Out of the five spectacular restaurants that I visited on my eating tour of the San Francisco Bay area and Napa Valley last month, I have decided to review Chez Panisse, the Restaurant (not the Café), first. (The other four were Manresa, The French Laundry, ame at the St. Regis and The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton). Why? Because in retrospect, out of the five meals, the one I ate at the small Berkeley institution lingers with me the most.
Anyone who has visited or read about Chez Panisse knows that Alice Waters started this restaurant to focus on seasonal and eco-friendly eating. (You can read more about the restaurant’s philosophy and history here.) As well, Waters and the restaurant’s co-founders wanted a place where they could “do things the way they would like them done at a dinner party at home.”The meal started out with an aperitif (offered on the Friday and Saturday dinner menus). On our night, it was a Kir. I don’t drink alcohol, so I was served a non-alcoholic Gewurtzraminer – a clear, bright grape juice from Germany. The Kir was accompanied by some
gruyere gougieres – not perfectly round, in fact a little rough around the edges, but just as good as any I’ve had elsewhere.Our first course was a duo featuring of beets: a beet salad and a “jellied beet soup.”This course really showcased what Chez Panisse is all about: a focus on fresh ingredients. The beets in both the salad and the soup were delightfully sweet and clean tasting – not earthy (read: muddy) at all.The beet salad was dressed simply with extra virgin olive oil and garnished with shaved fennel and ricotta salata cheese. The roasted golden and red beets were perfectly prepared – not raw and crunchy, yet not overdone and mushy. Composed, the salad was simple, refreshing, yet satisfying.
I’ve never had “jellied soup.” This vibrantly magenta beet soup was indeed “jellied.” It is garnished with a bit of crème fraiche and a dollop of California sturgeon caviar. The soup, as well, really highlighted the root vegetable’s natural sweetness. The tangy creme fraiche and the salty-bitter caviar provided a perfect measured contrast in flavor. As well, the creaminess of the creme fraiche and the silky caviar gave the chilled soup a sexy and luxurious mouth-feel. Both were immensely refreshing and really whetted my appetite.
There’s nothing happier than a fried soft-shell crab in season with some crusty bread and a (measured) smear of aioli. This is exactly what we got for our second course – usually a seafood item.
My fat little darling, perfectly coated and fried waddled out on a silky pavement of green garlic aioli spread on a crusty toasted slice of bread. While I appreciate the familiar “fried soft shell crab sandwich with mayo,” I thought this course was not eater-friendly. One of the joys of eating a soft shell is the unabashed usage of the digits. Chez Panisse’s presentation made that a no-can-do – what kind of house party was this? Cutting was difficult because the bread, which was satisfyingly crusty, was unfortunately immune to my not-very-sharp knife. Toasty shards went flying off this way and that. The crab ended up in my tummy, but the rest largely went, well, everywhere else.
My biggest complaint about this course was that it was rather greasy. I know – what do you expect from a fried course? I think what overdid it for me was the generous slather of green garlic aioli – which my dinner-mates had no problem licking up.
Our main course featured a trio of lamb. Luck had smiled upon me. For as long as I can remember, Chez Panisse has served fowl as their main course on Friday nights and lamb on Saturday nights. My Friday night visit was joyfully anomalous. Not that I don’t like fowl – but presented between fowl or lamb – I go for the four-footer.
This course featured three cuts: rib chop, loin and leg of Cattail Creek Farm spring lamb. Accompaniments included artichoke hearts, fava beans and a shredded potato galette.
I’ve had so much lamb in hoity-toity restaurants that a preparation rarely stands out. As with the previous courses, Chez Panisse really delivered on bringing out the best of the star ingredient. Having three cuts of lamb next to each other, I was able taste each one and notice the distinct flavors in each. While I love the muskiness of the leg, I also appreciated the clean, yet beefy-tasting loin. The rack, always a favorite, was so tender and juicy, I was *SCREAMING* (on the inside). Firm fava beans and meltingly soft artichoke hearts were the perfect foil.
Like the soft shell crab course, my only complaint with this dish is that it was somewhat on the heavy side. The potato galette, especially was very greasy – a dense soggy
Dessert of the evening was a very fluffy Meyer lemon soufflé with cardamom crème anglaise. The soufflés were picture-perfect – as they were in texture and taste. I’m really impressed that the restaurant would be so daring as to coordinate soufflés for everyone in that evening! To be sure, in some aspects, it makes dessert servicing somewhat more predictable… but making all of those soufflés and timing them for each table, I can imagine, could spell disaster.The soufflé was garnished with a Meyer lemon leaf. As well, little pots of cardamom crème anglaise were provided for each diner to sauce their own desserts.The soufflé was not overly eggy, and was ethereally light. I’m personally not a fan of cardamom, but I will admit that the crème anglaise worked magnificently with the subtle and mild citrus. One note on the crème anglaise – although I could have sworn I tasted a heavy dose of ginger in the crème anglaise, my server, after checking, reassured me that there was only cardamom.
By now, my readers have probably caught on that I’m not a sweet-tooth, except for ice creams. Not being a huge fan of desserts in general, I asked for ice cream instead of the soufflé, knowing that one of my generous companions would be willing to donate a bite of theirs for the purposes of this review. I correctly assumed that they would have ice cream on hand because the Café upstairs always serves it. The choice between vanilla and passionfruit was a no-brainer.
Three scoops of the tropical fruit treat appeared, atop a pool of macerated strawberries in a syrup (not sure what was in the syrup). It was garnished with a dollop of whipped cream and two almond shortbread-like crisps.
A note on the soignee: Chez Panisse’s dining room is small and very cozy. When I had made the reservation, they could not accommodate our party of six and I settled for two three-tops. (You’ll see how this is relevant).My dinner was with a couple of very good friends with whom I had endured and graduated graduate school with the week before the visit and three of their friends from Berkeley. The average age was around thirty and the combined years of schooling between the six of us added up to be well-over 100 years. Scary. My point in noting this is that although we may have looked young(er than our age would imply), I do not think we gave off an immature vibe… (I know schooling has nothing to do with maturity, but I assure you, were are all very “adult-like” people.)When we arrived for our early reservation (5.30pm), I kindly explained our split-party reservation, as the reservationist had suggested, and inquired as to whether we could combine into a table of six. The maitre d’, a rather aloof-seeming Frenchman, disappeared to see if my request would be possible. Luckily, we were accommodated… on one condition:
“Our dining room is very crowded… and it tends to get very noisy. We can seat you together, but only if you promise to… well, you know…,” looking at us like naughty children. Pause.
I unamusedly filled in the missing words, “… behave ourselves.”
“Yes, exactly.” He nodded with a disingenuous smile.
“Certainly,” I agreed in disbelief.
The maitre d’s comment and insinuation was not only condescendingly off-putting, but rather unnecessary, as it turned out, there were two six-tops next to us, each of which was LOUDSPEAKER volume – way above ours. It was quite clear to all of us what the man was trying to say to us, but perhaps it could have been done in a more, well, “mature” manner?
In related matters, a note on service: I would say the most disappointing aspect of our dinner at Chez Panisse was the service. Our initial “talk-down” by the maitre d’ (which was really trivial) aside, service was a bit rough and sloppy. I know it’s a tight space and a very busy restaurant, but I had expected a little more care. Our water girl (for lack of better title) insisted on filling our glasses to the brim, which often meant overflow on the table. By the end of our meal, large patches of wet table cloth were everywhere. The drips and spillage from overhead meant soggy bits in the bread, or an icy watered-down sauce on my plate. Boo!
Our main waiter was an affable middle-aged fellow, if not a little neglectful. He had all the charm and affect of an 80’s game show host – the smile really was a dead-ringer. Silverware often had to be requested, and courses didn’t always show up together – but I guess that’s would happen at Panisse’s house. *wink.*
Toward the end of service, our fair Frenchman appeared in the dining room to lend a hand to service. He brought our soufflés in a much more humble manner than the way he took our seating request. Perhaps he was distracted by the VOLUME 13 six-tops of ADULTS next two us? hmmphrlll…
As I stated in the beginning, I have thought often about my meal at Chez Panisse since. There was nothing dramatic about it. No molecular gastronomy going on in that beautiful open kitchen and grill. There were no visual wonders to dazzle my eyes and distract my taste buds, no litany of outlandish ingredients or combinations to unravel in my mind. This was food the way people have been eating it for centuries… and maybe that’s how it should be.
A limited peek into the kitchen (which I encourage you to do) will take you back a century or two to a rather dark and unadorned, brick and timbered world. Meat is fired over an open flame. Bread is baked, housed in large baskets until it is ready to be cut and served. It reminded me that food can be great when it’s unapologetically unfussy. Somewhere in our human fussing, the nature of it all often gets lost. I’ve had lamb that is made to taste not like lamb. I’ve had crab made to look like something else (and then at some Japanese restaurants, I have other things that are made to look like “krab.”). To be sure, those kinds of meals are satisfying in a very different way. The reason why the food at Chez Panisse lingers with me the most is because it is the only one of the five that served food that spoke to my soul. It got to me. It made me think about more than just the food itself.
Inside the vine-covered tiny timber house on Shattuck Street is a truly a homey dining experience – almost children story-book worthy. It reminded me of many a rustic family-owned roadside restaurants that dot the Bavarian foothills and throughout the Alps. It’s the type of place you would be happy taking your girlfriend, husband, friends or the grandparents – and maybe altogether – if you promise, as you would have to as a child, to behave….
Chez Panisse ****
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, California 94709
* It is highly recommended that you familiarize yourself with their reservation policy before calling or scheduling your dinner
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
*****Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong.
****** Speechless: ‘nough said. Nothing short of magical.