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SF Trip report: Commonwealth, Ferry Building, Gary Danko, Koi Palace, Manresa

I moved from the bay area 3 years ago and haven’t had a chance to return until this past labor day weekend. I’m happy to report that my old favorites are just as good as ever and that my experience with newcomer Commonwealth reminded me of how easy it is to get top notch cuisine at a ridiculously affordable price.

Commonwealth: Recommended by Daveena and as always, a spot on rec. We had the tomato salad with black olive crumble, summer squash chilled soup with fried flowers, corn custard with sea urchin, butter poached black cod, young hen with spot prawns. All this with 3 glasses of wine and we barely broke $100. The tomatoes in the tomato salad were so sweet and flavorful, I didn’t mind that the olive crumble seemed almost superfluous. It did add a slight salt component to the amazingly sweet tomtoes. Produce this flavorful reminded me of what is so good about the SF dining scene. The corn custard was delicious. The butter poached cod very well executed but the cod maybe a bit too unctuous for my taste. I would have preferred a leaner fish with a butter poached technique. The young hen with spot prawns was delicious in every way. The hen in fact was as well cooked as Manresa’s version a few nights later.

Ferry Building: It sure is a lot more crowded these days. Line at Blue Bottle is about the same. The line at Roli Roti was literally prohibitive to getting anything so I got a Miss Piggy at Boccolone instead. Awesome. We also picked up some cheese from Cowgirl and bread from Acme and sat down at Wine Merchant for a few hours with several glasses of wine. One of my favorite ways to spend Saturday afternoon. The only let down, and I know this is blasphemy was Frog Hollow. The 2 peaches we got from Frog Hollow were both mealy and dry and I would even swear that they were frozen It was no where near as delicious and sweet as the samples provided. I’m hoping someone can explain this one to me.

Gary Danko: wish I could have gone to Incanto instead but sometimes you have to make concessions. Someone on the SF boards once called GD comfort fine dining and that strikes me as the perfect description. The menu is unchanged since my last visit about 4 years ago. The crab bisque was so salty it was inedible. The lobster and rock shrimp risotto was tasty but so loaded up with cheese and cream that it reminded me of hearty mac and cheese. Souffle was excellent as always. Cheese cart was good. Comfort fine dining.

Koi Palace: LA brags about having the best asian food around. And while this is true for pretty much everything, Koi Palace is the exception. I find that Koi Palace handily beats LA’s best dim sum (Elite and Sea Harbour) and Cantonese and this visit reminded me that the gap is actually quite substantial. The whole dungeness crab soup dumplings were reason enough. The various shrimp and scallop dumplings with XO sauce were far superior to anything I can find in LA. The har gow is still the best version I’ve had. The king shau mai is slightly different from 3 years ago. It’s now split into 2 dumplings instead of 1 huge one and topped with dried baby abalone instead of sharkfin. Still good. While waiting, I looked at each tank longingly and wished I had this place in my backyard so I could come in for dinner on a weekly basis and dine on the amazing selection of fish and live crustacean.

Manresa: My favorite restaurant in the states. I thought it bested TFL when I went to both 3 years ago. Having recently had great meals at Joel Robuchon in Vegas and Per Se in NYC, I wanted to see if Manresa was still my favorite. I decided to go with the chef’s tasting with premium wine pairing:

Amuse 1: black olive madelines and roasted red pepper gelee
Amuse 2: strawberry gazpacho –Tastes just like gazpacho with the subtle aftertaste of strawberries at the end.
Course 1: Arperge egg. As good as ever. I could eat this every day and not get tired. The sweet, the tart, the savory. It’s all there
Course 2: giant clam and Japanese sea bream sashimi with nori. The sweetness of the clam and the smoky nori went very nicely
Course 3: pumpkin veloute with nasturtium ice cream. The pumpkin veloute was room temperature, and contrasted nicely with the ice cream. Crunchy bits of something delicious in the ice cream provided contrast
Course 4: Into the garden. An amazing salad of somewhere between 10-20 different vegetables, flowers, and tastes. This highlights the precision and uniqueness of Manresa
Course 5: Abalone with pork confit. One of the most memorable dishes I had 3 years ago was the smoke foie gras. This year, it’s this amazingly tender and savory abalone cooked perfectly. The pork confit was a bit on the tart side and distracted a bit from the sheer perfection of the abalone.
Course 6: Chicken roulade with what I think were matsutake mushrooms. Can’t be sure about the matsutake. They were sliced very thin and grilled.
Course 7: lamb cheek with tomato confit and lamb loin with pinenut puree. Not quite as enlightening as previous lamb dish barely scented with Indian spices. The pinenut puree was amazing though.
Palate cleanser of watermelon granite and melon ice cream. Wonderfully refreshing
Cheese cart: a pretty good selection of cheese about on par with Gary Danko. Pales in comparison to Joel Robuchon
Dessert: Taste of New Orleans. I asked if they could replace the dessert from the tasting with the beignets from the a la carte menu.

The meal was as creative and delicious as I remembered. I love the fact that Kinch’s creations and flavors are different from mainstream fine dining. Each visit has shown me tastes and flavors that I don’t usually find and that’s why I enjoy it so much. Service is a bit more formal since my last visit. I imagine its because Kinch is going for that 3rd star. My only complaint is the wine pairing. The wine pairing I had 3 years ago was pretty unique. I specifically remember a cognac spiked white wine pairing with a smoked foie gras dish that was very unique and enjoyable. This time, the wine pairing was very unremarkable. Maybe my wine tastes have changed so I can’t entirely fault Manresa. However, next time, I will simply select from the wine list, which has also improved dramatically over the past 3 years.

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Manresa Restaurant
320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

Koi Palace Restaurant
365 Gellert Blvd, Daly City, CA 94015

Gary Danko
800 N Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109

Roli Roti
, Hayward, CA

Blue Bottle Cafe
66 Mint St, San Francisco, CA 94103

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  1. Thanks for the report, specifically on Manresa. We keep *almost* going there but hear differing reports.

    -----
    Manresa Restaurant
    320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

    1. Yeah Manresa rocks and I agree that it topped TFL..I want to go back and I think you hit at just the right time...end of summer. Nice report.

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      Manresa Restaurant
      320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

      1. Thanks for the report!

        It's been an unusually cold summer, supposedly the coldest in 50 years, and that has especially affected peaches. It depends on where they're grown and what varieties, though; some peaches are better than ever with the reduced heat.

        Only in the last couple of weeks have we gotten any normal summertime weather in Silicon Valley. We get our peaches from Andy's and the Mountain View farmer's market, so I don't know what's up with Frog Hollow in particular.

        Michael

        1. Welcome back (at least for the short time we had you)! Thanks for the post.

          Peaches this year have been terribly disappointing. I had two amazing ones two weeks ago and though perhaps the season had finally picked up, but those two were the flukes. C'est la vie, at least you had plenty of other great eats!

          1. Sounds like a nice trip! Did you squeeze any Chinese eats into the schedule?

            1. Nicely done. I still need to get me down to Manresa one of these days.

              Were you able to call in for a number at KP, or did you have to wait on line?

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              Manresa Restaurant
              320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

              2 Replies
              1. re: daveena

                Woke up early enough for KP. They don't accept advanced numbers unless you're checking in after 1130. Though it was a Sunday, they did not have the pork, mushroom dumplings...boo!

                1. re: Porthos

                  Boo is right! Did they say why? I'm thinking about heading out there this weekend and am craving those dumplings.

              2. Same weekend - and mostly same restaurants!

                Agree entirely with Commonwealth. Great meal at a reasonable price. No opportunities to use 'ingredients from the garden' - but that's just as well.
                Had similar dishes with a couple of variations. Had the Fluke, which was superb - great textures and graduated flavors; together with the Summer Squash Soup - also superb.
                Similarly had the sea urchin and corn custard, also excellent and the Marrow Stuffed squid - which was the weakest dish of the evening - needed some 'crunch' and the marrow seemed a little 'mealy' - dried out the saliva in my mouth, although flavor was fine.
                Our mains were different. Had the Lambs Tongue - don't recall ever finding Lamb's tongue before, although tongue in general has been very sucessful for me - topped by a smoked water buffalo tongue MANY years ago that ranks as one of my favorite dishes ever.
                We also had the Hay-Roasted Goat (which was on the tasting menu, but they prepared a separate order for us (VERY accommodating). This was mixed. Two of the 3 pieces were very tough (and looked like a loin) but the third, larger, piece was a cheaper more flavorful cut that was excellent. Great flavor too.
                With a couple of aperitifs and a bottle of wine, check was around $200 with tip.
                And was the best meal of the weekend.

                Also visited Commis - for an OK meal. Had the prix fixe with wine pairings and it was 'OK-good'. We were a little tired (went on day of arrival) but nothing knocked us out - just "ordinary".

                And finally Manresa - about 5 years since our last visit - that visit also exceeded both our French Laundry experiences, so we looked forward to this time. A slight concern was that we'd sent friends there about 18 months ago who felt it wasn't worth the money charged.

                We went for the identical tasting menu to you. Given the expectation of fresh local food prepared innovatively, we wanted to match it, if possible, with local wines (Santa Cruz), so asked in detail about the wine pairings.
                Turned out they were often from obscure areas, but mostly familiar to me - and relatively unexciting for $320 +tax+gratuity (for two people), so we ordered by the bottle - which was an excellent decision (although I wasn't too impressed with the depth of the white selections - or the prices for that matter, which were 20-30% higher than I have seen on other lists).

                As we had the identical menu not worth repeating in detail, except where our reaction was different.
                The Arpege egg seemed more 'solid' this time around. Also, told by the waiter to "dig to the bottom to get all the layered ingredients in each bite" resulted in AmuseGirl breaking through the bottom of the egg (there was a gap between the base of the egg and the eggcup), so eggshell also became part of each bite! At least it added some crunch! Also found the maple syrup (sauce?) a bit heavier this time, which unbalanced this dish for me.

                The pumpkin veloute was a standout dish (but still didn't top the Summer Squash soup at Commonwealth) - I think the crunchy bits were sunflower seeds.

                Into the Garden didn't quite work for me. There was a bitter component that dominated the dish (it was green - and the server speculated that it was tomatillo).

                Chicken Roulade - ho hum. Very 'wet' in texture (proobably a good thing) - and the mushrooms were totally chewy - not sure if this was intentional, but I didn't particularly like it - like eating a dried mushroom.

                Lamb cheek and loin. Totally lacked flavor - so mild it could have been any protein. Best part was the fenugreek spicing.

                All in all a great disappointment compared to previous visit. And a bit sloppy - 3 of the dishes contained foams, which did work (sort of) but somehow just seemed a bit tired. Best parts were the totally fresh vegetables (OK most ingredients) - but for the same money I'd go back to Commonwealth 3 times (for you it's probably closer to 6 times).
                Essentially, for us, the wow factor has gone.

                Remaining meals were 'on the run' - except, of course, at Blue Bottle which was a long wait!

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                Manresa Restaurant
                320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

                Commis
                3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

                7 Replies
                1. re: estufarian

                  I've had some fantastic meals at Commis, but my last one was "just okay" as well - I hope it's not a trend...

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                  Commis
                  3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

                  1. re: estufarian

                    Man, reports like yours make me never want to eat at places like Manresa. I get upset when I spend $60/person for a mediocre meal, with some missed dishes.

                    I cannot imagine spending $200/person and having so much to complain about! Even if I was a millionaire, it would ruin my night =/

                    I truly wonder whether these upper echelon places are mainly gimmicks...

                    1. re: BacoMan

                      Please keep in mind that the anecdotal reports here or elsewhere online -- while interesting and sincere -- don't reflect any typical cross-section of diners, or even an average experience. Most threads on particular restaurants have only a few contributors, and even some comments just about "hearing reports."

                      This came home vividly a few years back with one peninsula restaurant that had garnered a dismissive consensus among those individuals who happened to post about it here, a consensus completely at odds both with my own several experiences, and those of everyone else I talk to who actually knows the restaurant much; and missing a lot of potentially useful information about that restaurant's particular strengths. Often, it seems that if someone criticizes a restaurant (whether local or famous), that then encourages others with (for whatever reason) chips on their shoulders to self-select into the discussion. The Chez-Panisse-Café Syndrome, I'll call it.

                      There truly is no substitute at all for personal experience for answering Q's like your last paragraph. Short of personal experience, I find the most useful comments not by reading those that collect about the restaurant, rather by identifying insightful and experienced commentators who know the restaurant.

                      1. re: eatzalot

                        As bacoman was replying to my post, I feel I'm qualified to respond here.

                        While your general comments are interesting, they are a little short of specifics e.g. you didn't name the
                        restaurant(s).

                        While everyone has the right to disagree (or debate) I will point out that (even if I don't qualify as insightful) I certainly qualify as experienced (double-digit years posting regularly). And my comments on Manresa identified specific dishes with 'issues'. Plus this wasn't my first visit.

                        Of course, ALL reports are anecdotal (OK there are sometimes off-topic comments, but my point is, I hope, valid). But how or why I (and others) "don't reflect any typical cross-section of diners" (which appears to minimize the value of every single reviewer on the board) is dismissive of some very knowledgeable palates who give freely of their time to give feedback (!) to fellow 'hounds.

                        I'll emphasize - I commented on specific dishes at a specific restaurant. You have made general allegations (even if they are 100% accurate) without any supporting evidence.

                        Manresa was one of my top 3 restaurants in USA at the time of my visit - it dropped completely out of the top 10 after that visit. That's my insight and experience. It may have (probably has) changed since.

                        I can't speak to how many upper echelon places are mainly gimmicks - although my views on a few are posted on the relevant Board.

                        1. re: eatzalot

                          "There truly is no substitute at all for personal experience for answering Q's like your last paragraph. Short of personal experience, I find the most useful comments not by reading those that collect about the restaurant, rather by identifying insightful and experienced commentators who know the restaurant."

                          Seems a bit contradictory. Reading the posts of those knowledgable commenters who know the restaurants can substitute for personal experience then can't it? If not at all, then what is the point of the board?

                          I confess, I cannot, and have not, stepped into a restaurant without thorough research on it in years. I approach everything in my life this way. Not that it always works out for me, but I have a far better ratio than those doing things randomly.

                          1. re: eatzalot

                            estufarian: No dismissal of any (let alone every) contributor was intended there at all. I post and read anecdotal restaurant comments constantly too. (Since long before CH existed.)

                            My point was only that a collection of sincere comments about a restaurant from a few people, with anywhere from one to a few experiences each (or no experiences, just "reports heard"), does not reliably predict a newcomer's actual experience of that restaurant -- the central goal that I and many others (BacoMan evidently included) seek when reading restaurant appraisals, amateur or professional.

                            And it's pretty obvious, if you do the comparison more than a few times. I cited a concrete example whose details do not matter (and might just provoke defensive comments by people who posted there) as illustrating this point firmly to me, personally. I also alluded to the history, familiar to longtime readers here, of people posting one-meal dismissals of Chez Panisse Café (on whatever basis, or personal perspective), and this prompting sympathetic choruses. It seems that some restaurants especially attract that syndrome by virtue of higher profile.

                            I do find Chowhound better than some online media, where I check some restaurants that I know inside and out (after 15 or 40 meals under diverse circumstances) and conclude that prospective diners are likely more knowledgeable if they DON'T read the written comments in that source, for reasons one veteran professional AND Chowhounder enumerated eloquently: http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/2013/04/...

                            Nothing's wrong with reporting a disappointing single restaurant experience. A lot is wrong with mistaking such a report for a measure of the whole restaurant for most people -- or even what your own experience might be, on future visits.

                            BacoMan: My point there was that some CH posters (and this goes beyond CH) have particular expertise and passion, have frequented a genre of local restaurants for years, know it far better than most of us, or in fact most professional restaurant journalists. KK on certain Asian restaurants is just one example on this board. If you can identify such an individual contributor, with unusually deep experience and perspective about a genre, who comments on a restaurant you're curious about, then you're way ahead in terms of inferring what your own experience might be, compared to reading that small random sample of comments from individuals, however sincere, that appear about the same restaurant.

                            1. re: eatzalot

                              "BacoMan: My point there was that some CH posters (and this goes beyond CH) have particular expertise and passion, have frequented a genre of local restaurants for years, know it far better than most of us, or in fact most professional restaurant journalists. KK on certain Asian restaurants is just one example on this board. If you can identify such an individual contributor, with unusually deep experience and perspective about a genre, who comments on a restaurant you're curious about, then you're way ahead in terms of inferring what your own experience might be, compared to reading that small random sample of comments from individuals, however sincere, that appear about the same restaurant."

                              It is what I try to look for, though it's not always easy. I wish that chowhound had a better way for tagging posters with various qualities, or achievements of some kind so that you could see profiles and and see clearly why kinds of experience they represent.

                      2. Sounds like a fine trip. Deb and I will be back in the Bay Area mid-October. Commonwealth is now on the radar.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: steve h.

                          Steve h. I LOVED Commonwealth. Alas, Ididn't get a chance to head to Zuni this year. Nevertheles, I ate incredibly well in SF/Napa. I will write a report on my trip when I have a chance. I had so many amazing meals on this trip, it will be fun to digest, literally and figuratively, before recalling all of the great places.

                          -----
                          Zuni Cafe
                          1658 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

                          1. re: Rich D.

                            nice,