Manresa

At a hidden gem on California's Central Coast, food is art.

Penny De Los Santos

Everything at Manresa, David Kinch's restaurant in the small town of Los Gatos, 50 miles south of San Francisco, is luminous, thoughtful, and sensual. The air is perfumed by the herb plants and citrus trees on the patio outside. California sun filters into the dining room through translucent window shades, causing the wood beams and linen-covered tables to glow. In the pristine, state-of-the-art kitchen, a cook sends a shower of snipped chives onto a soft-cooked egg enriched with cream, maple syrup, and crunchy salt, still in its delicate shell. Another cook arranges bright red prawns, pulled from the waters of Monterey Bay this morning, now redolent of cardamom and fennel, over gleaming slices of cucumber.

As each successive dish arrives, I'm struck by the arresting beauty of the food itself: a tender wood pigeon roasted in a savory salt mix and served in a bright halo of crushed raspberries and hazelnuts; a filet of silky-rich Copper River salmon topped with tiny jewels of smoked steelhead roe and a briny-sweet roasted-tuna sauce; a cherry blossom mousse crowned with a confetti of toasted almonds and meringue "kisses". The compositions are so artfully arranged, so brilliantly expressive and personal, that I can't imagine their being replicated. And yet, for all the elegant presentations and impressive technical skills displayed on each plate, what impresses you first is flavor, intricate layers of flavor.

At Manresa there is also a palpable connection with the earth and, more specifically, with the fields and hills that lie just miles from the restaurant's door. The foundation of chef David Kinch's cooking is laid 25 miles southeast of his kitchen, at Love Apple Farm, a biodynamic farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains that is the principal supplier of fresh produce to the restaurant. There, grower Cynthia Sandberg produces, among hundreds of other things both familiar and exotic, Peruvian purple potatoes, bright green sunflower sprouts, dozens of kinds of heirloom tomatoes, painted lady runner beans, a kaleidoscopic array of herbs, and fresh organic eggs.

Vegetables pulled from the ground at the farm in the morning often end up on the plate the same evening without ever having made a layover in a refrigerator. Kinch offers a simple starter called Into the Vegetable Garden: a selection of seasonal vegetables served raw or cooked gently in their own juices and presented on the plate with a dusting of dehydrated chicory "dirt" that tastes earthy and bright at the same time. In another cook's hands this dish might come across as precious, but with each bite you sense Kinch's reverence for the garden and his passion for keeping the vegetables as alive as possible. Kinch was born in Pennsylvania and has worked in restaurants in New York City and San Francisco. I asked him once what had brought him to tiny Los Gatos. "I'm a surfer," he told me equably. "I wanted a more integrated life." Witnessing this mix of creativity, artistry, and grounded philosophy, I'd say he has succeeded. —Joyce Goldstein, author of Mediterranean Fresh (W. W. Norton, 2008.) For more information on Joyce Goldstein visit his site at www.joycegoldstein.com.