Sunday, July 18, 2010

Lunch at Chez Panisse, finally

I don't know quite when I first became aware of the existence of Chez Panisse — I'm guessing it was some time in the past 15 years or so — but it seems as though I've been quizzing Bay Area residents and visitors about the place for as long as I can remember.

So when we were planning our San Francisco trip, the sequence of events was: book flight, book hotel, book Chez Panisse. Everything else was secondary.

As it was, the only available reservation was an early Monday lunch. That worked out fine, as we were due to head out for Monterey that day.

So on Monday morning we checked out of the hotel, picked up the rental car and drove straight to Berkeley.

Chez Panisse is on one of Berkeley's main streets, in a stretch heavy with bakeries, restaurants and boutiques. It's set back from the street behind a leafy patio entrance.

The Cafe is Mission style: simple and elegant.

Interior of Chez Panisse

Chez Panisse

The lunch menu was similarly simple: celery soup with lemon and black pepper; halibut tartare with fennel and Meyer lemon vinaigrette; pizza with wild nettles and ricotta salata.

We started with salads. For The Boy, local rocket (oh, let's just assume local everything, shall we?) with prosciutto and egg and a zingy mustardy dressing.

For me, baked
Andante Dairy goat cheese, warm and creamy and rich.

(How I know I've been spoiled by JJ's educational
ONCE dinners: when I asked the waitress whether the cheese was local, I expected, "Yes, the goats are called Snowy and Sprinkles, and they love to eat clover and watch Jeopardy." Instead, she just said, "Yes.")

Next, The Boy went for a firm, flavorful sea bass with fresh corn and a bright tomatillo sauce:

And I. Had. Spaghetti.

Here's the thing: I never order pasta. It fills me up too fast, and I end up leaving half the plate. But the promise of housemade spaghetti with fresh pesto and cherry tomatoes seemed the most perfect combination. It wasn't supposed to be clever or creative or pretentious, but simple, with each flavor complementing the rest.

The spaghetti was light and delicate; the pesto was balanced and vibrant; the tomatoes were tiny bombs of sweet juice; the cheese gave depth and pulled everything together.

I almost finished the whole dish.

And we had to have dessert. It was a toss-up between the plum tart and the ice cream/fruit combo. We shared the latter: insanely flavorful raspberry ice cream and summery nectarine sherbert with fresh nectarines and berries.

I hadn't been quite sure what to expect from Chez Panisse. Was it going to be the Best Meal Ever? Was it going to revolutionize the way I thought about lunch?

As it turned out, the answers were No and No, but I don't think that was the goal.

Alice Waters has been thinking/growing/cooking local for as long as I've been alive; that so many others do the same today is in great part a testament to her passion. So when I eat at Craigie or Henrietta's or Hungry Mother (or listen to JJ talk about the importance of knowing where your food comes from), I'm benefiting from Waters's sustained influence.

Lunch at Chez Panisse was not about discovering something new; it was about understanding the link between that restaurant's heritage and the way some of my favorite chefs think about food.

A lot of people owe a debt to the Chez Panisse philosophy, myself included.

Water carafe at Chez Panisse

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9:37 PM  

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