.

After a moment to breathe and to acknowledge the journey our tastebuds had been on, it was time for a palate cleanser, this time a lychee champagne gelee with lychee ice cream, and a kiss of rose foam.  And then, of course, the elaborate red cheese cart rolled up to the table.  Manresa has a beautiful hand tooled cart, as lovely to look at as the wide variety of cheeses that ride its surface like Cleopatra on her palanquin.  We sampled a Cow’s milk from the Loire valley, that had been aged in abandoned railway tunnels.  It had a beautiful hazelnut and butterscotch quality, the humidity of the tunnels having provided the perfect environment for its maturation.  Next a cheese whose name sounds a bit like “de la vorc” with a similar flavor and texture to a parmegian.  Also a fudgy-textured delight with a nutty profile from the Western Pyranee’s Basque region; a Pireille papillion from Rouillard France (its double buttercream texture holding nuances of truffle and mushroom); a Goat’s milk Cyrus Gouda (the goat’s-milk is produced locally but aged in Holland);  a Cel Courshare, also from the Loire valley.  This cheese has a wood ash rind of blue mold, which makes it tangy with a nice runny interior; Finally a Trepa fuillard robiola – the mix of sheep/cow/goat, mingling to make it firmer than a triple cream.  This kind of world tour of cheeses is one of my favorite parts of any fine-dining experience.

Dessert was light and refreshing, a panacotta of orange, meyer lemon and vanilla ice cream & honey over a light graham cracker “crust.”  Simple, sweet, delectable.

Cheese Cart Magic 
There are many things about that wonderful meal that I have long-since forgotten. Details of presentation and preparation that elude me with the passing of time.  But the experience, the memory that I was warm, and comforted and dining on something like edible magic, that has not dimmed.

As we left, and Michael handed us those lovely envelopes that contain the evening’s menu, my copy thoughtfully signed by each member of the staff with birthday wishes, I had no idea it would be the last time he would do so.  So if you haven’t been to Manresa, or to any other special place you’ve always wanted to experience, don’t wait.  The lesson is, there is always a beautiful experience to be had, but just like live theater, no two shows are ever the same.  I’m glad I was afforded the opportunity to enjoy the Michael Kean experience, and will cherish my memories when I return.

A Sweet Finish
Go to Manresa as soon as you can.  Do not wait.  Life is short and meant to be lived with abandon.  Ask Michael, he’d have told you the same thing.