Friday, February 12, 2010

Chez Chez Panisse

After much handwringing weather anxiety, I have found myself in California! This marks my first visit to our country's west coast; I can't shake the sense that there's something exciting and deeply improbable in my being here. There are many things Californian that I could expound upon (the weather, the palm trees, the way that I now understand why people have called my neighborhood a mini–San Francisco) but I think I will start with the most important: the food!

A—, resident food expert and appreciator extraordinaire, has always told me about the virtues of Chez Panisse. Seeing as I was coming west for my big vacation, I thought I'd have to try it. I dutifully booked my reservation (a month in advance!) and further dutifully (and worriedly) inquired how late I could cancel if it turned out my flight got cancelled. Luckily for me, we flew off yesterday morning and even arrived a bit earlier than I'd been expecting, and I had plenty of time to prepare myself for dinner.


Chez Panisse does not provide you with a meal so much as an experience. Its proprietor, Alice Waters, is famous for her focus on local food; to that end, she serves a constantly-changing menu full of local and seasonal ingredients. This means that you won't know what you'll be eating until the week of your reservation; when that Saturday rolls around, you are thus filled with excitement to mosey onto Chez Panisse's website and discover that your menu is to be:

Grilled Monterey Bay squid salad with Meyer lemon and chervil
Hand-cut pasta with wild mushrooms and green garlic
Poached Soul Food Farm chicken with horseradish cream and Chino Ranch
vegetables and greens
Pink Lady apple tart Tatin with crème fraîche

Even before describing the food, though, let's have a few words about the restaurant itself. Stepping inside, you're instantly welcomed by the Frank Lloyd Wright–esque decor. Glowing wooden panels with open windowlike spaces, inviting soft lighting fixtures, and friendly-looking pyramids of bread and tomatoes greet you upon your entrance. From your secluded corner table, you can gaze out at the open kitchen—food preparations, piles of rounded crusty bread, gleaming counter space, everything basking in a sort of glow of care and efficiency. The service is impeccable: unobtrusive, helpful, matter-of-fact, not letting on that you're the fancy-restaurant impostor you know you are.

And fancy-restaurant impostor you do not mind being, because you get to eat all the excellent food! The bread arrives still warm, and then the squid salad emerges. You learned to eat calamari from an early age; your dad used to refer to "fish rings" to entice you to try some. In more recent years you've developed a willingness to eat the more tentacled pieces (and concede they are the best part). Here, they do not disappoint, light and welcoming, a good start to what proves to be an epic meal. Next up is the pasta with mushrooms; crusted and creamy, it comes in a beautiful little bowl. The Chez Panisse staff leave a decent interval for you to digest; then they come out with the main course, a light and delicate chicken. You were skeptical about the sauce, not really being a fan of horseradish generally, but there's something bracing and unexpected about its appearance in the otherwise bland dish. The vegetables are astonishingly fresh and delicious, plus you've never seen peapods sliced at such a jaunty, artistic, framing-of-perfect-semicircular-pea-morsels manner before. The most transcendent-tasting bite is, surprisingly, what you're pretty sure is a radish covered in horseradish cream; it is truly a taste you have never experienced and likely never will again.

Despite deep uncertainty about what will transpire when you combine your jet lag with even more caffeine*, you opt to get a capuccino with your dessert, being a huge caffeine fiend and suspecting (rightly so, as it turns out) that this will be a worthwhile venture. The capuccino arrives with its little bowl of brown sugar, and you inhale the warmth and deliciousness. Your dinner companion has ordered a mint tisane, which arrives in a stunning welter of greenery and translucent teapot. You try to capture the play of light on the pot and the water carafe with a cell phone camera, but you know it will never do the moment justice. And then the apple tart comes out, all carmelized brilliance. You roll up the apple and caramel and crème fraîche into a ball and savor the combination.

Leaving, you and your stomach and your companion step out happily into the California night air. You suspect this was not the most-delicious meal you've ever tasted (although it was quite good!) but the overall experience was certainly one of the best. Now, alas, back to those cheap ol' standby cheese sandwiches.

*Berkeley is apparently home to the delightfully-doppelgangery Guerilla Cafe; my Gorilla thermos and I had to pay a visit just before dinner.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the play by play. I will forward to my mom - she loves food descriptions. I'm glad you liked it.

    - The mysterious A