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Manresa

A South Bay Culinary Destination

Critics and food bloggers alike consistently choose peninsula restaurant Manresa as one of their favorites, and yet we couldn't help but a notice a relatively recent spate of negative diner reviews on the web. Was Manresa off its game? Were diners simply expecting too much? Was it too avant-garde? We decided to take matters into our own hands and find out. Choosing your dinner is not too difficult; Manresa offers a four-course meal for $88 or a "seasonal and spontaneous" tasting menu for $125. Wine pairing is $52 or $80 respectively.

Tucked away behind the main street in Los Gatos, Manresa's location is unpresumptuous from the outside. Inside, care has been taken to create a warm, arts and crafts style dcor. This care is not always apparent in the service.

For instance, we ordered a half bottle of Champagne in hopes that it would carry us well into the tasting menu, but would have appreciated a suggestion whether to order a red wine to accompany the meat courses or a sweet wine for dessert. None were given. But a bigger faux pas came when one of the courses was served while one of our party of two was absent. Timing was inconsistent; sometimes courses came in rapid succession, other times 20-minutes went by before a course made it to the table.

Service aside, a playful start to the meal appeared in the form of petit fours of a red pepper gele and black olive Madeleine. Next came a barely cooked tomato soup showing the chef's great respect for ingredients. The eggplant soup with smoked miso cream was creamy and rich, the very essence of eggplant. But our favorite had to be the Arpege farm egg. A soft-cooked, almost liquid egg is layered with sherry vinegar and a drizzle of maple syrup. It's a delicacy that marries unexpected flavors in a most satisfying way.

We had seven main courses on our tasting menu, beginning with foie gras served with peaches, a study in soft creamy textures and sweet flavors. The biggest "wow" was the seaweed-lemon granita and tomato salad. Served in a cocktail glass, this layered concoction of creamy corn, lemongrass gele, crispy granita and fruity sweet peeled cherry tomatoes with a thin crisp bit of nori was a revelation, exploding with freshness.

The courses that followed were hit-or-miss. Smoked salmon roe served with an avocado mousse and roast tuna jus was marred by the addition of crunchy salt. We can't imagine when juicy beads of salmon roe ever need the addition of salt.

While we normally love them, we found the flavor in the sweetbreads to be off, the texture rubbery and sauce grainy. Abalone and slow egg with bread crusts was tasty, but a bit lackluster after the brighter flavors of the previous dishes. We loved the sea bream served with a crispy squash blossom; it reminded us of fish and chips.

We also loved the lamb with spiced vegetables. The juxtaposition of braised lamb shoulder and lamb loin was novel and allowed us to enjoy both earthier well-cooked and juicy rare lamb at once. With the exception of the abalone and foie gras, there was a surprising lack of luxury ingredients -- no caviar, oysters, truffles, etc. But expectations for a special meal were met nonetheless.

Our favorite dessert featured familiar flavors -- chocolate banyols with burnt cinnamon, espresso gele and a scoop of ice milk. Sadly a delicate, soft, strawberry sorbet topped with equally delicate crunchy hibiscus granita was overwhelmed when doused in huckleberry consomm. The meal came full circle with a repeat of the petit fours, this time in the form of a strawberry gele and chocolate Madeleine. Perhaps not perfect, but a worthwhile culinary adventure all the same.

French, Spanish
Los Gatos
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Reservations Essential? Yes.