Following last year's highs and lows from Manresa (see below), I knew I had to return. It made no sense how a kitchen could turn out such brilliance for the first 2/3 of the meal, and then such missteps the final 1/3. I had to try again, so I snagged another reservation. A month later, Chef Kinch announced he was leaving the restaurant at year's end. Reservations immediately became impossible to obtain, making me doubly glad I had mine in hand.
The menu was nearly identical to last year's, with the dishes I had such issues with "fixed" and vastly improved. Last year's wagyu ribeye was covered in raw mushrooms, making it eat incredibly dry. This year's wagyu strip was accompanied by a beautiful potato puree and a cooked cauliflower mushroom that goes down as one of the better things I have ever eaten. Gone were the dessert courses with pungent tart flavors and powerful peppery accents. In their place were beautiful creamy lemons and chocolates. Bravo. While some of the dishes took a small step back from last year, the overall menu was so much improved.
What was not improved was the service. Last year, it was spectacular. Arguably the very best I have ever experienced. You can read about it below. I can imagine that Chef Kinch's announcement caused an exodus in the front of house. I didn't see the stellar FOH manager from last year and our server was curt at best, seeming almost annoyed to be helping us.
Case in point: our waters were never filled unless we asked. Not once. It became a joke to track how many times staff came to the table and either never noted our empty glasses or didn't care to do anything about it. We even moved them to the edge of the table to call attention to them. It didn't help. We moved empty wine glasses there too. They weren't cleared unless we requested that they be. This is simply unacceptable for a 3-star, but perhaps understandable given the staffing issues they surely have now.
I was also disappointed that Chef Kinch, in walking to visit a table behind us, never made eye contact or said anything as he walked by us (and others). Especially in this season, I'm sure many would have loved to say hello and wish him well. Disappointing. I also didn't meet Meryl Streep, who I'm pretty sure was sitting a few tables over.
Upon leaving, I asked the hostess what the plan was moving into next year. She shared that she herself wanted to take over the restaurant "but it is apparently not in the cards" with a solid note of forlornment. Quite an inappropriate bit of information to share with guests, and evidence of why she was not chosen. It sounds like the restaurant may simply close, which would be tragic given its unique place in the Bay Area and outstanding offerings.
I'm so glad I was able to return and revisit. It's a special place. I'll be quite sad to see it go.
Fair warning: this will be a lengthy write-up. There is so much to tell. Almost my new favorite restaurant of all time. Almost. I can't wait to come back.
Manresa is helmed by David Kinch, who placed the restaurant an hour south of San Francisco so he could go surfing regularly. The restaurant reflects this sense of whimsy - top notch formality with quirkiness built in. Look at the formal dining room - with a Vespa. Even the water glass is nothing you would expect in a place like this, yet is completely on brand.
With no right to say such a thing, I kept thinking "If I built a 3-star Michelin restaurant, I would want to build this."
Let's start with the food. It was perfect...simply perfect. For a while. (More on that soon.) The diversity of each dish, the flavor, the display and my word, the skill required to create these! Each individual element was a marvel. How do you delicate strands of seaweed so they hold their shape and add to a bowl without harming it? How do you craft each of the myriad of items in the salad, pickle some, dress others, then assemble in such an mind-blowing presentation? Every dish through the guinea hen was a marvel making you wonder how it was even envisioned, much less created.
The salad alone is worth the entire price of the meal. The layers are extraordinary and the flavors of each - soft sweets from the fruits, slight sours from the pickled kohlrabi, warmth from the avacado. It's a generous plate of food and I kept hoping it would never end.
The final savory course was a ribeye with matsutake mushrooms, shaved raw on top and sauted underneath. It's quite a visual and phenomenal ingredients, but this is where things shifted for me. The ribeye was slightly underseasoned, slightly overcooked and ate firm. "Chewy" would be too strong a word but my expectation was a buttery meat you can cut with your fork. There was no such thing as it took some effort with a sharp knife to get through.
I also didn't understand the raw matsutake. I tend to not love hot and cold in the same bite, so perhaps some of this was simply my own palate. But the raw mushrooms dominated the plate, both visually as well as competing for your palate. I was craving/expecting an incredible steak to coat my mouth as they do...but the steak fell short on its own, and the raw mushrooms dried out any of that unctuous flavor that it did have.
The desserts did not save the day. The huckleberry sorbet was terrific but the rose granita dominated aggressively. The next dish was so imaginative, but the "honeycomb" pastry on top (my first bite) was laced with...pepper? Lots of it. A shock to the palate that was not saved by the elements it covered. I tried each part but sent the dish back mostly uneaten.
Such a disappointing finish to what, to that point had been some of the most stellar eating I have ever enjoyed. I will still return at every possibility...the restaurant as a whole was incredible. Until the steak, it was #1 on my forever list, surpassing even Disfrutar. But alas, it felt unsustained through to the finish.
The wines were stellar, as was the sommelier who managed the perfect explanations of each - sufficient to fully educate but not so much that you wondered when he would finish. When asking greater detail on a few, he dove in deeper, clearly versed on each grower and vintage.
Reviews spoke of the service here but I was unprepared for how perfect and generous it was. Some highlights to illustrate the point:
I take copious notes for each dish - attempting to record all of the elements. This was the first restaurant where, upon seeing my frantic note-taking, spent every next course leaning in, slowly dictating each ingredient as I typed, to be sure I had each and every one.
Your napkin is brought to you on a literal silver platter at the start of the meal. When leaving and returning to your table, it has been removed and another brand new napkin is supplied, on a silver platter of course.
I dined alone and as I waited for my Uber enjoying tea, the restaurant manager came over to strike up a conversation. It was easy, welcome, friendly and I presume occurred simply to be sure that this guest did not feel alone for even one second. In our conversation, she referenced the few items I had not enjoyed and asked earnestly for my feedback on them, sharing that the pastry chef was disappointed to learn that I had not enjoyed one of her dishes. Even if it's a line fed to me, it shows a truly impressive level of communication and care.
As I checked my phone for the Uber, she asked what type of car it was. I told her and she said "Josh will be glad to keep an eye out for it so you can remain here and relax." When the Uber arrived (to the far side of the building), I went out to go find it. But it was being brought around to the entrance for me. By Josh. In the rain. Gladly opening the door for me and thanking me for attending. This is next level service.
While the finish disappointed, the overall experience was at the level of Disfrutar or The French Laundry, where you marvel at the generosity, vision, execution and delivery of it all, shaking your head that you are fortunate enough to experience it.
I would travel back to San Francisco for the sole reason to eat here again and again. It's simply the very best expression of dining and hospitality I have ever experienced.
Replying to Steven Smith