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Apr 23, 2007 01:04 PM

Chez Panisse history, pizza memories

(Spilled over from a recent, more specific thread on fried rabbit at the Café.)

Unterman and Sesser, in print, brought out both similarities and the differences between the "two restaurants" at 1517 Shattuck. (Locals will recall those writers as the popular longtime Chronicle restaurant critics, after Whitelaw and before Bauer.) Their published reviews when the restaurant was well known, and the Café becoming so, appeared separately (under "Chez Panisse" and "Café at Chez Panisse"), a distinction careful journalists still observe.

They recalled (as old customers do) the original restaurant's evolution from local hangout ($6.50 pix-fixe), to popular, to a phenomenon like the French Laundry much later ("it's impossible to get a table there!" -- $40 prix-fixe) and the Café opening. Unterman and Sesser described the Café as built around a wood-fired pizza oven, open longer hours, and an opportunity to try the "fresh, inventive food" the restaurant is famous for, informally and less expensively. The Café menu of "three salads and other first courses, two or three pastas, three different pizzas" (and the rich Calzone!) and daily specials, typically grillades (grilled or broiled). That exactly matches my experiences of the Cafe over 25-odd years, last visit a year or so ago.

Unterman and Sesser detail some of the pizzas, with fresh herbs and garden ingredients. (I remember wild mushrooms, things like lots of onions and one herb and a little cheese.) Some of the toppings seem more available, years later, but that may be partly the work of the popular Chez Panisse Café.

(Reading this made it necessary to have a good pizza. I thawed a blob of spare dough, and rendered in the preheating oven some already-diced slab bacon from a good deli. Distributed a cooked-down can of chopped tomatoes onto the spread dough, then added the bacon, dried Provence herbs, diced fresh shallot, garlic, and diced small hot "Fresno" peppers now in season. Baked in a very hot oven until browned. Good. The aromas, when these fresh ingredients hit the hot oven air, are a fringe benefit -- an "appetizer.")

Preparedness Tip from one who cooks a lot: For such emergencies, always have on hand frozen bread dough, diced slab bacon, and canned chopped tomatoes. They're easy, they're cheap, and they can deliver results.

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  1. "Three salads and other first courses, two or three pastas, three different pizzas" is out of date. The current Cafe sample menu (4/20 dinner) is fairly typical of their reduced focus on pizza and pasta:

    four salads
    four other appetizers
    two pizzettas
    one pasta
    four entrees
    one cheese plate (also served optionally downstairs)
    one bowl of fruit
    five desserts

    2 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Do you find the "entrees" still often offering grillades? That was the experience in my most recent visit, and consistent with the past.

      1. re: eatzalot

        On the current sample upstairs menu, the entrees are baked halibut, fried rabbit, grilled lamb, and ricotta pudding souffle.

        On the downstairs daily menus, the entrees are grilled lamb, grilled salmon, grilled duck breast, grilled pork, warm squab salad, and grilled lamb.

    2. A respected person very familiar with Panisse offered current details I'll summarize, which may interest some readers, about restaurant and Café. (This was very helpful and authoritative.)

      Upstairs and downstairs have two chefs each, alternating. Upstairs they alternate on three-day schedules. Downstairs on six-month schedules lately (such a shift change happened recently). The two kitchens are independent with these notable exceptions: Two pastry chefs serve both. Downstairs kitchen used by upstairs personnel for prep work mornings and afternoons. Finishing occurs separately upstairs and downstairs. I asked about overlap of ingredients, sometimes dishes, on the two menus. Yes, this is an inevitable part of the "seasonal" emphasis which underlies both venues. No, there hasn't been any deliberate change of philosophy or relationship of the two menus in recent years. I mentioned what I'd seen written in those years: newcomers or journalists dining at the Café only, then posting at length online about "Chez Panisse" (that brought more surprise than anything else) and a particular misattribution as "chef" downstairs (that, I gathered, is not new).

      Others then joined the discussion which moved on to memory lane. Old days before the Café, upstairs had a coffee bar up front and a couple of small rooms used for private dining ("bedrooms, not yet remodeled from when it was still a house," another diner recalled). Unterman and Sesser as popular Bay area dining critics; Sesser moving to travel writing, Unterman involved in her own restaurant and still writing a ("very reasonable") newsletter .

      6 Replies
      1. re: eatzalot

        The menus haven't changed much in recent years, but as I noted above the Cafe's menu has changed a lot from the the time of the Sesser / Unterman quotes above.

        Patricia Unterman opened Hayes Street Grill at about the same time she was hired by the Chronicle. Currently she reviews for the Examiner.

        While Stan Sesser was reviewing for the Chronicle, he had a full-time day job as an editor for Consumer Reports, and did travel writing on the side.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          "The menus haven't changed much in recent years, but as I noted above the Cafe's menu has changed a lot from the the time of the Sesser / Unterman quotes above." Thanks for your additions to this Robert. Your summary of a typical current Café menu breakdown looks reasonable to me. Probably you go there more often -- I appreciate your updates and look forward to more.

          Question I asked above about any change in relative styles or philosophies of the two venues (restaurant downstairs, Café upstairs) was comparing recent years to past times (as in Unterman and Sesser's review). On that specific point I was assured of no such change, by someone well positioned to comment on that interval or any other.

          1. re: eatzalot

            Answers to many of the above questions and a great deal of detailed information, including actual menus and recipes, are available in the book "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse" by Thomas McNamee. It covers the restaurant from conception to recent.

            1. re: NickSr

              Good point, NickSr! I haven't read that particular book but seen some interesting reviews. The principals also have a history of writing about the restaurant and its philosophy, going back 25+ years now.

              (Locally we also can ask in person.)

            2. re: eatzalot

              In the Cafe's early years it was focused on pizza and pasta with only an entree or two; you could order a three- or four-course meal, but you wouldn't have much choice. The menu evolved over the years to become more of an a la carte version of the downstairs: less pizza and pasta, more appetizers and entrees. The evolution of the menu is reflected by the differences between the two cookbooks, 1984's Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone and 1999's Chez Panisse Café Cookbook.

              Downstairs you're likely to get more items on a plate, and the preparations are sometimes fancier / Frenchier than you'd usually encounter upstairs. Otherwise the food is to my taste the same upstairs and downstairs.

              I think Paul Bertolli was the last chef to put much of a personal stamp on the cooking. He was also the last to share author credit with Alice Waters on a cookbook.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Thanks Robert, your views are very respectfully noted.