April is a splurge month: meriting two special occasion meals. This year, we went to Manresa in Los Gatos and Cyrus in Healdsburg.
Oddly enough, both relatively new restaurants have combined the two trends I like: small plates and prix-fixe dinners. Both offer three-course, four-course or five course meals for set prices (the more the courses, the higher the price).
But the best part is: you get to choose your courses. Want two appetizers and one entrée? Sure. Want three entrees? No problem. Want a soup and two deserts? OK. However, they will usually make recommendations as to the order the food will arrive. And if your party doesn’t order the same number of courses, some will have to wait out, looking longingly or cadging a bite from the others.
At Manresa, you can also add wine pairings for the multi-course meal for an additional fee. (Each course that night gets its own particular wine pairing).
Both also offer the special chef’s tasting menu: which has 6 or 7 courses (most expensive), and is dependant on what ingredients are around, or what the chef feels like cooking that night. Some of the courses in the chef’s tasting menu won’t be available on the pick-your-own side of the menu.
Small plates: I usually don’t like the traditional meat entrees that come with a side of vegetable, because when you have to eat large portions of just two items, it gets monotonous. This is why I think multi-course-in-parallel Chinese meals are genius: you can get so much variety much sharing with several other people, as opposed to the Western serial meals: one salad, one entrée, one side of veg and one desert is too much food for one person (except the Italians). But small plates are OK, because, well, the portions are smaller, but it allows you a bit more variety.
My quibble with small plates is that they are often served on oversized plates, as if to compensate for the portion of the food being, well, small. I wonder if waiters complain about having to carry so many unnecessarily heavy plates? Big plates take up too much space on the tables, which tend to be tiny these days. While the portions are small, somehow they end being filling. But I doubt it’s the optical trick from serving them on big plates.
I like prix-fixe dinners, like Chez Panisse’s, mainly because I don’t have to decide. You simply eat what they’re serving that night. Usually on any given menu, there are too many different choices; it’s so hard to decide. And after the agony of deciding, you end up picking the wrong one. Joe and I will usually split choosing the items we both find interesting, but somehow, he usually ends up with the better one.
Sometimes I just pick the dish with the weird ingredient, like veal cheeks, but it ends up not being as delicious as, say, rack of lamb.
At both, we got several amuse, tiny complimentary appetizers from the chef. (At these prices, it’s the least they could do!) (Amuse is the French word for fun, I think they used to be called amuse bouche, ‘a fun taste’, and got abbreviated.) This is based on the chef’s whim, you don’t have a choice. At Manresa, it was the best thing I had. Not to say the meal was bad, but this parmesan churro was just superlative. So deceptively simple, yet so perfect. God was definitely in on those details.
The fried truffle lobster croquette amuse at Cyrus is a close second, although we probably ate it 20 seconds too late, the temperature had dropped below optimum. In fact, it was one of our waiters who reminded us to eat it, because we were too engrossed in reading the menu.
We also ate at the Farmhouse in Forestville, outside Santa Rosa. My mom ordered the halibut, which sounded so pedestrian, but it came with a wonderful sauce. (She’d really been looking forward to ordering the rabbit-three-ways, but of all nights, they were out of that that night.)
She liked the creamy yellow sauce so much, she asked the waiter to bring her some more, after she had mopped up every last drop in on her plate. “What’s in it?” It tasted familiar, yet none of us could call out the ingredient. I thought curry. Joe thought tumeric. “It’s a flour-butter mixture and dry sherry,’ the waiter said.
I’m going to experiment with roux a little more beyond making macaroni-and-cheese from scratch. And buy a bottle of sherry.
Manresa: The tuna tartare was really good. I had the wine pairing, so I can’t remember what else I had, they were good, but not as memorable as Cyrus. (I wish the restaurants exchanged locations so I could go back to Cyrus… what am I saying, I’ll be eating salt-fish and rice for the rest of the year now.)
Cyrus: Thai lobster with mango/avocado/hearts of palm nailed it for tasting straight outta Bangkok (I’m always leery when I see something described as “Thai” in a non-Thai restaurant, it’s the ‘old country’ in me.) Black Truffle Poussin is a must order. Service is excellent, their staff-to customer ratio allows for such attentive service that it makes Boulevard feel like a Denny’s. (Not meant to be a total knock on Boulevard.)