My Dinner at Chez Panisse

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According to Gourmet Magazine’s most recent ranking, Chez Panisse is the second best restaurant in America. It’s one notch below Alinea, which serves future food–high concept, experimental, visionary–and one notch above the French Laundry, which offers classic refinement and sophisticated grandeur. How does Chez Panisse fit in there, there at the pinnacle of American cuisine? It’s much older than the other two–almost two decades older. Its message, innovative and exciting back when it started–fresh seasonal food, simply prepared–has spread so far and wide, it can’t really be new any more, can it? Why should anyone make an effort to eat at this restaurant, this old war horse, this has-been with a superiority complex? The answer, I think, is simple: it delivers.

Walking into Chez Panisse is like walking into a fairy tale. I’ve always felt that the Chez Panisse cookbook (one of my favorite cookbooks, by the way) is a witch’s diary, a strange and mystical resource you might find in a dusty attic, handwritten on faded yellow paper, burnt at the edges, on a shelf next to pixie powder and dragon serum. The restaurant itself, as you can see from the picture above, looks like an enchanted house–perhaps home to three bears or a hobbit or, more likely, the Hansel and Grettel witch; only now she doesn’t eat children, she roasts pheasant and grows rhubarb as a hobby.

As you walk up the stairs, you ready yourself for what’s inside: what will the dinner be? When you eat downstairs (as we did) the menu is fixed. There are no choices. (Ed Levine advised me to eat upstairs: “Choice is good,” he said emphatically.) But choice is not what we wanted this night–we wanted the full Chez Panisse experience, so we greeted the host, gave our name, and he kindly told us to wait at the bar.

Here’s the upstairs kitchen at work:

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Notice the giant bowl of fava beans, the copper pans, the blurry chefs. It sort of looks like a country kitchen, and that’s just the point. When you’re at Chez Panisse, you feel like you’re at someone’s house. Downstairs, the experience is amplified with a wood burning oven. I passed it on the way to the bathroom and suddenly realized why this place is so revered, so beloved: it’s rustic, it’s honest, it’s good.

When our time came to sit, I was surprised by the unpretentious atmosphere. Only one group of men wore suits; the rest were dressed more casually. And then the flowers said it all; here’s Kristen with menu and flowers overhead:

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Those flowers represent natural beauty. They’re wilder than normal restaurant flowers, they’re untamed and unruly and drooping and leaping all around. This is why you go to Chez Panisse: to appreciate the world as it is, not to have it reprocessed and repackaged and shaped to fit a highbrow aesthetic. Chez Panisse says, “The world is a beautiful place and we’re going to show you why.”

So they show you with bread–perfectly crusty and soft in the middle–and butter, salty and smooth:

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They show you with wine–selected with help from the waiter, and poured only half full so that we can have a half glass of white with the first course, and a half glass of red with the second and third (a generous touch and again a function of this type of dining):

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Notice the bowl next to the wine glasses: those are roasted almonds sprinkled with salt–a terrific mouth tease that awakens your tastebuds and gets you ready for what’s to come.

What comes first, on this night–Tuesday, April 17, 2007 (each week’s menu is posted online)–is a shaved fennel, cardoon, and endive salad with walnuts and anchovy:

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Salad is a wonderful vehicle for a restaurant (or chef) to show their mettle: a bad salad (and we’ve all had more bad ones than good ones) gives us familiar ingredients in a familiar dressing, disproportionately dressed and piled, haphazardly, in a bowl. A good salad, like this one, surprises us with selection (cardoon? Never had it), arrangement and execution. In particular, you know you’re in good hands when a chef shows restraint: this is just enough salad with just enough dressing. It’s unfussy and yet it’s quite alive because of how all the flavors play with and against each other. When you eat a salad like this, you savor every bite and you finish eager for more.

The more, in this case, is Amarone risotto with Parmesan:

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What can be said for a restaurant that serves, as a second course, a bowl of rice cooked with wine and topped with crisped paremsan? That’s essentially what this is. And yet each bite is a marvel of simplicity and balance. It soothes, it surprises. Could I make this at home? Probably. But that’s not the point: the point is that you are here and it feels like home. Better than home. Like home if home were run by a silent angel who made your bed every morning, did your laundry, and patted you on the head as you ran off to school. That’s what this risotto feels like.

And then the entree, that’s the most emblematic of all: Spit-roasted Laughing Stock Farm pork loin and belly with rocket, artichokes and black olives.

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This dish, this meaty amalgamation on a plate, tells us what it is to be human: for humans hunt and cook with fire. We season the meat with herbs and spices; we roll it so it crisps on the outside and stays moist in the middle. We dress it with leaves and fruits and other devices to enhance the experience. Why do we do this? Why aren’t we like other animals–why don’t we just devour our foods unadorned? The fact that this meal made me ask this question tells you why Chez Panisse is important.

And then, for dessert, a Meyer lemon ice cream meringue tartlet:

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Suspiciously dated (Baked Alaska, anyone?) but utterly enjoyable. This restaurant doesn’t care about timeliness, it cares about timelessness. It’s here for pleasure, for comfort, for joy. It’s the #2 restaurant in America not because the food is the most refined, not because it’s daring or wildly inventive, but because it has heart. It has soul. It feeds you and it loves you and it sends you out happy to be alive. I don’t need flash frozen violet petals for that or foie gras popsicle sticks or who knows what you might find in this new age of molecular gastronomical invention. All I need is a simple dinner made with love. If that’s what you require, look no further than Chez Panisse.

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