I have long dreamed of eating at famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse.
At an Association of Food Journalists gathering in the Napa Valley more than a decade ago, I tried, without success, to find a way to make that pilgrimage.
A couple of years later, I interviewed its earth-mother, food guru founder Alice Waters by phone while she was on a train en route to Yale university where her daughter Fanny was a student and where Alice was trying “to change the food in the college dining halls and to change the way people there think of food.”
Much has happened at Chez Panisse since Alice and a group of like-minded friends (okay, bright-eyed hippies) opened the place in the Brer Rabbit-ish, cottagey two-storey house located in the shadow of two huge trees on Berkeley’s humble main drag in 1971.
The philosophy was ahead of its time: To serve sweet and simple French-inspired food using organic, locally grown ingredients harvested in ways that are ecologically sound by people who take care of the land for future generations. The goal: environmental harmony and delicious flavour.
Chefs have come and gone; so have partners, both business and romantic ones. Recently, the eatery lost the single star awarded it a few years earlier when Michelin arrived in North America. But still, Chez Panisse remains a mecca at which budding chefs will work for free and to which diners flock.
Finally, in late March of this year, while visiting San Francisco for a radio workshop given by Davia Nelson of NPR’s Kitchen Sisters fame, I made that pilgrimage with the help of my unofficial tour guide, renowned chef and dear friend Jim Dodge.
We decided to eat at the Chez Panisse Cafe upstairs from the more formal, main-floor restaurant with its prix-fixe menu.
We were welcomed at the door by charming staff in the first of three elegant yet cozy rooms with polished wood ceilings, floor and window blinds. The lighting is soft and so were the strains of jazz piano. The overall effect; classy and soothing.
Service was impeccable – unobtrusive yet friendly – by an assortment of young and not-so-young servers. The menu that week may have been the problem.
It had a Middle Eastern theme inspired, said that day’s card, by well known cookbook author Claudia Roden who hails from Egypt and lives in the U.K.
My appetizer was the best dish I chose: Sweet Potato Salad with Pickled Sardines. The combo sounds weird but the tastes were harmonious and the ingredients well prepared.
Not so for my main course: Grilled Shrimp with Harissa, Saffron, Couscous, Chard and Fava Beans. The shrimp, grilled on skewers. were overcooked, rubbery and bland. I am not a fan of couscous unless it is gussied up; in this case, we’re talking plain and boring. The rest of the dish did not redeem it. Jim’s choice of entree yielded better results: Pork Cooked in Milk with Lemon, Snap Peas, Spinach and Sage. I thought that clever creation originated with my favourite Italian food maven Marcella Hazan. Never mind, it was good, if not great.
Then came dessert. Pink Lady Apple Tart with Honey and Creme Fraiche was a thin-crusted wedge of pie with elegantly overlapping apple slices that looked attractive and was palatable. However, eating it was tricky. The crust was hard rather than crispy and, with each stab of the fork, the apples slid off their base. I turned to my pastry chef friend for a diagnosis: “Baked at too high a temperature – probably 400F,” was the quick reply. Happily, his Almond Milk Panna Cotta was pretty good.
A Plate of Chez Panisse Cookies yielded a thin chocolate cookie devoid of flavour, a tiny pale macaroon, a diminutive ball of something covered in nuts (both underwhelming) and a mini-confection resembling a dark butter tart that was okay.
When the server came to ask about our meal, I had to know about the desserts. Asked if the pastry chef was new, she answered thus: “Actually it’s her first night.”
Oy vey, just my luck. However, I plan to return.
Julia Child once told me the best dish she ever ate was the salad at Chez Panisse. Also, numerous friends, including professionals like Jim Dodge, assure me they’ve had wondrous food at this culinary mecca.
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