Manresa and Kin Khao

This is a version of an article published by the Financial Times. 

When I asked a friend whose years in San Francisco have brought him extensive knowledge of the Bay Area’s restaurants, how much time restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit spends with her live-in partner, chef David Kinch, his response was, 'Well, certainly not much over the past 15 months.' 

This is not surprising because although they share the same profession, a distance of sixty miles separates their two restaurants.

Kinch is the chef/patron of the long-established, highly regarded Manresa in Los Gatos at the southern end of Silicon Valley, while for the past 15 months Pim has been the driving force behind the rapidly growing popularity of Kin Khao, a few blocks south of Union Square.

Kin Khao translates as ‘eat rice’ but as the latter is such a staple of Thai food, the expression also means ‘let’s eat’, a suitable epithet to express Pim’s ambition to show off the best of her country’s cooking. That Pim has achieved so much of this goal in so brief a period is a tribute to her charms as a restaurateur since Kin Khao could hardly have been established in a less favourable setting.

It is located on the first floor of the Parc 55 hotel, now operated by Hilton, and has already been the site of one failed Thai restaurant. When Pim took it over she imbued it with a warm design that makes up for the obvious disadvantage of low ceilings and then set about sourcing the most authentic ingredients from Thailand and California to create a series of dishes that collectively represent the best Thai food I have enjoyed outside Thailand.

But the most vibrant ingredient in anyone’s enjoyment of Kin Khao is Pim herself. Sitting at a comfortable banquette opposite the bar, I was able to watch her whizz around her restaurant in a long, black and white dress, smiling at any and every opportunity.

Her smile radiated when she was welcoming guests at the door, talking about and smelling a wine a wine writer had brought in (Pim has sensibly cultivated the local wine community), and, above all when explaining her menu. Her smile deserted her only when she stood by the hatch looking into the kitchen, her fingers drumming on the white tiles as she silently urged on her cooks.

California provided the initial surprising ingredients, in particular a citrus orchard up in Santa Cruz whose precise location is sensibly not revealed, from which Pim draws wonderfully fresh fruit not just for her food but also for her cocktails.

Two cool but spicy Thai salads ensued. Yum sum-o combined pomelo, cucumbers, peanuts and herbs while saeng–wah was a duo of wild prawn ceviche and crisp catfish with lemon grass and ginger. A much hotter version of spicy, dry-fried ribs, in turmeric and curry paste, left the top of my head tingling. A jar of caramelised pork and catfish, called namprik long rua and described invitingly as ‘not Thai food for beginners’, was the first time I had ever tasted a Thai dish in this form.

Three classic dishes followed. A Dungeness crab curry with the most precise topping of red chilli and golden garlic alongside some glass noodles; a succulent massaman curry that melded braised beef cheeks with coconut milk; and four slices of caramelised pork belly served in the clay pot in which they had been cooked and from which I shamelessly salvaged every millilitre of sauce at the bottom of the dish long after all the meat had disappeared.

I was to adopt the same greedy technique with one of Kinch’s dishes several days later, although it was very different in form and style.

This was one of the four small opening dishes before his seven-course dinner and took the form of an elegant bowl of a cool seafood consommé topped with sweet, shelled and halved fresh peas, a circle of monkfish liver and some caviar. It was stunning.

As this extensive description indicates, dinner at Manresa is more of an experience than a meal and it is one that is executed most professionally. The dining room is calm and comfortable. The management and waiting staff are both friendly and knowledgeable. And even a trip to the lavatories reconfirms the seriousness of Kinch’s approach as the walls are covered with framed menus from his excursions to Europe’s most inspiring restaurants.

But it is this seriousness that is both the restaurant’s strength and weakness. Admittedly I have not eaten in Chicago for far too long, but in my opinion several of the dishes here constituted the most precise and accomplished cooking I have enjoyed anywhere in the US other than at Eleven Madison Park in New York. Tender vegetable tortellini served on a plate patterned with the open palms of a pair of hands; a slice of black cod topped with a ‘wave’ of cabbage; and a dessert of chocolate and Seville orange in the form of a round Spanish shortbread biscuit from an excellent pastry section were all first class.

But even Manresa succumbs to the odd unnecessary layer of pretension, most notably the pre-dining list of ingredients adorning the table that states what is in season but not what will be on the menu. When Pim and Kinch do get together, perhaps she could explain why this is superfluous.

Kin Khao 55 Cyril Magnin Street, San Francisco; tel +1 415 362 7456

Manresa 320 Village Lane, Los Gatos; tel +1 408 354 4330. Tasting menu US$198 per person.

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