Sunday, January 11, 2009

Berkeley Detour: Chez Panisse

When evaluating an establishment with as storied a history as Alice Waters' revolutionary restaurant, I can't help but feel the pressure to be positive. She was certainly a pioneer of "Californian cuisine." I dread the heaps of scorn from the neo-hippies if I were to say something bad about Chez Panisse. Luckily, I am relatively positive in my evaluation.


I must make a qualification before my review: I went to Chez Panisse for the Monday night menu. For those unfamiliar with the menu structure, this is incredibly significant since there is only one set menu per day, meaning there are no menu choices. Mondays are the most rustic, hearty foods, usually three courses of a salad or appetizer, big entree, and dessert. Tuesday through Thursday, the menu gets an additional course and I imagine the portions slightly smaller. Otherwise, I can't imagine these skinny Berkeleites (sp?) getting through a four course meal. The food moves slightly more upscale, finally culminating in the Friday and Saturday five course meals (Sunday is closed). To give you an idea, this week's Monday entree is baked trout in salt crust and the Saturday entree is beef tenderloin.

Did I know all this when I made my reservations? I only knew that the Monday menu was $60, the Tuesday-Thursday $75, and the Friday-Saturday $95. Therefore, I'll qualify my review by saying I went on the cheapest night with the most rustic food. I would have to go back for a Friday/Satuday dinner to get the whole range.

Also, this review is for the Chez Panisse Restaurant downstairs. The upstairs Cafe is not reservation only and has an a la carte menu instead.

So what did I get for my $60--beans. A cassoulet to be more precise. Never been a fan of beans, but then how many Asians are (soy, red, and yellow excepted)? But I'll get to the entree after a description of this quaint establishment. From the outside, you'll see a building resembling a wooden cottage, slightly recessed from the street with a simple sign. The restaurant is old, and it shows. Yet, as I was walking through the doors and greeted by the maitre'd, I felt that they tried a little too hard to be a "fine-dining" establishment. It seemed as though there was a clear separation between the casual cafe and the serious (or stuffy depending on your persepctive) restaurant. Well with all that pretense, you'd think they'd have my table of four ready for my 9 pm seating. We waiting a good half hour before being seated, though the host was kind/professional enough to offer us a round of free drinks.

When we finally got seated, we were greeted by two sourdough loafs and a bowl of olives reminiscent of Lucques. Though I'd venture to say that these olives with pinches of coriander and fennel were even better than Suzanne Goin's. The spongy soft, whole wheat bread would could serve as a meal in itself. I want to say I could taste the freshness, but I might just be biased. If I hadn't known where the bread was from, I probably wouldn't have realized it. Although I will say as a Bay Area native, sourdough yeasts in San Francisco are superior to everywhere else in the world.

Having been seated thirty minutes late, I was even more miffed when each course came out so slowly. If they had two seatings, we certainly were already in the late one. There isn't much excuse for the late service. Finally, when the salad of Annabelle's chicories with Meyer lemon and anchovy vinaigrette made it to my table, we've already gone through three of loafs of bread. Not as fishy as you might imagine anchovy vinaigrette to be, the salad was a visual delight of vivid greens. In this case, if I couldn't taste the freshness, I could certainly see it.

Knowing now what a cassoulet is, I probably would've opted for another night at Chez Panisse. But besides the beans, this cassoulet au confit de canard had mountains of meat: duck leg confit, braised lamb shoulder, garlic sausage and even a surprise pork belly not listed on the menu. All the meats brought this dish together. Even though I don't like beans, I eagerly mopped them up to eat with that snappy casing sausage, crispy duck, or succulent lamb.

Funny that I had just read finished The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten, which featured a chapter on granita before our dessert came (after an agonizing half hour I might add). More precisely, clementine sherbet coupe with lime-lemongrass granita. I'm not sure why lemongrass is such a hit now, but outside of Southeast Asian soups, I don't like to taste it everywhere. The granita, think fancy snowcone, was incredibly sour. The bits of candied ginger and grapefruit peels helped cut through the tartness, but it was the meringue stick that did the most. Nothing like a whipped egg whites and powdered sugar to balance out an ultrasour dessert.

We received an oddly folky plate of mignardises of chocolate tea truffles and pistachio pralines. Biting into the truffles, I was surprised to discover a liquid center. The pralines were just like pistachio brittle. Given the slow service and hearty, but not-fancy-enough-for-the-money-food, I was somewhat letdown by my trip. However, I know I won't be a stranger to the Bay, so one day it's going to be that Saturday menu for me. When I have the dungeness crab cakes and grilled rack and loin of lamb, I'll have the full range of the Chez Panisse experience.

Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, 94709
$60 for Monday menu



Frequent Traveler said...

Nothing you described made me want to go there - except the sourdough bread and the salad...
Slow service drives me nuts too.

Aaron said...

Annie: I guess I wasn't as positive as I wanted to be, but you're right. Based on this trip alone, I wouldn't return. But I've heard enough good things about Chez Panisse to warrant another evaluation

kevinEats said...

So what brought you over to my old stomping grounds? I used to live right down the street from Chez Panisse and the "Gourmet Ghetto." I never ventured downstairs though, only went to the cafe.

Aaron said...

Kevin: I know you went to Cal, but East Bay is my old stomping grounds too. I was born and raised in Alameda. Please don't mention Sushi House to me

Epicuryan said...

The restaurant seems a bit lackluster. I remember being quite impressed when I went here years ago, maybe something has changed. At any rate there is no excuse for the painfully slow service.

For all the restaurant's fame, I don't think I know anyone who has eaten in the main dining room. I look forward to your review.