My Dinner at Chez Panisse

April 19, 2007 | By | COMMENTS

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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.

Categories: California, Restaurant Reviews, San Francisco

  • http://www.ceresandbacchus.com Mary

    Beautiful post. I’m wondering what everyone thinks about the supposed gender divide between molecular gastronomy/mars and simple food/venus. Have you read Laura Shipiro’s article about this in the NY Times?

  • http://flick-chicks-horror-picks.blogspot.com Sarah

    Nice site you have here! I’ve book marked you :)

  • http://www.gastronomie-sf.com Fatemeh

    Wow, Adam. This post is beautiful.

    It’s almost as though you’re writing about a meal cooked by an adored lover, or a precious Nonna. Like you said, “home”.

    This post belies a calmness in you that I can’t say I’ve ever seen.

  • http://www.foodmusings.com Catherine

    Wow.

    This is the best thing you’ve ever written. (That I’ve read, anyway.)

    It’s clear that you were spellbound, entranced, transformed even by your meal. We should all be so lucky.

  • http://hampiesandwiches.blogspot.com eileen

    Wow. I keep meaning to make some excuse to go to Berkeley (we’re in the south bay, so it’s not like we really need a Big excuse or anything), but now I REALLY mean to. Nasturtiums! I bet those turn up in the salad as well as being the decor.

  • vicki

    About 10 years ago I went to SF and and made a side trip to Berkeley for a meal at Chez Panisse. I took my vegetarian daughter, who’s a foodie too, and she temporarily forsook her vegetarian principals to fully partake in a most memorable and delicious meal. It was long enough ago that I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember the wonderful sense of place that you so nicely captured, Adam. If I ever return to that area, I’ll be certain to return there.

  • http://www.slowishfood.blogspot.com CindyK

    Wow. Really amazing post, Adam. I dream of going to Chez Panisse, but have convinced myself that it’s likely not still All That. As your post attests, it still is. I’m so happy you had such an enchanted experience.

  • Gwen

    I have to gush; I LOVE this post! I almost feel that your review is wrapping me up like a snuggly handmade quilt. It is SO what I need right now as a distraction from the horrors outside the kitchen, in the BIG BAD world. Nice job, Adam. For the first time, I feel like I felt your heart in the review instead of just your intelligence and humor. Also, living in Chicago, I feel I should support our golden boy Grant, but I have always loved old time cooking traditions even more! Bravo to you and Chez Panisse!

  • http://expatsinitaly.com/judith Judith in Umbria

    Great review. I want you to go to the Inn at Little Washington someday and report back.

  • http://www.MyspaceMaintenance.com Myspace Generators

    I’m really going to have to check this place out. Looks cozy!

  • Steve

    I just caught up on my TAG reading over the last twenty minutes, culminating in this post.

    This is why I WILL get back to the US one day, and I WILL do a foodie tour! Thanks so much for an excellent post, Adam.

    Regards,

    Steve

  • http://www.tiltbob.com Jason Sholar

    Very nice post. Classic and enjoyable. This is what I love. :-)

  • http://homesicktexan.blogspot.com Lisa (Homesick Texan)

    Beautifully written. I’ve only eaten there once and it was a very special dinner with my best friend two nights before her wedding. I consider it one of the finest meals of my life and almost ten years later I can still recall details. I hope to return one day, (as you say) it’s such a timeless, comforting and soulful place.

  • http://crosswordsandcupcakes.blogspot.com shaygo

    you did a great job of translating the experience of eating there — i’ve been once and i will never forget that meal — so true what you said about the salad.

    it was an almost meditative experience — quiet and intimate.

    well done.

  • Colorado Jim

    I believe Gwen is right. Certainly is interesting to glimpse another side of the AG. I’m enjoying your adventure.

  • http://burntlumpia.typepad.com Marvin

    Excellent review Adam. Just a great piece of writing.

  • leftcoastwaters

    my god, man – you’ve gone west coast! has one week turned you touchy, feely, alice watery? take another toke, dude.

  • Sam

    Allow me to add to the chorus of how well written this is – beautiful descriptions, wistful and complete.

    Just last month I noticed a framed poster that my mom has on the wall of their guest bedroom downstairs, she’s had it forever, but I never noticed that it said Chez Panisse before, something about 25th anniversary? I forget the number. Before, it never meant anything to me, it was just French words. Now I wonder how she got that poster and why.

    And now, I really want to go there. :)

  • Wayne

    Sam — That poster is likely by David Lance Goines, noted Berkeley graphic artist and onetime boyfriend of Alice Waters. For background on this, and all sorts of other interesting stuff, check out David Kamp’s book “The United States of Arugula.”

  • ptrap

    Like others have mentioned, I have only had one meal at Chez Panisse but it has stayed in my memory all these years. All other crab cakes are measured against the ones I had there (upstairs, with tomatillos…yum). You sound truly inspired and I have enjoyed every SF trip post immensely. Thanks for sharing your trip with us.

  • http://avocadogreenoven.com avocado green oven

    So well said. I don’t think you do any better than make food that makes people happy to be alive.

    Thanks, Adam. After this week, this was a post I needed to read.

  • Michee

    The restaurant looks so nice and cozy. I love the entrance and want to sit outside on that porch. The dessert looks very delicious or maybe the fact am hungry now.

  • Kathy

    I, too, dined at Chez Panisse that wonderful tuesday evening. It was truly a memorable meal; your description was perfect. The menu for the evening was created by chef Aaron Rocchino.

  • http://teaandcookies.blogspot.com Tea

    What a lovely, lovely post Adam! I agree with others about getting to see the philosophical side of your writing, as well as the humorous. Yep, sometimes classics are classics for a reason. I’m so pleased you could feel it at CP.

    And dang but you’re doing an impressive job of eating your way through the Bay Area. I’m impressed.

  • http://www.monicaricci.typepad.com Monica Ricci

    Wow, I hate to be a killjoy, and I usually like to see the best in everything, but my experience at Chez Panisse was just okay. Now I’m as big a foodie as the next girl, and typically if a meal is amazing, I’ll remember what I ate and even what others ate.

    However, I can’t tell you what anyone in our party ordered that evening, but I distinctly remember being underwhelmed by the whole experience. Bummer, I know. And drat, I had SO wanted to be “wowed” by the place. Granted, this was a few years ago (I’ll say probably 2003ish).

    ~Monica

  • Marguerite Fortino

    Went to the upstairs cafe about 6-7 years ago. I was on a business trip, ended up with a free evening, called Chez Panisse and begged for a spot for a single. They put me upstairs right in front of that beautiful kitchen — I could watch every lick of cooking that went on! I don’t remember the food, but I do remember that it was simple, well prepared, simple — everything you described in your post.

    I thought it was very classy of them not to stick an impromptu single woman in some out-of-the-way corner, but instead provided me with entertainment as well as my wonderful meal.

    It’s a wonderful place, fully earning its accolades. I am not at all surprised that it’s considered #2 — although I probably would rate it #1.

  • http://astorianyc.blogspot.com megc

    Wonderful review, Adam. Chez Panisse is my favorite restaurant ever. I love the simplicity of the food, and how it’s presented. I’ve eaten there a few times and loved each experience. Glad you got a chance to eat there and enjoy.

  • Carol

    Someone mentioned the chef Aaron Rocchino. Maybe he’d like to come East so that we can experience the same dining delight you had Adam. I’ve heard so many great things about Chez Panisse. Next time I’m in Ca., it’s a no brainer!!!

  • Louise

    “On certain nights, when the place is really humming and smells of fresh garlic, when the customers are “getting it”, the waiters are happy and the cooks are all in synch, all the work and effort seems somehow beside the point.”(Alice Waters)… Adam,your posting was wonderfully written, a joy to read and the photography is excellent. This posting is a classic!!!

  • http://kitchenbeard.livejournal.com kitchenbeard

    My understanding the poster in questioin refers to a series of French films that were shown when the original restaurant opened. I really need to drag myself out to Berkley soon and eat there again.

  • Joey from Madison

    Alinea recently announced that it’s closing… so I guess Chez Paniesse is #1, now…

  • http://www.amateurgourmet.com The Amateur Gourmet

    Joey—that was a gag Michael Ruhlman did on his blog for April Fool’s Day. It’s still #1!

    Adam

  • Joey from Madison

    I’m such a sucker. I actually picked it up on eGullet. I guess I’m not the only one. :-)

    Glad to hear it. I love the place.

  • Raymond

    This whole experience sounds fabulous! I’ll be in the area later this year, and I’ll definitely dine at Chez Panisse. I hope the chef who created this menu makes himself known so I can meet him in person.

  • CLiff Jeffery

    My wife and I will be in the area in late Summer, and cannot wait

    to experience the obvious. We are New Yorkers who know good food, and this establishment is one of them. Alice Waters is one of my greatest heroes.

  • Nancy

    Chez Panisse was an “aside” in our trip to local universities with our grandson. We ate in the cafe. I happened across your review when looking for the definition of panisse. You gave words to what I felt (experienced) at this meal…in regard to both emotion and palate. Now I want to find Alinea. Thanks!

  • Felix

    Chez Panisse was a really awesome place! I had a great meal there too! Now this really makes me want to go eat at Aliena.

  • Kristina Howard

    I’d like to possibly use a couple of your photos in a documentary. Could you contact me to discuss?

    Thank you.