The beautiful card pictured above contains the March 4th menu from the downstairs restaurant at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley California. It’s where I spent a magical evening, on my birthday, soaking in every detail of a dining experience I’d been anticipating for a very long time. This iconic place, the product of Alice Water’s vision for a neighborhood bistro, has been in the same spot for forty-five years! It was everything I hoped it would be.
It’s not hard to find inspiration in the writing of Alice Waters. Her dedication to searching out the very best of local, seasonal, and sustainable foodstuffs started a movement. She created the concept of cooking with the best available produce, always with an eye to the seasonal nature of food. Her quest for the best taste, in everything she served at the restaurant, led her to organic farmers and ranchers who raise their livestock humanely. Fish and seafood are chosen by the same guidelines: local, sustainable, and impeccably fresh. You might describe the cuisine at Chez Panisse as influenced by French technique, and sourced by the best local ingredients. This is not overly fancy food. There are no molecular gastronomy tricks here; it is only the best ingredients, treated with respect, and prepared in a manner that compliments each component. The result is layers of flavor, freshness, imagination, and perfection in every course that arrives in front of the appreciative diner. Let me describe our dinner experience in detail. The restaurant is small, in keeping with its original role (and Ms. Water’s vision) as a neighborhood bistro. Through the past forty-five years of its existence there have been two major fires at the site, both of which prompted some renovations. Set back a way from the street, the entry to Chez Panisse is rather unassuming. As you come through the door there is a narrow hallway and a staircase up to the more casual cafe on the second floor. The wall is decorated with vintage posters of Marcel Pagnol’s films, Honore Panisse being a character in his film “Cesar”, and hence the source of the restaurant’s name. Then you turn to the right and enter the main restaurant. The room is beautifully decorated in the Arts and Crafts style: lovely glowing copper light fixtures, warm wood, stained glass lamps on each table. You are seated at your table and the menu card is there for your perusal. There is one set menu each night, everybody eats the same meal. Again, this echoes Ms Water’s original vision of the restaurant evoking a meal at the home of a friend, albeit one who cooks very well! We started with a refreshing glass of Prosecco, with orange bitters. An amuse-bouche of crispy cracker, topped with soft fresh goat cheese and an olive and herb relish was a welcome first bite. The restaurant sources its bread from Acme Bakery, in Berkeley. The owner of Acme, Steven Sullivan, is a Chez Panisse alumna. Mr. Sullivan started his baking career at the restaurant in the 1970’s. We sipped our apertif and savored the bread until the first course was presented. The salad that started our meal was both light and fresh, full of flavor and texture. A combination of thinly shaved raw fennel, Jerusalem artichoke, and celery was dressed with a vinaigrette, and garnished with Pecorino cheese and black truffle. Next came risotto, perfectly prepared, rich and tender rice with just the right texture. It included Gulf shrimp, sliced snap peas, and fresh sage. There was a hint of sherry in the seasoning. We ordered some Pinto Noir from Mount Eden Winery in the Santa Cruz mountains, and waited for the main event. What arrived next was the best beef either of us have ever eaten! Sourced from Stemple Creek Ranch, it was beef loin, seasoned with thyme and garlic and grilled over wood coals. Each slice was perfectly cooked; evenly pink from edge to edge, with the scent of the seasonings and wood smoke in the crust. The beef was topped with wild mushrooms, and set on a bed of potato puree. Cooked spinach and savoy cabbage and a crispy tempura-style fried new onion completed the plate. It was a feast for the eyes and the palate. This was the Chez Panisse version of steak and potatoes, elevated to gourmet status. Every bite was a delight and each was a revelation of the superb flavor and texture of the ingredients. As a little break between courses we were served a mint tisane , essentially an infusion of fresh mint in hot water. Then came dessert. It was a celebration of citrus fruit, the best of the season and so abundant now in California. The Italian version of millefeuille, Millefoglie, crispy puff pastry filled with orange-scented pastry cream sat atop an orange-caramel sauce. The plate was garnished with supremes of blood orange, and Cara Cara; candied kumquat slices added a sweet-tart punch to the rich dessert. Once again, a perfect balance of flavor and texture as the finale to a spectacular meal. After a final post-dessert “amuse” of candied Meyer lemon peel and chocolate bark, we strolled down Shattuck Avenue, got in the car, and drove home. As we drove, my children called with birthday greetings, and I recounted to them all the details of my evening. I hope to have them join us the next time we travel to Berkeley. Everyone should experience Chez Panisse; it will truly be the dinner of a lifetime!