I find it hard to decide what to say about Chez Panisse–and I’m just talking about the cafe–because so much has already been said. What seemed radical in the ’70s is now just a matter of course. Do I care about metaphoric figs on a plate, this impeccable sourcing presented simply? I’ll just say a little.
Ultimately, I said yes to my sister’s suggestion for our one nicer dinner in the Bay Area, despite her hesitation that I might find it “too earthy” because Chez Panisse is indisputably an icon, and one that I’ve always avoided on past visits. My half-hearted bid for State Bird Provisions didn’t make sense with a non-meat-eater and the email response I received wasn’t exactly positive: “I think the name State Bird Provisions is unappetizing and I will not cry if we do not get to eat there. I picture eating dodo eggs or something.” Well, then.
Is everyone drinking Picpoul de Pinet all of a sudden? It certainly seems like it. I wanted something white and crisp and this was the very reasonably priced suggestion. Yes, the bread, crusty and springy, was awesome.
The arugula, or rather, rocket, with roasted beets, mint and Bellwether Farm sheep’s milk ricotta was straightforward, good, and probably the biggest concentration of vegetables I ate all week.
Ok, nowhere else would I order the roast chicken, province of unadventurous eaters everywhere. You already know the chicken as raw material (Riverdog Farm, for the brand obsessed) is going to be good, then al mattone, i.e. cooked under a brick, and served with onion rings, this dish will be paean to lush crispness. The spinach and carrots added a fresh backbone and the black olive sauce added an unexpected saline dimension that I might even describe as earthy.
Wine-poached Bosc pears in an upside down cake with crème fraîche, a true dessert. Since this was eaten nearly four months ago, I checked the current menu to peek at winter desserts and am not sure that I’m on board with a bowl of dates and tangerines–even if the most amazing citrus and dried fruit ever compiled in one vessel.
I don’t usually talk about service unless something odd happens and in this case that would be bringing the check before asking for it. Despite the included service charge, that ain’t European service. It was late enough, roughly 10:30pm, that no one was waiting for our table, but not so late that we were stragglers in need of goosing. Plenty of diners arrived after we did and remained as we left.
Chez Panisse Cafe * 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA