Tour de Force at Manresa

An experience in three parts, with pictures.Part I: In ShortThis was a dinner that began well and ended well. It was just the middle section that I found challenging. Some time ago, I began crossing my personal boundaries in defining the edible. In many cases (e.g., bacon), I'm never going back; in others (e.g., the Sawa lobster that literally walked off the plate as we tried to eat it), the walls have been reinforced. The Olivia-friendly tour de force chef's tasting menu at Manresa won huge points with some of its undertakings (including perennial favorite the Arpège Egg and debut dishes Needle fish with bacon and shiso and Saffron panna cotta with sour cherries), but my enjoyment was crippled by those boundaries throughout the middle section of the otherwise fantastic meal. The food pairings at Vinography's Drinking Small Dinner were excellent, but somehow haven't stayed as vivid in my memory as, say, my meals at the French Laundry. A few of the dishes from this meal will keep me drooling for a long time to come. Chef Kinch truly shines in the variety and breadth of the epic tasting menu and the long start and tail of this meal proved his place as one of the world's best is well-earned. My own tastes and definitions of food, however, have a way yet to go.Part II: Blow by Blow

Petit four "red pepper-black olive"This signature amuse bouche has grown on me with every visit and I'm now quite addicted.

Urchin shooterThis fine crystal glass included mandarin orange, ginger, some bolder citrus, and uni. It was a bit of a challenge coaxing the uni out of the glass together with the liquids and its delicate flavor was nearly lost under the bold, almost overwhelming acids. Not a miss, but definitely the weakest item in the lineup of extraordinary starters.

Nigl Riesling, 1998 Senftenberger HochächerThe wine pairings on our first visit to Manresa some time ago tended too much towards New World styles for our liking, but this unlisted wine was a perfect match for the menu and our tastes. Applause and appreciation for the sommelier.

Fried brioche, butter and prawn roeSadly I missed the spot prawn roe almost entirely with the deliciously buttery mouthful of brioche. Not that there's anything wrong with fried brioche...

Fatty bluefin bellyThe toro was scraped off the bone and mixed with California Kaffir lime, the gentle but pervasive flavor of which moderated the fat. Served at nearly room temperature for the fullest, utterly delicious, flavor.

Needle fish with bacon and shisoThe house-made pancetta lent a slightly salty undertone and blended perfectly into what was one of my absolute favorites of the night. This was all that tempura should be: hot, light, and flaky, with moist fish and delicious, delicate flavors. I loved the presentation too and would have been happy to pop a plate full of these.

Chestnut croquettesHaving tried foie gras only once so far (at Urasawa), where it didn't go over too well with me (to say the least), this amuse made me a bit nervous. The briefly overwhelming (to me) mouth-feel of the "molten" foie gras centers of these croquettes quickly gave way to a milder chestnut flavor. Very good.

Oyster and urchin, meyer lemon jellyThe main ingredients were held together by a sea water gellé in a shell nestled in a decorative bed of salt. The flavors were gentler and more balanced than I expected from my previous experiences with sea water and oysters (not my favorites) for an overall very strong dish. One was just right.

Arpège eggPerfect. One of my absolute favorites dishes anywhere.

Mesquite grilled foie gras, calamondin caramelServed with smoked Welsch sea salt and a lovely marmalade.

Shrimp bisque with asparagusServed as my alternative to the foie gras, this bisque was the essence of shrimp, concentrated. The grilled/fried asparagus created the harmony.

Carpaccio of sweet maine shrimp, just pressed olive oilThe tricky middle section of the meal began with this dish. It was beautifully presented, but the carpaccio-style shrimp were a little too close in texture to the traumatic live lobster that walked off the plate at Sawa. The meat was gooey, chewey, and soft, as well as surprisingly fatty, thoroughly coating the mouth.

Shellfish and dried sardine broth...... koshi-hikari riceThe shellfish included geoduck, giant clam, squid, and the season's first sea bream. Shellfish is often challenging for me, perhaps because half my family is allergic to it, and this was not the dish for me. I appreciated the concentrated flavors of the sardine broth and the delicate sea bream, but didn't make much headway with the rest.

Spot prawns and parsley root, natural juicesThe bright flavors of the two sauces paired perfectly. The prawn was seared almost to perfection. (I preferred the more fully cooked, thinner end less reminiscent of the live lobster. Notice a theme?) Overall very good, but again, one was plenty.

Wild spiny lobster with its roe, caviarThe Vietnamese lobster was warmed in its own fat and served with an osestra canapé. I would have preferred this dish more thoroughly cooked (surprise), but I enjoyed the flavors (also surprising, since I could barely swallow my lobster meat at Sawa and Urasawa). Oren's comment: "I don't go at a restaurant with a multi-million dollar kitchen to eat raw food."

Sea urchin sayabyon, fino sherryThe presentation of the sabayon in sea urchin shell on a bed of salt was beautiful, but I did not enjoy this dish. There was a strong, bitter note on the mid-palate that I couldn't figure out and the sherry (a flavor I usually love) was overwhelming here.

Escabeche of mackerel with grapefruitThis was served barely warmed and raw fish fatigue was setting in at this point.

Salt cod confit with saffron and parmesan riceThis slightly warm salt cod cooked sous vide over biodynamic parmesan risotto wasn't quite the hot food we were hankering for at this point, but the flavors were delicious, if very salty.

Farm poularde and matzoh, black truffle

Assorted vegetables over pine nut puddingEnjoyable, warming mix of turnip shavings, onion, and escarole. The vegetables had a smokey, earthy quality that paired beautifully with the sweet, nutty "pudding."

Gratin of California citrusBlood oranges, tangerines, and kumquats finished in the oven for a light, tart, and refershing transition.

Saffron panna cotta with sour cherriesAnother favorite of the night. The dried sour cherry syrup was very sweet, but in perfect proportion to the saffron panna cotta and pistachios. Chuck may wish for micowave croquettes, but I dream of finding this in the dairy section.

Petit four of chocolate and strawberryThe signature reversal to take the meal full circle.

Part III: Next TimeYes, I'm certain there will be a next time. But, when I suggested Manresa to a friend of my sister's, my sister asked, hurt, why I hadn't taken her there. "It's not your kind of food," I replied. She is much happer at Quince, and hopefully at the French Laundry. (Raw outside a sushi bar is not her thing.) I would write that troubling middle section off to our hosts's preferences for the raw, but we had a similar, if shorter and less shellfish-centric, experience on our first visit with the Chef's Tasting Menu. I completely respect the food, and am totally in love with some dishes, but I can't help comparing this to my very favorite meals, which have blown me away with every dish, excitement growing with the progression of courses. Perhaps things will be different next time, now that we know to ask for more cooked dishes and less shellfish, or perhaps by then I will have pulled down more of my own walls. Time will tell, if, that is, we can still get into this ever-more-popular destination restaurant.