Monday, October 11, 2010

Chez Panisse Cafe (Berkeley, CA)

1517 Shattuck Ave (Near Vine St)
Berkeley, CA 94709

Chez Panisse is something like hallowed ground. On the off chance that you need an introduction, this legendary restaurant, which Alice Waters and others opened in 1971, was one of the early hotbeds of the organic and local food movements in the United States. It has since established itself as a mecca for locavores, while Alice Waters has gained status as a cultural icon.

Despite the reverence some have for the institution, its vine covered, sun dappled home in Berkeley wears this history with unassuming grace. On the unseasonably warm autumn day we visited, the front door was thrown open invitingly and sunlight streamed in through the Cafe's beautiful stained glass skylights.

The space is divided into two parts: The downstairs, prix fixe-only Chez Panisse Restaurant is more formal, more expensive and, as we discovered, quite difficult to reserve, even one month in advance. Upstairs, the Chez Panisse Cafe's a la carte menu and close-set tables make for a far more low-key vibe. When we arrived at the Cafe for our lunch reservation, we found the small reception area thick with customers waiting to be seated.

Our 20 minute wait gave us some time to drool over the menu, though, and drool we did, especially as we watched the chefs in the open kitchen roasting meat, seafood and vegetables in the wood fired oven. (I'm starting to realize that almost every restaurant that aspires to serve California cuisine seems to have one of these.)

Here's what we eventually settled on:


- Avocado and beet salad with ginger vinaigrette. Generous chunks of perfectly ripe avocado and roasted golden and red beets -- all unevenly cut to somewhat charming effect -- were perfectly and expertly dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and the tiniest hint of ginger, then sprinkled with sprigs of what I think was mache (aka rampion or lamb's lettuce). The mache was slightly tough, perhaps because of the late season for it, but overall this was a simple, elegant little salad.

- Cannard Farm rocket with pecorino and pine nuts. The greens were flavorful, but again a bit tough, and simply tossed with olive oil and vinegar. Pecorino was of excellent quality and pleasantly pungent, pine nuts were fat and tasty, recently toasted to judge by the flavor. Another enjoyable, but not life-altering salad, that could've been made in a competent home kitchen after a visit to a reasonably well supplied farmer's market.


- Northern halibut with green beans, ratatouille, and aïoli. The halibut had been roasted in the wood-fired oven, which imparted a very slight, pleasant wood smoke flavor and a gorgeous golden crust -- but sadly, it was quite overcooked and dry, as well as oversalted by several degrees. It helped to eat the fish with the full-flavored, moist grilled ratatouille, however, which was incredibly flavorful. (The secret, I think, was in the anchovy marinade and the grilling.) This was head and shoulders better than any ratatouille I've ever made -- and I've made many. Green beans were cooked to crisp tender and quite fresh. I was less a fan of the barely emulsified, liquidy aioli, which left a film of unpleasant grease on the lips.

- Monterey Bay squid roasted in the wood oven with shell beans, cipollini, and tomatillo salsa. This was probably the most delicious dish of the meal, though it wasn't the most beautiful to look at on the plate, with its stewy mix of brownish shades. Squid was quite nicely prepared and tender and sat in a good, flavorful stew of cooked down cipollini onions and fresh shell beans. The stew was also oversalted, but not as egregiously as the fish. Tomatillo salsa didn't add that much for me, flavor-wise. I though the dish would've been slightly more coherent without it.


We shared a dish of bittersweet chocolate ice cream with caramel sauce and hazelnuts. The chocolate ice cream was richly flavored, the caramel almost certainly house made, the hazelnuts nicely toasted and it came with real whipped cream and a twist of meringue cookie on the side. All the elements were solid, but I guess I'm not enough of a dessert lover to really appreciate a simple confection like this. It didn't excite me very much. Luckily, Justin didn't need much assistance to dispatch it.

Very oddly, the Cafe's wine list included almost exclusively foreign wines, despite Alice Water's commitment to local foods and the restaurant's obvious proximity to California's viticultural bounty. The glass of South African sauvignon blanc I had with my food was straightforward -- and frankly nowhere as good as the wines we'd been drinking in Napa Valley.

The verdict? I'm not really sure the Cafe half of the Chez Panisse institution lived up to my admittedly overblown expectations. To be fair, we'd been utterly spoiled by the incredibly good food we'd been eating in Napa Valley just prior to this meal. But truth be told, Chez Panisse Cafe just wasn't as good as either Sol Bar or JoLe. Perhaps the Restaurant is better -- but unfortunately we'll have to save that for another trip.

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