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FL ou Manresa? Please help!

Hi Chowhounders,

I am an experienced French foodie and I am heading to Berkeley for Thanksgiving. Love it there. I would like to do one exceptional party meal with my Californian friends and am hesitating between the French Laundry and Manresa. Could you tell me which one you would recommend and why?

Some background: I know many French 2&3*. My favourites are Roellinger for the subtlety and the way a meal there tells one or many stories; l'Ambroisie and Bernard Loiseau for the most intense food ever; Rostang (2* only) for the generosity. (more on my blog julotlespinceaux.blogspot.com)

Re Manresa and TFL, I've been doing quite a lot of research -- I'm aware of Keller's legendary status and of Kinch's garden. I found that I am not particularly attracted, in both cases, by the endless succession of small plates (I am very traditional in that way, like three courses meals). I also find that, on pictures, Manresa is considerably more exciting, but I know that there are things pictures can't convey, such as taste and smells.

All in all, I am more interested in delicious food and having a wonderful moment with people I love than being amazed or surprised. But I don't mind being surprised AND delighted.

I intend to go chez Panisse anyway, as a neighbour.

And I promise to report.

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  1. Neither one will disappont, that is certain . . .

    The French Laundry is something every serious "foodie" should do once, but it's almost more like a pilgrimage -- like going to Chez Panisse, or seeing Julia Child's kitchen at Copia (or the Smithsonian). Don't misunderstand: it is an exquisite experience, and the food is always amazing, but it's also incredibly expensive (almost shockingly so). Friends of mine live in St.Helena, and are the closest thing I know to "regulars" at the French Laundry, dining there probably 15+ times a year (no exaggeration). They also regularly travel to Europe and dine in ** and *** restaurants. And even they think the FL is pricey!

    This is not to suggest that Manresa is cheap. Far from it! The meals here are also expensive, but you won't have a heart attack when you get the check. (OK, maybe just a little angina.) And the food is truly exceptional.

    So there you are: the French Laundry is a must, a once-in-a-lifetime (minimum) experience. Manresa will also thrill and delight your taste buds, but for (slightly) less money. Either way, you're in for a treat!

    1 Reply
    1. re: zin1953

      It sounds likely anyway that Manresa is the only one where I can get a table. I'm gonna keep trying FL, though, but I have not made a choice yet, in case I have one.

    2. Souphie, as you know, neither will compare to a true french 3*. I didn't think TFL offered anything cuisine-wise that you couldn't get better in France. Service was excellent but a bit on the hovering side and not nearly as smooth as the service at Daniel or Jean Georges in NYC...and not in the same league as Gagnaire. I know you don't dig Gagnaire, but when I compare TFL or Manresa to Gagnaire...well, there is no comparison.

      If you're willing to overlook service (Manresa's is friendly but definitely casual and a little rough around the edges) then Manresa may be the better choice based purely on cuisine. Obviously, the tasting is ideal (especially if you're going to compare to French 2-3*) but prix fixe is still a very tasty experience. You still get the sherry egg but you do miss out on the liquid croquette.

      Prix Fixe:

      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/339788

      Tasting:

      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/407803

      12 Replies
      1. re: Porthos

        Thanks, Porthos. Exactly the kind of insight I was looking for, and that confirms what I suspected.

        I have a lot of respect and admiration for Gagnaire. Maybe some day I'll have a meal there I really enjoy. And I love the room.

        Service is sometimes rough at Manresa, but they do like their job and the place, no? It seems like the kind of place you have to be passionate about. I think if you can share passion with the waiting staff, you can't spend a bad evening. On the other hand, if they're just here to pay the rent, then that can spoil the evening.

        By the way, is Per Se as good a way to enjoy Keller? That would be an alternative for me.

        PS: your Manresa reviews are just thrilling.

        1. re: souphie

          Everyone I know who has been both to Per Se and FL says that they are very similar (food-wise) and that Per Se is actually slightly BETTER.

          1. re: whiner

            Thanks whiner. It sounds like the problem is more and more solved.

            Other personalised recomendation for the bay area? (I know I have to browse the board a bit, but...)

            1. re: souphie

              Well... my personal dives?

              A16 (Southern Italian)
              Slanted Door (Modern Vietnamese)
              Fringale (Loire/Basque)
              Aziza (Modern Moroccan)

              All are reasonably priced, especially for what they are. Slanted Door main courses can creep up to $28, others they are all around $22 (or at Fringale often less).

              For really good food, I like La Folie and Fleur de Lys. I prefer FdL but have not been in quite some time. Recent reports from people I trust suggested maybe it has taken a hit since one opened in Vegas. La Folie is deffinitely the most causal of the super-nice restaurants in SF and the food is really good. Not earth-shattering, but well beyond solid. I think it is an $85 prix fixe for 5 courses... Similar pricintg at FdL.

              1. re: whiner

                Second on Aziza. I don't think there's anything like it in France, or even Morocco.

                -----
                Aziza
                5800 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94121

              2. re: souphie

                I agree with Whiner's suggestions, BUT -- to add my own 2¢ -- Slanted Door is not as good as it was when in the Mission. Still worthwhile, IMHO, but . . .

                IF . . . you are headed up to Napa Valley anyway, Bouchon in Yountville is another Keller restaurant that is definitely worthwhile -- I often have lunch there. Also, Bistro Don Giovanni and Terra.

                In the East Bay, aside from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, I wouldn't overlook Oliveto's and/or Lalime's . . .

                In the City, I'd add Quince, Michael Mina, Coco 500, and many others . . .

                (FWIW, my "neighboorhood dive" has always been Chapeau!, even though I now live in Berkeley.)

                1. re: souphie

                  It sounds like you are interested in innovative top notch food, so I'm thinking that you might enjoy a meal at Coi. The chef at Coi, Daniel Patterson, is best buddies with David Kinch of Manresa. If you are from New York, you probably have seen some of Patterson's food writing in the NY Times.

                  http://www.chowhound.com/topics/424316

                2. re: whiner

                  >>> " . . . and that Per Se is actually slightly BETTER." <<<

                  Interesting. The experience among my friends is just the OPPOSITE. (But this only totals 8 people, so it's not exactly a huge sampling.)

                  1. re: zin1953

                    Well, yeah. I only know about 9 or 10 people (but 6 of them are comprised of 3 couples) who have been to both, so my sampling size isn't the largest either... ;-)

                    1. re: zin1953

                      From my own experience, while the service is more refined and crisp at Per Se (the amble space lends itself better); however, the food was leaps and bounds better at French Laundry. Every course was spot on at our 8/07 TFL lunch... and there were MULTIPLE misses at our 11/06 Per Se dinner.

                  2. re: souphie

                    Service at Manresa is very friendly and their primary focus is to make you happy and they are all very very nice people. If you start asking about minutiae regarding ingredients, they may stumble a little, but someone always comes back with an answer. I would say it's more casual but also more intimate. It's obvious the chef is passionate. The wine pairing is also more unique--with an emphasis on southern France, Spanish, and local wineries. Plus, they are doing what FL was doing back in its prime and focusing on their own garden and working with local farmers to get the absolute best produce. Alain Passard was invited a few months back to cook with vegetables from Manresa's garden and local producers. That says it all.

                    1. re: souphie

                      >>> "is Per Se as good a way to enjoy Keller? That would be an alternative for me." <<<

                      Regardless of whether Per Se is better than FL or not as good, it's a matter of splittinghairs. Both restaurants are, from all reports*, exceptional. So it may indeed be a "better" idea to do Manresa while in California, and Per Se in New York . . .

                      Cheers,
                      Jason

                      *I've been to the French Laundry, but not Per Se, so I cannot speak from direct experience.

                  3. If you don't like an endless succession of small plates, why not skip both French Laundry and Manresa?

                    I think Pizzaiolo and Incanto would be more likely to give you experiences that are different from what you get at home. Or anywhere else in the world.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Yes, the operative word there is "endless." My meal at Manresa was a shade over 3.5 hours. It was great, but a lot to take in if you're not really looking for a succession of small plates. 4 amuse followed by 8 perfectly spaced courses.

                      1. re: sgwood415

                        Well, if I understand correctly what I read, especially from Chuck (on www.chuckeats.com), the big difference is that the meal is composed as a whole at Manresa, whereas Keller offers a succession of hits. If that is the case, then I don't mind the length of the meal (I'm French: 3.5 hours is our regular family sunday lunch, time for an average dinner) or the number of plates. Though I am very tempted by the four-course menu at Manresa. Don't they do one or two plates bigger than the others?

                        I will try some of the other places you mention -- thanks for those recommendations. And, if I can, I will try them all. :-) Meanwhile, I have a lot of work looking them up on the board and google.

                        1. re: souphie

                          The four course option at Manresa gives you a little more control because you get to choose the items you want from the regular menu. Here's a link I posted a few days ago with the menu of the meal I had at Manresa this past Saturday night.

                          http://www.chowhound.com/topics/441916

                    2. You may also like Ad Hoc, Keller's most casual out-post in Yountville, which serves a set 4-course, very well prepared, meal.