Summary: Solid but uninspired food in comfortable sourroundings.
My report on Manresa is a long time coming, given that we ate there in August 2005. For some reason, I haven't been quite inspired to write it. Indeed, that may be the problem with Manresa itself: it's a nice restaurant, with a comfortable room, fine service and solid food, but its offerings lacked both magic and inspiration. This is quite puzzling, since only last year Manresa was named as one of the "World's 50 Best Restaurants" by Restaurant magazine (though it didn't make it to the 2006 list) and local foodies, such as Vinography's Alder Yarrow, regularly sing its praises. My own friend "Foodmuse" wrote a wonderful review of Manresa soon after it opened - but after a recent visit she echoed my thoughts of feeling "uninspired". My friend Gigi, who visited it in January 2006 had no complaints with the quality of the food or its creativity, but was outraged by the complete lack of complementarity and overall balance of the tasting menu, dishes clashed with each other to the point that it made her stomach turn. My experience - ordering off the regular menu - was different, but still basically disappointing. Something, alas, seems to not be working well at Manresa.
One definite problem we experienced was with the service. I appreciated the diversity of the wait staff, they came in all ages, genders, nationalities, looks and body shapes. As befits a Spanish restaurant, there were several Hispanics. But our main waitress seemed to be reluctant to even give the appearance of making an effort. Both Mike and I were interested in trying the tasting menu - which at Manresa is kept secret, the waitress would not tell us what was included, though that might have been laziness on her part - but I was concerned as I don't eat a variety of seafood. The waitress immediately steered me away from it, without even pretending to ask the kitchen if my tastes could be accommodated (they also serve a vegetarian tasting menu, so conceivably they could have mixed-and-matched dishes from both menus to suit my taste). This is quite different from past experiences at other high-end restaurants. Unfortunately, their rule is that everyone at the table must order the tasting menu, which meant that Mike had to skip it as well. According to Foodmuse and Gigi, everyone at the table is served the same dishes and the menu itself doesn't seem to change much from time to time, even though Foodmuse visited Manresa a month after Gigi, most of the dishes in the tasting menu were the same.
Other service problems included the spacing of dishes (our second amuse bouche arrived before we were done with the first one), the lack of attention to the table (napkins weren't replaced, the table was only brushed once), having to wait half an hour to get the bill and then just as long to get the change (by that point we were thinking the waitress was just appropriating the change as a 25% tip) and the unforgivable fact that they forgot to serve us the cheese course. Gigi and Foodmuse also complained about spacing problems, so it seems that the wait and kitchen staff may just be in need of more training.
Our off-the-menu meal started with a complimentary amuse bouche of strawberry gazpacho served in shot glasses. The thick gazpacho smelled subtly of tomatoes, looked like strawberry soup and tasted like both, softly yet distinctively, each flavor stimulating different parts of your tongue. An almond provided an enjoyable contrast in both texture and taste. We liked it.
This followed by a second amuse bouche of deep fried padron peppers. They were salty on the outside and intensely bitter in the inside. Mike enjoyed them, but they weren't my cup of tea.
A third amuse bouche consisted of a soft egg topped with sherry cream, dill and maple syrup, served in an egg shell. We were told to reach deep into the shell and eat everything together. It was very good, the elements combined into what was a new flavor for me, a bit sour, with freshness fromm the dill, and was ultimately balanced and comforting.
Our first dish of the menu was foie gras served with a bittersweet apricot jam. The foie gras was cold, and had a wonderful butter texture but whatever natural flavor it had was overwhelmed by the jam. I can't help but think that it would have been better if it was warm, but that might be my own prejudice. In any case, the jam did not help it, and the whole dish was too sweet and better suited for dessert.
My main dish was a steak, it was perfectly cooked medium rare and was quite tasty though a bit undersalted. It was, of course, a very small portion. The tiny spec of garlic mashed potatoes that accompanied it was also very good. Alas, it was not a spectacular dish and one that I could easily replicate at home.
The same thing could be said about Mike's pork. It was tender, slightly sweet, moist and with a subtle flavor. However, it was very fatty. Once again, he was pleased but underwhelmed.
For dessert, I had what I think was a praline souffle, which was soft, sultry and just plain delicious. It had a perfect nougat taste that made me simply "wow." It was, however, very sweet and I grew tired of it. The accompanying ice cream was, according to my real-time notes, "super."
Mike had a chocolate dessert, a ball of thick chocolate creme which was also good but also ultimately boring.
After dinner we were offered a variety of exotic teas from a beautiful wooden box. We decided on the jasmine pearl tea which we hadn't tried before. These are little balls that once added to hot water open up and grow into a veritable forest. The tea itself was weak, it had a very subtle jasmine, but it smelled wonderful.
The meal ended with petit fours which were actually quite good.
While we weren't impressed by the food or the service, we did like the restaurant itself. The dining rooms are comfortable and casually elegant, and the patrons are the casual Silicon Valley type who prefer polo shirts and khakis to suits or jackets. Still, a comfortable ambiance does not justify a $250 meal.
320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA