In some ways, you could say I’ve dined at Chez Panisse without stepping one foot into this famed Berkeley culinary institution.
That’s because California cuisine defined in the 1970s by founder and owner Alice Waters and Chef Jeremiah Tower as local, fresh and simple is now the epitome of dining in the San Francisco Bay Area where menus are flushed with seasonal ingredients, touting the farms and sources they come from.
Many of today’s more popular restaurateurs have gotten their start at Chez Panisse – Charlie Hallowell (Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe, Penrose), the late Judy Rodgers (Zuni Café), Russell Moore (Camino), and Michael Tusk (Quince), to name a few – and have furthered Waters’ philosophy into their own success. I’ve eaten at these restaurants and felt that I got a taste of what Waters meant when she once famously served a ripe peach for dessert. It’s about purity of the food, enhanced ever so slightly by other fresh ingredients and a nod to classic French cooking.
But now when people talk about Chez Panisse, I can finally say I’ve tasted from the source and am happy I did.
Last week I entered the warm, cozy Craftsman-style house that’s the foundation of Chez Panisse. An indication of the competition for tasting menus in town, I was able to get a reservation just two weeks out when historically Chez Panisse would book out a month in advance when reservations become available. (The often-quoted tip from diners is to go to the café upstairs if you can’t get a reservations for the main dining room downstairs.)
It was my nephew Chris’ birthday, and he and his sister (my niece) joined me for dinner. For those who are still uninitiated to Chez Panisse’s model, dining is divided into two seatings: 5:30 and 8 p.m., although your reservations may be staggered during those hours (we actually were told to arrive at 8:45 p.m.). Then you sit down for a $100 prix fixe four-course dinner, with the menu set by the kitchen. (To get a heads up of what you’ll be served, the restaurant’s website posts the week’s planned dinners every Monday.)
Although Chez Panisse has been open for nearly 45 years, the downstairs dining room has an open and modern kitchen. That’s because the famed restaurant had a fire in 2013 and was completely renovated. I felt the kitchen reminded me of when I dined at the upstairs café many years ago, albeit a larger space.
The service was excellent, both friendly and informative but not stuffy. Although we were dressed to celebrate, most of the diners had a casual, relaxed vibe. (There’s no official dress code. This is Berkeley.) But the room was full, which means Chez Panisse can still draw a crowd. (On the night we were there, I even spotted famed local culinary legend Cecilia Chiang having dinner with family and friends.)
My niece and I both ordered a glass of wine for our dinner, but Chris ordered the wine pairing for an additional $60.
The food didn’t hold any surprises, with a fresh starting course of seared sea scallops with cucumber, green bean, and anise hyssop, dressed lightly with Meyer lemon and local nasturtiums flowers. Even the plating felt somewhere in the 1980s.
Second course of roasted eggplant and saffron ravioli was my least favorite because the pasta was too al dente for my taste, and I’ve never been a fan of eggplant (but I will still eat it because that’s what you’ve got to do at these chef’s meals). The Black Prince tomato served on top of the ravioli was an interesting presentation with the skin removed and the texture almost like it’s been confit, or slow cooked in a broth or oil.
The main dish was grilled Becker Lane Farm pork loin that resembled and tasted like prime rib when it came to the table. The slices of the pork loin were huge in diameter, but they were so juicy and pink I kept commenting to my nephew and niece that I really thought I was eating prime rib. Chris wasn’t that excited about the pork loin, but in many ways I felt this dish best represented Chez Panisse’s genius. The kitchen is able to cook a meat so purely that you get the essence of the meat and nothing else.
Our dessert was a summer berry pasticcini, which is an Italian-style pastry (almost like cream puffs) filled with fresh fruits and topped with candied rose petals. Again, the presentation with the light spun candy spirals reminded me of a dish stuck in the 80s.
Don’t get me wrong, the lack of modern presentation did not bother me one bit. On this night, I felt like I wanted to go back in time. I wanted to dine in a period where molecular gastronomy was still a science lab project, when portion sizes matched the plates instead of just a few pieces in the center. The flavors and taste didn’t hold any surprises, but they were comforting and fresh.
Side note: The bill comes with 17 percent service charge already added, but of course we added more because of the great service.
Chez Panisse is an institution. And when dining at an institution, you’re celebrating history. For me, it was a celebration of pure cooking, surrounded by a sense of Berkeley and an appreciation of simplicity. In a way, you don’t go just to get a good meal. You go to pay homage to a place that defined dining in California, and that still continues to do it well.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. PH: 510.548.5525. Open downstairs for dinner Monday through Saturday (with two seating starting around 5:30 and 8 p.m.). Reservations highly recommended, major credit cards accepted (17% service charge added to bill). www.chezpanisse.com
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