Traci Des Jardins loves Tahoe. So when the award-winning San Francisco chef was offered the opportunity to open a restaurant here, she took it. “I’ve spent time in Tahoe my whole life,” says Des Jardins, who grew up on a farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley and is of Mexican and Louisianan-French Acadian descent. “I’m an avid skier; the mountains are my favorite place to be.”
Since launching Manzanita at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe in 2009, Des Jardins gets to the Truckee restaurant about once a month. “The biggest challenge is the distance, not being able to check in every day,” she says. Executive chef Ruben Garcia oversees the kitchen on a day-to-day basis.
What keeps Des Jardins otherwise occupied elsewhere? Her Hayes Valley restaurant Jardinière is still one of San Francisco’s top booked spots after more than a decade (and a regular on San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 list); she is also chef/co-owner of Mijita Cocina Mexicana in the Ferry Building and chef/ partner at the Public House at AT&T Park.
Her culinary talents have been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine magazine and Esquire; she bested Mario Batali on the Food Network’s Iron Chef series and, at press time, was about to go toque-to-toque on Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters.
For Manzanita’s menu Des Jardins took the French-inspired California cuisine for which she is best known, and tweaked it for the restaurant’s high-elevation location, at Northstar- at-Tahoe’s mid-mountain location. “I call it Traci’s mountain food,” Des Jardins says. “Rustic and hearty, but with a touch of city sophistication.”
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, Manzanita’s menus change with the seasons. “We use a lot of the same purveyors as at Jardinière, with as much local product—organic and sustainably grown—as we can throw in,” says Des Jardins.
Breakfast is your standard hearty mountain fare; early in the day you’ll find pancakes, waffles and eggs, including TDJ’s Poached Eggs served on a toasted English muffin with Bloomsdale spinach and sriracha hollandaise.
Lunch means the wood-fired oven is baking thin-crust pizzas, which might be topped with Boccalone salumi and Niçoise olives. There are also sandwiches: The Cubano comes with roasted pork, ham, Swiss, pickles and Dijon mustard, and the pulled chicken sandwich stacks bacon, roasted mushrooms and Gruyère on housemade ciabatta bread.
Dinner is where Manzanita’s menu really shines. Don’t miss TDJ’s warm bread salad with baby artichokes and marinated Bellwether Farms crescenza cheese. You might also find an appetizer of diver scallops with sweet pea purée, pancetta and fingerling potato crisps. A main course favorite is the winebraised short ribs with horseradish potato puree and herb salad. Desserts provide a classic sweet finish to a memorable meal with selections such as crème brûlée, toffee bread pudding, mocha pot de crème.
Two separate glass wine rooms store both reds and whites from the wide-ranging list at proper temperature. More than 25 selections are offered by the glass; half-glass pours permit a greater variety of pairing options, with which sommelier Jessica Norris can assist.
Manzanita, whose sophisticated décor draws from an earthy palette of stone, wood and leather, seats 94 in the dining room, plus 71 at the bar and lounge, and can accommodate another 125 on the seasonal terrace. The open kitchen, visible from all vantage points in the restaurant, offers close-to-the-action seating at a counter made from cherry hardwood. A chef’s table, honed from a reclaimed slab of maple, is flanked by wine storage and illuminated with hanging lamps.
With all that eye candy inside and sweeping Sierra views outside, perhaps the greatest challenge is staying focused on the menu and the meal. The good news is you can linger over it all. By Susan D. Rock. TQ
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