Sunday, April 11, 2010

The San Francisco Treats

I put my heels back on for some serious, mindful west coast dining. I tackled Manresa first, which I've heard loads about. I actually watched David Kinch cook--and lose--to Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. I remember thinking that his plating was pristine and unique, but I didn't really know the level of precision exacted until I went up to Los Gatos on Thursday night. It's amazing I survived the red eye and didn't fall asleep in my veloute. But I didn't.

The dining room is intimate and warm, with red walls and dark wood. Somewhere, there's a garden, but night hid it from us, which is a shame. I would love to see where the produce comes from. Amuse bouche included crispy kale chips (similar to a recipe from The New York Times that I recently oversalted and consequently botched), warm savory beignets filled with chard and cheese, and an impossibly delicious egg; it somehow arrived in its shell, soft cooked and blended with creme fraiche and maple syrup. We had to dig deep and get each yolky combination on the spoon. It tasted like a condensation of breakfast, like we had mistakenly blended our eggs with our French toast, and in the best possible way.

Manresa offers two different tasting menus and we opted for the less pricey of the two. For that, we were able to choose an appetizer, a fish course, a meat course, and a dessert. As there were three of us, we decided to order twelve different dishes, a good representation of the restaurant. Appetizers included a light and delicate sea bream sashimi, with olive oil and chives; a verdant soup poured table side with tiny purple flowers and ground mustard; and battered, fried mussels with stacked stalks of asparagus. Flowers are abundant in every dish, a reminder of warmer weather. For fish: diver scallops seared and only slightly memorable; cod with a rich and salty brown sauce; seared sea bass with pureed parsnip. A fine nod to the sea, if not anything particularly mind-blowing. Our meat courses were larger than we expected, especially given the price to food ratio usually observed in fine dining (the larger the price tag, the smaller the meal). Duck breast came with an over oranged glaze but an addictive mashed beet side. Beef bavettes were fine, as were the accompanying grain, but the lamb won the show--loin and tongue, in a sea of spring ramps, mint, pea puree. We couldn't finish.

Manresa's wine list is manageable enough and we drank Sekt to begin and then a bottle of Brewer Clifton "Ashley's" pinot noir, cheap by New York standards. Drinking California in California is a bargain. We chose three cheeses for an extra fee, and the fromager, impressed by my limited but existent knowledge of American artisanal cheeses, brought over three extra, aged provolone and parmesan and creamy unnamed sheep's cheese from the back. Pre-dessert, a buttermilk sorbet with tangy foam. Desserts were combination plates, full of beignets with powdered sugar, ice-cream, caramelized banana, cake, nougat, mint panna cotta, and caramel. My favorite was a limey semifreddo served with strawberries. I could have done without the truffles that signified the meal's end, and even without the soft caramels that came as we walked to the car. But each plate maintained the signature of Kinch's sure hand, a delicacy and a beauty that only comes with a deep love of the craft. So I admire the ambition, even if I won't ever return.

For lunch on Friday, I headed to Japantown with my friend A. We went to Tanpopo, for pork broth ramen and then to a crepe place in the Japanese mall for crepes with banana and cinnamon and sugar and butter. Later, I met up with an old friend who, for several years now, has worked as a server at Traci des Jardin's Jardiniere. After a lot of complimentary Laurent-Perrier, we moved on to a complimentary charcuterie plate, the winner of which was the stellar pate and cornichon. We shared salty, pan-seared quail and diver scallops with fava beans and an uni emulsion that mostly tasted of butter. Next came a mid-course of gnocchi and mint and stewed lamb, extremely soft pasta that still took ample space in my stomach. I had to stop before I finished to save room for the next course, halibut and a pork tasting. The pork was rich, but once again too much on my plate. We washed this down with a Littorai pinot noir. Dessert remains a wide gap in my memory, which leads me to believe it wasn't particularly memorable. But the macarons that came with our check were chewy and sweet, a nice end.

Saturday found me first at the Japantown cherry blossom festival, where I watched my friend A. obsess over spam musubi and these little pancakes filled with red bean paste. We went to Absinthe for a drink and bowl of onion soup, a decidedly good version of one of my old favorites. By dinner, we were bored with nice restaurants and had decamped for the Mission, where we ate tacos and burritos and fine guacamole at Puerto Allegre. We ended the day of gluttony with cakes and puddings at Tartine, where I've heard they make a mean croissant (they were out). Instead, I had a lackluster and very sweet lemon meringue cake and a taste of a friend's smooth chocolate pudding, the surefire dessert winner.

Finally, for my last moments in the Bay Area, I pushed through rain and cold in a panda hat to the Ferry Building for lunch at the long-lauded Slanted Door. Thank heavens for my hearty eater friend N., who was up for the challenge of eating through the menu. And thank heavens for our server, who suggested half-portions of some dishes to save room in our stomachs and wallets. As a result, we had room for yellowtail sashimi with Thai basil and fried shallots; spring rolls with pork and prawns and peanut sauce; wood-fired Manila clams in broth with sliced green peppers, onions, and pork belly; sticky pork spareribs; a large daikon rice cake, swimming in soy sauce and cilantro; cellophane noodles with dungeness crab; and sugar snap peas with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. We drank a surprisingly reasonable 1992 Zilliken spatlese riesling and came out in the clear. So long, San Francisco. Thanks for all the fish.

320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030

1740 Buchanan Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

300 Grove Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar
398 Hayes Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Puerto Allegre
546 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

The Slanted Door
1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111