Last weekend I did something I always wanted to do: I had dinner at Chez Panisse. The Berkeley, California restaurant, opened in 1971 and still owned by world renowned chef/food activist Alice Waters was everything I had heard and imagined it would be.
First, it was a magical spring evening in Berkeley. The weather has been unusually warm over the past several days, so it was in the balmy 70s as the dinner hour approached. Walking along leafy Shattuck Avenue, we were charmed by the Arts & Crafts style homes and shops in the neighborhood. We passed through a homey but elegant entry patio on the way to the front door. The warm wood interior, punctuated by Mission-inspired wall sconces and chandeliers and subtle stained glass, welcomed us as we ascended the stairs. The restaurant is really a two-in one establishment. Upstairs in the “Café,” you can buy your meal à la carte, whereas downstairs, the more formal “Restaurant” offers one menu per night, “prix fixe” style. The food and dining experience are equally magnificent in both. The menu changes daily. For either, phone reservations a month in advance are advisable, as the best seating times fill up quickly.
I started with a “Little Gems” salad with citrus , chervil and avocado. It was an amazing mixture of sweet, fresh mini-grapefruit slices (with no bitterness at all), lettuces, and thin candied kumquat slices. Another guest ordered the “Petit Aioli” salad with artichokes, cardoons (what’s a cardoon?), marinated beets, egg, and green garlic mayonnaise. While the portion was not large (remember, this is the restaurant that started California Cuisine), it was fresh, balanced, and tasty.
I was so involved in the dining experience that I forgot to take pictures of the entrées! I had the Duck Confit, served with marinated apricots and paté on a large “crouton.” It was very good, but not what I had expected. It was tender, but not fatty like most duck. It had a subtle flavor that was accentuated nicely by the apricots. The others in my party ordered the California Wild King Salmon with a nasturtium butter sauce. They raved about it. They all said that it was the best salmon they had ever tasted, cooked to perfection. The entrée portions were generous enough to satisfy. The other entrée choices on the menu that night were fettucine, grilled sirloin, and pizza with chard and spicy lamb sausage.
And then there were the desserts. I was too full to have one, but I did get to taste a piece of my friend’s Rhubarb Galette. Oh, my god! It was delicious: tangy and sweet, with a crispy, flakey hint of pastry. Another guest tried the Pixie Tangerine Sherbet Meringata: a sumptuous frozen scoop on a big, soft piece of nougat. The other had Bittersweet Chocolate Pavé with Coconut Ice Cream and Chocolate Sauce. Need I say more?
I did have room for coffee. They brought a large French press pot to our table. I was in heaven. (My main complaint about most restaurants, believe it or not, is their coffee. Either it is generic, American watered-down dishwater, or it is old, burnt swill that has sat a few minutes, or hours, too long on a hot burner.) This coffee was perfect. It was a dark, deep delicious roast, brewed fresh in the cafe press, with which our server presented both sugar and cream simultaneously. Nothing was overlooked.
The service was attentive and constant, without being hovering. Our basket of deliciously-baked, ultra-fresh bread was refilled repeatedly without our asking. When one guest had trouble putting his jacket on the back of his chair, a passing server noticed and immediately straightened it on the chair-back, without drawing attention to the matter. Everyone from the host to the bus people to the servers was uniformly nice, pleasant, and helpful. It is easy to see why Gourmet Magazine once called Chez Panisse “the best restaurant in the world.”
The evening ended with a walk and the apparition of a crescent moon flanked by three planets, almost in a perfect linear alignment. I didn’t have my usual camera with me, so I couldn’t capture the shot in the low light. I was, however, able to catch the magical image of the trees’ shadows being cast on the sidewalk as we walked down Cedar street in the cooling night air of a perfect evening.