Winter has set upon us and the brisk weather is keeping my cheeks cold and my leather boots in rotation. Gratefully, the sun’s been shining, reminding me of my favorite Fall days. When I was in college in Philadelphia, I loved walking out to the shining sun, the amber colored leaves, and the shock of cold. Thinking about lovely carefree Fall days like that, I can’t help but also reminisce about a fun responsibility-free weekend away in late September…
(Cue in angels singing:) Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…Chez Panisse. Well, actually, the Chez Panisse Café, as the reservation gods were not looking on me favorably when I called one month in advance to try to get a resi at Chez Panisse. But whatever, upstairs will do.
It was a Moms getaway weekend, and the four of us decided that a stay in Berkeley warranted a night at Alice Waters uber-famous restaurant(s). I’m not going to get into all that who-is-Alice-Waters-mother-of-California-cuisine mumbo jumbo (here, Wikipedia it), but suffice it to say that you have expectations when you go to Chez Panisse. It’s going to be local. It’s going to be in season. And it’s going to require the simplest of preparations to bring out the essence of whatever you’re eating.
Somehow, I feel like Alice Waters started with a basic concept, and now it’s morphed into some wackadoodle Left Coast philosophy that people like Anthony Bourdain like to make fun of (he should make fun of that dangling preposition I just gave you, instead).
Now a failed former English major — sigh — let’s get on to the meal.
For starters, we enjoyed a menu staple: baked Andante Dairy goat cheese with garden lettuces. I remember eating this, and thinking “Wow, this is sooo Alice Waters.” I don’t know that I really know what that means, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed the creamy tang of the goat cheese against the lightly dressed greens. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was good and I could appreciate all the contributing roles.
The pizzetta with wild nettles and pecorino was next, and really, it looked like a plant landed on my pizza. But that makes sense, given that nettle is an herbaceous plant that reminds me of seaweed due to its briny, metallic notes. Don’t let my description scare you (or the fact that nettles are really good for you), this pizzetta was terrific. Just enough salt from the pecorino and a charred crackly crust complimented all that plant, and had my table suspiciously eyeing who was going to take the last piece.
The local halibut tartare with lemon, fennel, and anise hyssop was delicate and refreshing. I particularly loved the licorice undertones from the thinly sliced fennel contrasted against the mild halibut.
If you can believe it, three out of four of the people at my table ordered the BN Ranch pot roast, with corn, tomato, and shell bean succotash. The fourth was also tempted, but opted for the Riverdog chicken al mattone, just to be different. So this was a delightful dish, but a bit surprising. One, the jus with the pot roast was exactly that — a jus. No thickening agent in that thing whatsoever, and I found it less comforting and enticing because of the thin sauce. Second, and more importantly, the description of the dish said nothing — absolutely nothing — about okra. Now, okra elicits strong feelings from people. They either love it or hate it. I love okra…as long as it’s not slimy. And sorry, Chez Panisse, but you had slimy okra. That was fairly off-putting, and I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. I mean, c’mon people, you gotta warn a person when okra is involved!!!Finally, the Mulberry ice cream with Last Chance peaches. Amazing. There is nothing tricky here. It’s ice cream and peaches. But they were the sweetest little peaches you’ve ever met, and against the tang of the ice cream, a perfect marriage (opposites attract, yin yang, whatever floats your boat). Ok, I admit. I was a little bitter that the dish was $9, but still, it was pretty darn good at giving you taste of the season.The Dirt:
Chez Panisse will always be lauded because it’s Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. Some people think that’s enough to warrant the adulation. I think the more interesting question is how the Chez Panisse cuisine (not the doctrine or philosophy) measures up against newer restaurants. I’ve eaten a lot (yes, too much), and my dinner at the Cafe was not my favorite. It did all the things that it promised to do — local, seasonal, yadda yadda — but did it do any more than that? That’s where I pause. But I can tell you that if I’m going to fight for a reservation, it’s more than likely that I’ll be fighting for, say, Flour + Water or Frances than Chez Panisse. I can respect it, but that doesn’t mean that I have to adore it blindly.
I’m offering no personal dirt today other than an apology. I’ve been remiss in posting lately. As you know, my mouth is still eating. But my fingers have been lazy and my mind tired. Here’s why:
Pretty exhausting, but well worth it…I’m told.