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From the Bayou to the South Bay

Lydia Itoi | March 3, 2016 | Story Restaurants

On opening night in January, it’s standing room only at the Bywater, David Kinch’s casual New Orleans-style eatery a few blocks from his award-winning Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos. The po’boys are flying out of the open kitchen like guided missiles—but not fast enough. There are no reservations, so a typically South Bay mix of tech titans, foodies and locals mob the bar, cradling their phones and designer cocktails. Silicon Valley rarely gets this buzzed up over anything except a hot product launch or startup IPO.

“It’s only a neighborhood joint, not any culinary statement,” protests Kinch, who has a horror of media labels. “It’s the kind of place I’d want to hang out on my day off.” He seems to be getting it right. In one corner, Manresa’s off-duty Chef de Cuisine Mitch Lienhard is drinking a frozen daiquiri in a green plastic cup and watching the Bywater’s head chef, David Morgan, sling gumbo.

If expectations for this particular neighborhood joint are high, it is Kinch’s own fault. Last year, Manresa reopened after a devastating fire and roared back to win its third Michelin star. In the same 12-month period, Kinch launched Manresa Bread (“It’s just a village bakery,” he says) and starred in the PBS TV series The Mind of a Chef. Like his hometown, New Orleans, Kinch is rising from disaster.

Wearing jeans and a faded David Bowie T-shirt, the only label Kinch will accept is “hedonist.” He ran with the bulls in Pamplona and ate langoustines with mayo on the beach long before everybody started traveling to Spain to eat. But at his restaurants, he rolls out a very grown-up idea of a good time. Named for a quirky New Orleans neighborhood, the Bywater is not your French Quarter cliché. The restrained interior is decorated with tiles and rusty iron gates salvaged from Katrina. The music, carefully curated by Kinch himself, won’t make you shout across the table, but the gorgeous chicken liver mousse might.

Kinch’s two restaurants, not half a mile apart, represent two different paradigms of good eating. Manresa is ethereal; the Bywater keeps it real. Manresa’s $235 tasting menu is a cerebral distillation of the flavors of the Santa Cruz Mountains filtered through everything Kinch has learned in the past 40 years. Service is formal, especially for the notoriously dressed-down South Bay.

The Bywater’s red beans and rice will set you back $14. It’s a sentimental walk down memory lane and a bit of fun. If Manresa expresses his Los Gatos terroir in the highest culinary syntax, the Bywater tells where Kinch is coming from in language anyone can understand.

In the nearby commissary behind an auto body shop, Manresa Bread Head Baker Avery Ruzicka bakes for both restaurants. For Manresa’s spectacularly toothsome levain breads, she grinds her own small-batch flours from heritage grains in a wooden Austrian mill. She shakes her head over the conundrum of creating the perfect crusty torpedo roll for the Bywater’s po’boys. After weeks of tweaking, it was still deemed too fancy.

While the Bywater is not a sister restaurant to Manresa, there is a certain family resemblance in their approach to food. The tiled entry of the Bywater says “Be Nice or Leave,” but it might as well add the Kinch motto: “Discipline, Quality, and God Is in the Details.”

Consider the oyster. One of the signature Manresa dishes is the Tidal Pool, which brings together an aesthetic exploration of the California coast—where Kinch likes to surf—with culinary techniques he honed while working in Japan and France in the 1980s. The recipe alone runs several pages, but the result is the illusion of an oyster in its own natural tide pool. It is a modern masterpiece.

Kinch hands me one of the Bywater’s Oysters Rock-a-Fella and then asks if I know what’s in it. The classic Antoine’s Oysters Rockefeller recipe has been a secret for more than 100 years, but Kinch insists it is made with watercress. His version, however, is half spinach, half watercress, with a complex velouté involving hollandaise, absinthe, Pernod, even a touch of bacon and cream. The briny Fat Bastard oyster perfectly cups the rich yet delicate sauce. Even while reinterpreting great regional dishes for the masses, Kinch is all about excellence, not blind authenticity.

Maybe it’s blasphemy, but I’d say Kinch has done a classic one better.

320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, 408.354.4330

276 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, 408.402.5372

532 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, 408.560.9639

Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley

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