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San Jose, Calif.gem in the west

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Northern Light

Manresa, Mark Holthusen

Photo by Mark Holthusen

Manresa’s abalone, courgettes and basil.

The Northern California wine country dining scene is impressive. The long growing seasons, some of the country’s best ingredients, superb weather, great chefs and customers who are genuinely interested in food and wine make for some cool chicken-or-the-egg arguments among food writers. I’ve come to decide that asking why the scene is awesome is a boring question. What you should be asking is, “When am I going to go try it for myself?” Perhaps this snapshot of one my favorite Central Coast eateries will convince you to take action.

Access to incredible ingredients isn’t enough for David Kinch, chef-proprietor of Manresa, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Los Gatos (about 10 miles from San Jose). “We are incredibly blessed with all the products we have at our disposal,” he says. “But the fact of the matter is that I can go to the farmers market and I’ll have three chefs in front of me and three chefs behind me in line, all using the same products.”

Looking for a difference maker, Kinch turned to Cynthia Sandberg, a champion tomato grower who wanted to start her own small farm. Seven years ago, the two forged an exclusive partnership called Love Apple Farms to grow diverse produce specifically for the restaurant. “The reason I started working with Love Apple Farms was not a locavore decision,” says Kinch. “It was not a food politics issue. It was based on quality. We wanted to have complete control and a say in the process every step of the way.”

The farm’s close proximity to the restaurant means some of the produce never sees the inside of a refrigerator, which makes a huge difference. “When you harvest a carrot, a leek or a young spring onion, it still has the sun energy in it,” says Kinch. “When I say sun energy, people are probably thinking, ‘Oh, this guy is so California and new-agey.’ But you can taste the difference.”

Kinch’s stunning salad riff called “Into the Vegetable Garden” might be the best way to experience that energy. The dish’s name never changes, but the components vary, depending on what’s good in the garden. Kinch builds the dish from the ground up, starting with items found in the soil. He may start with fennel root and beets, then add more root vegetables followed by edible flowers accented with “edible dirt” made from ground roasted chicory root.

On a recent visit, I was privileged to stand in the kitchen while Kinch prepared my salad with chef de cuisine Jessica Largey. There were more than three dozen elements on the plate, which took two chefs to prepare. Kinch insists that it’s his most challenging dish because of the complex assemblage and the rigors of the à la minute cooking. You heard me right, cooking. Remember those root vegetables that represent the buried components of the garden? When harvested, they resemble something the size of a toothpick. Then they’re braised to order in a milky caisson, created by melting and foaming butter.

I lost count of the impressive number of total ingredients that go into that salad, but the techniques on display in just one subset of layers of this dish left me weak in the knees. How did the salad taste? Like a symphony—a solar-powered, flavor-bomb symphony. It was the best thing I ate last year, but don’t take my word for it. //

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