Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Manresa vs. Rio Grill vs. Gourmet Magazine

Last February Brendan and I reported for duty at The Masters of Food and Wine, as normal. The previous year we met and worked with Andoni Aduriz and a whole passel of three-star frogs.....Brendan wound up working for Andoni at Mugaritz in Spain. We had high expectations....but.....

This year the talent was thin on the ground: some random Hungarian who did dumplings; a good lobster guy from New England, but not blessed; a strange black Swedish guy from Aqavit in New York, not blessed either.

We prepped like dogs for the lobster guy in our normal corner of the kitchen. Next to us was a crew of quiet white guys: young Americans, what a change! They were working on diver scallops....which, typically of Monterey seafood.....sucked. They were flown in from Mars on the Voyager, and suffered in the translation.

All was normal, and boring. We were working on a lobster consommée for our guy, precisely chopping bits of veg. Micah was doing something grotesque with duck tongues for the Hungarian or the Swede while the kids bitched about the scallops, but continued gamely cleaning them. Then, their main guy.....David Kinch....took all the trash from cleaning the scallops: the guts, reproductive parts, etc. and went to work. He tossed the sexy parts and heaved the scallop tripe into a big bowl with a couple of pounds of kosher salt and started kneading this funky grey mass. He did this for a while, with a big smile...and talked about the place in the south of France where he got the recipe, and about working in San Sebastian (at Akelaré, as it turns out.....(we stole Akelaré's bonito/roasted tomato broth preparation after Brendan visited during his Mugaritz tour)).

The tripe were kneaded, rinsed, and kneaded again until they were clean. Then they were sautéed up in a straight-forward kind of sauce to garnish the scallops. The people never knew that the amazing part of the dish they were served was not the slice of truffle under the diver scallop on the big beautiful shell....but the scallop tripe that provided the pizzazz.....and cost all the work.

David Kinch is the chef of Manresa, right near us in Los Gatos. Our first day off, we bundled up and went to visit.

Manresa is located a block off the main drag in The Cats. The building is completely unprepossessing: it might have been a dental lab or a furniture store, and it takes a while to find. Even the Mexicans working in the restaurant across the street were vague about the location. The ladies at Williams Sonoma let us use the phone, but had no ideas either.

Amanda and I had been at a meeting with a bride in Los Altos, and made our reservation for the Geek Hour: 5:30.

So....we are in a square, concrete room at 5:30 for dinner, in a place no one in town knows about or can find. Not propitious.

Yeah, well.....fuck all y'all. The meal that followed was the best I have had in America since......uh. OK, well......Ever. It started out with red bell pepper Jucy Fruits and black olive madeleines and wound along through ten or fifteen courses that managed to walk the fine line between adventurous and weird. Throughout all, they were technically perfect, and perfectly realized. Our waiter was the backup guy to the Star Waiter: he was Avis to the Hertz, but he, too walked the thin line between familiar and formal......and I have to admit to being the Fine Dining Nightmare Customer from Hell: lots of knowlege, utterly picky, missing important neuro-transmitters and impulse control, passive-agressive, Post Traumatic Restaurant Stress Disorder....the whole hideous ball of wax. The back-up guy was perfect. He was Reggie Jackson in the '77 World Series.

We bought the wine pairing as well as the tasting menu, and the wines were the same balance of adventurous and technically tight. Saké, for instance. Our best moment was when the wine geek brought over Chesebro Rousanne and started to tell us about it........Dude, don't start. All the people that successfully edit my more outrageous posts are either Chesebros or colleagues of Chesebros.

The signature dishes among the fifteen or so: a perfectly cut soft boiled egg with maple syrup, sherry, caviar....whatever. A sweet Monterey Bay abalone. Good butter, good sea salt and a breakfast radish. Great bread......and four or five kinds.

Manresa is a thoughtful place.....Colors, flavors, ingredients, textures.....mixed and matched in ways that are sometimes disarmingly simple and other times brutally technical. Throughout it all, even the nightmare diner can discern the personality of the chef.....the same way my dad can tell the difference between conductors of a given piece of classical music. There are abalone, and there are David Kinch abalone: obsessive, brilliant, perfect.....at the same time humble, under-stated, organic (in the sense of roots-related cuisine) and technically superbly polished.

Manresa is without doubt the best food restaurant I have been to in America.....and better than all but maybe three anywhere in the world.

Then came the bill......for two, with the obligatory multi-champagne-Mikey-is-here start, plus the winetastings: $400 with tip. Five hours, fifteen courses, tour of kitchen, polite visit with chef; profound sense of relief that despite my hard work as the reserve right-fielder on the Single A farm team, Reggie Jackson still moves about the earth in at least one California kitchen, and his name is David Kinch.

Two nights later, we had an improbable Friday off. We had actually defended it so that we could all go to see Robert Earl Keene at Sunset Center: Brendan, Amanda, Conall and I. It was and 8pm show, so we did the Geek Hour thing again: 5:45 reservations.

The Rio is far and away the most successful restaurant in Carmel/Monterey....now or ever. The owner is obsessive-compulsive and grinds his staff hard....but has almost zero turnover. Many have been there for 20 years. All the super-snotty, demanding Carmel Monterey food nazis dine there regularly and are pleased as punch.

I am a loyal enough client that my portrait is painted on the wall of the bar, and upon my arrival the champagne is always already being poured. We come in late in aprons and chef coats, or early in soccer cleats and muddy bloody jerseys and no one bats an eye. When Chloe worked there she brought home smoked chicken every night for dinners at The Casa......The Rio is like our living room.

We had an actual table in the restaurant, as opposed to our normal spot in the bar. We ate actual entrées instead of vegetarian sandwiches and salads with calamari apps and the smoked chicken. The waitress talked us into their rib-eye steak, and away from a couple of different ideas we were toying with: "No....this is really great. Trust me......"

We still had some apps: the roasted garlic, the calamare, the crab cake, some salades.

The entrées arrived: grey vegetable, mound of fries, commercial grade sweaty rib-eye buried under a viscous slather of garlic mashed potatoes. It was so appalling that my appetite congealed like the flop-sweat gristle grease clinging to the spuds. The steak was maybe 12z of straight IBP feed-lot commercial shite. And thirty some-odd dollars!!

With a couple of bottles of wine, and the glasses of champagne, our bill came to $350.....plus tip, we were in Manresa territory. The next week, when I was posting the expenses for the two meals, I got just a nauseous all over again. It is the same feeling I get when I accidentally am exposed to Bill O'Reilly or Hannity: what planet are these people from? How can they not run out and get guns and shoot people for so obviously insulting their intelligence? On the one hand, we had a life-affirming experience that allowed us a glimpse into a hugely competent, creative soul....that gave us a new outlook and insight into the bounty of wonderful ingredients we have on our local restaurant palette..... a meal that was beautifully, subtlely, and competently served; on the other hand, we had a slab of random commercial shite flung on a plate as if everyone involved in the operation was ashamed of the food and their participation.


It was a further irony that the concert following this debacle was Robert Earl Keene. Robert Earl's band was utterly, perfectly tight; understated, quietly competent and diamond crystal clean. The music itself is humble, organic, from our cultural roots but heavily laced with the kind of dry humor that is seived through hard, hard work and sparkling intelligence. The perfect compliment to Manresa in my mind.

To be continued: we have to deal with this whole Gourmet Magazine thing.......

But meanwhile......There is a god: Manresa was just given two stars by Michelin in their first-ever California restaurant guide, just released.


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