Holiday Dinner at Manresa: Warm and Fuzzy Meets Light and Fresh

by Rachel Willard
Antoinette Bruno
November 2012

The flavors we desperately crave during the winter months—warm, thick, hearty—are getting a fresher, lighter look at David Kinch's Manresa under newly appointed 26-year-old Chef de Cuisine Jessica Largey.

Nestled in the town of Los Gatos, California, Manresa specializes in exalting the seasonal, elevating fresh, home-grown garden produce and letting lighter proteins do the job. But at holiday time, Largey relishes the notion of slowing down and savoring the riches of the season, both in life and with food.

"At the restaurant, you'll notice a bit more use of cream or butter," she says. "Broths and sauces become a bigger focus." Never steering from her farm-fresh philosophy, she adds: "It's also much more conducive to the types of produce that are in season. They are more versatile in types of preparation." For Manresa's winter menu this year, there is plenty to drape her decadent sauces on, with the appearance of local chestnuts, persimmons, matsutake mushrooms, wild watercress, an abundance of pumpkins, root vegetables, Brassicas ("they are booming!" says Largey), citrus, pears, and apples. The proteins she works with still err on the lighter side, with Nantucket scallops, venison, and, as Largey rejoices to note, "our local Dungeness crab season opened this past week!"

Largey recently presented us a perfect trio of Manresa holiday flavors. With Delicata Squash, Caramelized Clams, Porcini Emulsion, and Homemade Furikake, Largey transforms Delicata squash and Cherry Stone clams with a variety of delicate Japanese flavors. Verbena-Chamomile Poached Sea Bream Collar with Pear, Fennel, and Celery couples another light protein with a delicate sauce and autumnal flavors of pear and fennel. And Trombetta Squash, Nastrurtium Vinaigrette, and Cultured Cream juxtaposes smooth, nutty squash (which is balled, puréed, shaved, and cubed—celebrated, Manresa-style, for its inherent versatility) against a graceful vinaigrette and a light foamy cream, made from crème fraîche and goat whey. It's both decadent and clean, highlighting the versatility of the products used.

In general, diners tend to veer toward old favorites and elusive foods finally in season after a year's worth of dreaming and waiting, like the appearance of those specialty Nantucket scallops and, of course, the almighty truffle. But Largey feels she can get away with cooking a little more outside the truffle-studded comfort zone due to the enthusiasm and holiday cheer of her clientele, who are more in the mood for sharing and entertaining. "People are celebrating and treating one another to an experience more than a meal," Largey notes. "In some ways [they are] more adventurous and open to trying new flavors."

It's no shock that Largey is most interested in "product in general" at its basic form, using the holidays to test out new flavor combinations to surprise her guests' palates. "I snack on random things while prepping or walking through the restaurant," says Largey. "I think tasting and smelling things together as you work is a great way to find things that aren't in your mind's catalogue of complimentary flavors." Guaranteed freshness owes to exclusive partnership with Manresa's neighbor—the sustainable and biodynamic Love Apple Farms, situated in the lush and fertile Santa Cruz Mountains. Largey frequents the farm, perusing the bounty and imagining the possibilities it presents for her kitchen "Walking around Love Apple and seeing how the produce changes and adapts constantly is parallel to our kitchen," says Largey.

The partnership works, creating a seasonal cycle that's wound to yet another phase as winter approaches and holiday cravings stir. Guests fill the Manresa dining room to capacity on weekends for a new kind of holiday dinner—where seasonal freshness and quality–and not heavy dishes—are at the cause of all those warm and fuzzy feelings.