Monday, May 18, 2009

Iron Chef vs Manresa's Kinch - Battle Cabbage

Cabbage never tasted so good...

On March 15th 2009, Chef David Kinch of my favorite restaurant, Manresa, won Battle Cabbage against Chef Bobby Flay on Food Network's Iron Chef America.

Chef Kinch's victory was a big upset over Chef Flay - he outscored Flay in all the categories: taste, plating and originality.

For a few Sundays in May and June, Manresa is featuring the Battle Cabbage menu for dinner. Last night my husband and I treated ourselves to the splendid meal.

Luckily I remembered to bring my little point-and-shoot camera so I can share each dish with you.

Bon Apetit!

Amuse Bouche: Pastrami and eggs

Starting with some protein was great - I hadn't eaten in 5 or 6 hours to ensure I was plenty hungry. With cabbage being the focus, perhaps the Chef wanted to make sure we had a good base to start.

I've never had such tender pastrami. As I lifted it with my fork it practically fell apart and then melted in my mouth. The saltiness was a great way to prime my taste buds (but wasn't too salty). The egg was cooked to perfection - neither runny nor hard.

Course 1: Delicate salad of sea bream and geoduck clam - toasted sesame, seaweed and mushroom

I learned that this sea bream (white fish) is from the waters of Japan. Prepared almost sashimi style, it was light but also quite substantial.

I loved how the the sweetness of the cabbage and the thinly sliced clam complemented the the saltiness of the seaweed. The kombu seaweed was wet and firm while the other seaweed (I know it as nori, used for sushi) was dry and flaky - a nice contrast in texture.

The shiitake mushrooms added a nice earthy flavor to ground the dish and also tie together the overall "chewy" theme of the dish. Chewy in a good way, not at all tough or rubbery.

It would have been nice to try the wine pairings but we both had to get up early for work the next morning so we decided to go by-the-glass.

I chose a Basque wine - 2007 Hondarribi Zurri, Txomin Etxaniz Getaria Gipuzkoa Txakolina. That's a lot of words and letters for such a light and fruity white wine with a little effervescence. It was perfect because it was a hot day and I was leaning toward a sparkly wine, but this was actually a better choice.

My husband chose something local, from Carmel Valley - 2007 Chesebro Cedar Lane, Sauvignon Blanc, Arroyo Seco. His wine had a lot more body and a little more earth and minerals which probably held up to the cabbage better than my selection.

Course 2: Red cabbage and pear borscht - stone ground mustard, pear and cabbage "choucroute"

I didn't know the server was going to pour a "sauce" on it so I didn't get a chance to snap a picture of how it looked before - the vivid color of the cabbage and the texture was amazing.

In this cold dish, the cabbage had a nice pickled flavor to it (was it fermented?) and was surprised at how the true flavor of the cabbage just exploded in my mouth. Perhaps the "pickling" combined with the sweetness of the pear and the slight bitterness of the mustard primed my taste buds. But yet the creaminess of the soup helped to bring it all together.

I can't explain everything that was happening in my mouth but I can tell you... it was all good!

Course 3: Cabbage Patch: stems, leaves, flowers... Benton's country ham

My favorite course of the evening... both for the visual and the originality of the "edible dirt".

The presentation was like a garden-inspired flower arrangement. Whenever I host a meal in the spring/summer, I always cut flowers from my herb garden and place in small jars to decorate the table - and this dish reminds me of my little garden bouquets.

One of the most creative presentations I've seen. Pretty like a spring garden and evoking the nourishing treasures of nature.

There was quite a variety of vegetables here, including bok choy, which I would not have remembered is in the cabbage family if it weren't part of this meal. I ate each vegetable separately because I wanted to savor the flavor of each one.

The Chef chooses the highest quality vegetables, to ensure the true flavors stand out. The carrot puree found at the bottom had such a pure (no pun intended) carrot flavor. Don't even think he seasoned it.

I did save a few bites of the veggies to combine with the "edible dirt" which consisted of chicory, hazelnut and potato. I absolutely loved the dirt flavor and the potato stood out the most for me. In a way, potato skin does have a bit of a dirt flavor and there was just enough chicory to create a slight bitterness to make it seem more like I'm eating dirt.

The country ham's crispy texture was a nice complement but I thought the high salt content over-powered the wonderful and natural flavors of the vegetables a bit. So I ended up eating most of the ham at the end.

Warm bread

The center was perfectly moist while the crust had a perfect crunch and slightly burnt flavor that complemented the creaminess of the super fresh butter.

I loved the little sprinkle of fleur de sel on top and how the butter was served at room temperature so it spread easily. So civilized.

My husband joked that the bread was his favorite "course" but being married to him for almost 14 years, I don't think he was joking.

Course 4: Stuffed cabbage and forgotten vegetables - exotic spice and natural vegetable juices

This dish was described as a "Cabbage Napoleon" and indeed it was layers of cabbage with a mixture of primarily rutabega, parsnip and turnip in between. I wonder if he calls those vegetables "forgotten" because they're not used very often or because they're root vegetables (underground = forgotten?) - perhaps it's a double meaning.

The buttery fine bread crumbs and spice top layer added some nice texture and color, and also giving it a flavor that made me think of a Finnish dish called Kaalikääryleet (stuffed cabbage rolls). Those root vegetables are prominent in Finnish cuisine and even the detail of adding the fresh dill on top convinced me and my Finnish husband that the inspiration came from his home land.

The onions added a nice sweetness, I didn't distinguish the fennel (which I was told was there), and the carrots added a beautiful sprinkle of orange that created a nice color combination overall. I appreciate the restraint - no over-the-top food styling so the experience was more down-to-earth while still maintaining an elegance.

Course 5: Farro grain cooked like a risotto, roasted breast of duck - nappa cabbage, both stems and leaves, fried brussel sprout, meat juices

Wow - this composition was certainly befitting for a main course. I was expecting each course to be equally wonderful but this one stood out.

All of the different textures was so much fun, it was like a party in my mouth. The farro grain had a firm chewiness that made it feel as substantial as a protein dish. It was perfectly cooked with the firmness and moisture of a risotto and nicely salted and flavored with parmigiano cheese and other goodness.

The duck was tender, moist and had the right amount of fat. I'm not a fan of fatty duck but I know that's where the flavor is, and that flavor infused the nappa cabbage nicely. The portion was perfect as well.

My husband and I agreed that the crunchy parts of the dish made it unique. The super crunchy chestnuts (deep fried I think) tasted like a mellow banana and the light sweetness complemented the duck nicely. The brussel sprout leaves were fried in butter to the point of crispy caramelization and added yet another dimension to the dish.

Course 6: Joe's strawberries, both raw and cooked - strawberry consommé, goat's milk frommage blanc sorbet

May is the start of strawberry season so it was a perfect choice. The earthiness of the goat milk "ice cream" with the sweetness of the strawberries was a great combination.

The hibiscus gelée added a nice tartness to balance the sweetness, and also added a nice splash of color to give depth to the overall presentation.

Though I love the bitterness of arugula, the two leaves I found in the dish was a little too strong for me - it competed with the berries. I see where Chef Kinch was going with that but perhaps something with more subtle bitterness would work. I didn't end up eating the other arugula leaf because I just wanted to enjoy the sweetness of the dessert and the freshness of the strawberries.

I did, however, enjoy the flavor of the tiny tips of the basil leaves (was it Thai basil?) - it was a perfect complement to all of the flavors and a wonderful detail for the presentation. And no, there was no cabbage in this course - I was completely fine with that.

The first photo shows how the dish was brought to us and then you see the cooked strawberry sauce being poured at the table. That final touch at the table always makes it more fun.

I can't wait to come back!
Overall it was an enjoyable experience and we even got to keep a signed menu as a souvenir.

This was my fourth time dining at the restaurant but definitely not the last. Chef Kinch and his staff make the place so inviting - everyone is friendly and the atmosphere is not stuffy, yet the service is top notch.

Esteban, the maître d'restaurant, goes out of his way to ensure everyone is comfortable and happy. Our server Bryan was attentive and knowledgeable about the dishes. Oh, I should mention that last year Manresa was awarded two Michelin stars.

Congratulations again to Chef Kinch and his team for the Battle Cabbage victory at Iron Chef America!

P.S. The best course was AFTER dessert, when Esteban took us back to the kitchen and we got to meet the chef - what a treat!

He's a busy guy and as much as I would've liked to have asked 20 questions, I only asked one... whether he thought the Iron Chef show chose cabbage knowing that he (the guest chef) specialized in bringing out the best in vegetables.

His answer was that the cabbage may have been favoring more Iron Chef, Bobby Flay because he's of Irish decent and the show aired the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day. Aha! I didn't even think of that but it makes sense!

Esteban was nice enough take a photo of us with Chef Kinch in his kitchen, and also below with our server Bryan, in front of the restaurant.

One last treat... on the way out, Esteban presented us with a bowl full of these wonderful soft caramels with fleur de sel. He invited me to take a handful, which I regret not doing because they were heavenly!

I was already completely satisfied but I guess it doesn't hurt to be even more satisfied. Luckily I saved one of the caramels so I could photograph it the following day. As I was enjoying it's soft and buttery sweetness I was reminded of the superb dinner I was lucky enough to experience the night before. Mmmm...


  1. That is so cool! It must have been quite a delicious evening! And to know a chef that was on Iron Chef America! Fun :)

  2. Very cool, Gretch! I haven't been to Manresa since 2003, and have -- til this day -- never heard anything but high praise for Kinch's talents and execution with his plates.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us.... Deb

  3. Bryan waited on me too! He's great! My brother works in the kitchen. Tall guy, I think he has a beard right now. He's been there for a year since he finished at NECI. So glad you enjoyed Manresa. Their regular menu is magical, but what a treat for you to be able to experience the ICA menu!

  4. thanks so much for chronicling your manresa dinner! i'm going in a few weeks and am excited about the ICA menu. i watched the ICA show when david kinch won but couldn't recall everything he had prepared. now, thanks to you, i can!