An old Zen master's koan asks, "how many restaurants must do something before it is officially a trend?" I'm not into Zen, so I can't answer that question. Maybe Barry Zito knows. What I do know is that an increasing number of fine dining restaurants of the San Francisco Bay Area, like Saison and The Restaurant at Meadowood, are finding themselves cultivating cocktail programs and creating lounges or bar areas for people wishing to enjoy a tipple.
It's an interesting shift: Almost five years ago, I lamented the loss of the bar area at Melisse restaurant in Santa Monica in favor of more seats for diners, and was disappointed two years ago when North Beach's COI restaurant expanded their dining room by removing their lounge.
Earlier this year, I was tipped off to a bar bites program at Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos. Having enjoyed a few meals over the years at Manresa, I decided to check it out. The lounge area, typically used for parties waiting for their table or late dining companions, has a few plush couches with low tables, but I could only see those as being comfortable for a short wait. The best seats to enjoy Manresa's bites are at the bar, with the high, comfortable seats, putting you at the right level to enjoy your snack.
And I emphasize snack. According to Chef David Kinch, the bar bites menu is meant to offer you something to nosh on while you enjoy some of the restaurant's amazing seasonal cocktails or wait for a friend before heading out to get something to eat nearby; it's not meant to fill you up or act as a full meal. Although, I suppose if you were on the supermodel diet, it could count as three meals, based on whether you were purging or not.
On my first visit, the menu offered was for four bites at $44. This seemed pricey, but when I thought about it, $11 per course for composed plates with top-notch ingredients isn't bad, especially when you consider Manresa offers an 8-course tasting menu for $130 and a 14 to 16-course menu for $185. Granted, the bar items might not be as large or complex as dishes off the full tasting menus, but it's still a deal in the world of fine dining, particularly coupled to the farm-to-bar cocktail program. On a subsequent visit, I discovered that the bar menu had been changed so it was now five bites for $48. What wasn't that bad of a price suddenly has become a steal.
The items served on the bar menu can change frequently, adhering to the seasonal and creative philosophy of Manresa. Some of my personal favorites included the garden beignets, savory dough balls filled with warm and gooey goat cheddar cheese and garden vegetables with a side of crispy kale; the refreshing and light Belon oyster topped with salty seaweed ice, wekiwa tangelo, and an ice plant leaf; the Arpege egg, an homage to Alain Passard's soft yolk egg topped with chives, crème fraiche, sherry vinegar, and maple syrup; the delicate and simple lightly cured Japanese sea bream served with radish and olive oil, and the first-of-the-season soft shell crab served with strawberries.
Along with the savories, an ever-changing dessert is included as one of the five bites, although I would love to see an all-dessert, or at least dessert-heavy, bar bite menu for post-dinner/later evening stops at the lounge. The bar menu serves as a great showcase for the talented pastry chef, Stephanie Prida, with standouts such as a well-balanced and flavorful fried milk and strawberry dish, and a refined and beautiful Granny Smith apple dessert served with gin, juniper, and a champagne gelee. A set of mignardises are brought to you at the end of the menu, just as you would get with a full tasting, and can include various macarons, a liquid rum filled chocolate ball, brittles, or small chocolates. There is also the option to add the restaurant's regular cheese course for $25 if one wanted to start moving into full meal territory.
While Manresa has often been thought of as a destination restaurant for special occasions requiring a reservation, the latest incarnation of the lounge space and the bar menu make it more accessible to those finding themselves in the South Bay wanting to experience a taste the restaurant's cuisine and cocktails. The excellent service and quiet atmosphere is a perfect spot to unwind or wait out traffic after a long day. And don't forget to grab a handful of the housemade caramels on your way out.
Manresa, 320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, 408-354-4330.