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Alas, Chez Panisse

Ah, Chez Panisse... what happened?

Meeting new friends T and S for dinner this evening, the general camaraderie and lusty, culinary conversation could not belie the fact that our California Icon is becoming a pale reflection of itself. I would like to believe that I am simply so jaded in being able to receive the finest of California's abundant produce and ingredients, that knowing I am walking into a temple of what should be arguably the finest ingredients available, would entitle me to one of the finest meals available. Sadly, this simply was not to be. However, starting our first heavily-vegetable course, we ordered a half-bottle of Spanish Albarino do Ferreiro which was perfectly light and clean; almost Sauvignon Blanc-like without the astringency.

After a bowl of Lucques Olives and Acme Bread, we were served our first course of grilled leeks with mustard vinaigrette, beets, and house-cured pancetta. Not listed in the ingredients but obviously an integral part which was included was hard-boiled egg. I am an intense leek aficionado but was initially concerned that the sultry leek flavor that I love so much was masked by the montage of other flavors which were far from cohesive. It was not that any one component was over-powering the rest, but the lifeless, limp leeks, in their stringy and chew state, did nothing to elevate the smallish chunks of yellow beet and occasional crouton. The bastion of fresh ingredients was beginning to falter.

For our next course, we ordered a full bottle of Vina Caneiro, Ribeira Sacra which was adequate, but far too young to show any depth or integration.

The main course of the evening was described as Daube d'agneau aux herbes; Cattail creek lamb shoulder with herb-scented soufflé, fall greens, and carrots Vichy-style. Being the showcase protein, the first bite I took was of the lamb. While tender, I was immediately overwhelmed with the saltiness of the sauce. After that, I was underwhelmed with the overall flavor of the lamb; it simply did not provide that unctuous lamb flavor one grows to expect from the Panisse experience. The herb soufflé proved to be the highlight of the evening but was far from groundbreaking. It was quite simply a very well-prepared, miniature herb soufflé; light, accessible, and with a perfectly-portioned amount of herbs where too many could have been its detriment. The "fall greens" as far as I could tell were simple braised Swiss chard (which I enjoyed) but the "Vichy-style" carrots were limp and mushy to a point just shy of that which one would find in a can. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate the freshness of an ingredient, and instead it was overcooked to become a lifeless, flaccid member.

We were given the option of a cheese course before our dessert. From St. Helena, Haiku, a goat's milk cheese, from Wisconsin came Marissa, a sheep's milk cheese, and another locally produced icon, Red Hawk from Cow Girl Creamery. The cheese was served with an accompanying bowl of chopped persimmons and three dates as well as a platter of thinly sliced nut bread. I still never bother with any flavored breads as a vehicle for cheeses, the dates themselves were the highlight of this course. The cheeses themselves, while not overtly bad in any regard, were simply too similar in their lack of depth as to distinguish themselves.

The formal dessert course was listed as a poached pear tart with muscat sabayon. I only needed two or three bites of this to know there could be no salvation for the evening's catastrophe. The pears -- like the carrots -- were so far beyond their state of freshness as to invoke concepts of can-dom. To inspire and imply a fruit or vegetable is fresh, I believe a level of "toothiness" is required, akin to a great pasta being al dente. These pears exhibited the same insincere mushiness as our carrots. The crust was soggy and flavorless, and the muscat sabayon lacked any tang or sweetness as to even suggest any other ingredient than dairy. It was all so desperately sad.

We discussed and debated our meal during its transgression. The service -- far from being warm and inviting, was perfunctory and cold. Where was the spark that was missing? I had dined at Chez Panisse several times before and thought that perhaps my palate is simply becoming jaded, however my dining companions seemed as unimpressed as I; has this simply become a destination restaurant for the occasional diner and the tourist, the way travelers to Paris feel they must visit the Louvre? Like those who feel compelled to worship at any other venerated cathedral without the introspection of the implied worship, I believe the religion that is Chez Panisse has lived beyond its time and is a mythological anthem that no longer exists except in the reverence and adoration of its devotees. It is a religion of yesteryear.

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  1. Don't know ... I drop in every few weeks and haven't had that experience.

    Usually it is just the cafe, but my last downstairs dinner was in September near my birthday ... it was a happy one.

    I guess I should write up something, one of these times but Chez Panisse is one of those places I just like to keep to enjoy for myself and not have to pay close enough attention to write something up.

    Since I moved here, ain't no destination, just my neighborhood, so to speak, joint.

    1. Chez Panisse is known for its occasional disappointment, mainly in contrast to its occasional transcendence. I've had both.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Waterboy

        I would not have minded a partial disappointment if any one of the evening's dishes showed some semblance of the brilliance I once knew it for. But to have an entire meal of mediocrity was beyond disparaging.

        Downhill alert...

      2. sigh...i don't know whether to feel happy or sad that I was not the only one to have this experience...

        1. Interesting take. I was there as well, and as it was my first time, I wasn't sure what to expect.

          Although I thought just about everything was perfectly fine, I did come away a tad underwhelmed. I loved the leeks with the crunchy panccetta, and I thought the lamb shoulder was tender and succulent. I agree the gravy was a bit salty, but I thought it mixed well with the shredded cabbage. I also enjoyed my herb souffle, however my wife did not finish hers because it was too salty.

          The nice thing was that when I asked for more they brought out a portion larger than than the one before. Thicker cuts this time, so though not quite as tender as the first time around, it was still mighty tasty.

          Also agree that the pear tart was disappointing. Not bad mind you, but no better than you can get at just about any local bakery.

          So all-in-all, I am glad I went, but I think better meals can be found at about the same price.

          1. That was a sad but beautifully written report.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Dave MP

              Beautifully written like a firehouse of Sauterne is refreshing? "A pale reflection of itself" "It is a religion of yesteryear." "there could be no salvation for the evening's catastrophe." "It was all so desperately sad" "The bastion of fresh ingredients was beginning to falter."

              I feel like I need a shower.

              1. re: Chris Rising

                thank you. thank you very much.

            2. Sorry to hear about your experience. In reading it I couldn't help but wonder if the "tasting menu -- lets try and blow their minds" culinary trend has cut down some of CPs buzz factor. I've thought something similar while at CP because within the local food landsacpe it's hard not to notice. That said, after settling in and finishing, I'm always impressed by the quality and subtle nature. In context of its often stated purpose - the best, fresh, local ingredients -- it probably still works but honestly I'd have to go again. I haven't been there for over a year. Always a great reference point in my mind.

              7 Replies
              1. re: ML8000

                I would like to believe I am less jaded on those accounts, having recently posted less-than-sterling accounts from Los Angeles' Valentino and our own Dining Room at the Ritz. I can be impressed with subtlety and well-prepared ingredients and is often why I laud the talents like Carlo Middione's fettuccine over bigger and more notable Italian restaurants and Bix's tartare. My recent excursion to Ubuntu is a better example of what can be done with the best, freshes, local ingredients.

                1. re: Carrie 218

                  I agree with what you say about Ubuntu. What I've had there is absolutely on a par with the best I've had at CP. You should join us at Ubuntu for the chowdown on Dec. 8th.

                  1. re: Carrie 218

                    In that case, your report can't be good news. I hope it's a burp or bad day...because if it's not...well it's sad.

                    1. re: Carrie 218

                      While I admire The Ritz and haven't tried the the other two restaurants you mention, in terms of The Ritz ... yes ... fresh suburbly prepared fresh ingrediants ... it still is like most top-tier restaurants these days ... about the show as well as the food ... the theatrics ... the scene.

                      Chez Panisse has never been that. It does not aim to be a temple or be a religious experience. Anyone going in with those expectations will be disappointed.

                      While I don't doubt your meal was less than spectacular to you and your dining companions, what I find disturbing is the ending statement ...

                      "Like those who feel compelled to worship at any other venerated cathedral without the introspection of the implied worship, I believe the religion that is Chez Panisse has lived beyond its time and is a mythological anthem that no longer exists except in the reverence and adoration of its devotees."

                      Well, I don't consider myself a devotee. I'm just a regular customer who has rarely been disappointed. It is why I don't write about Chez Panisse. I'm not looking to create a myth, just enjoy myself.

                      I eat out enough at local similar scale restaurants to be able to compare it. For my own tastes I find some of the up and comers distressingly mostly about the scene ... the Yelp-Zagat restaurants so to speak ... hot topic today ... mediocre tommorrow once the buzz dies.

                      That's why I like the consistancy of Chez Panisse so much. It is a meal I can rely on to be about the food. Over multiple recent and long time visits I've always had meals worthy of the Chez Panisse's reputation. . IMO, it hardly deserves to be downgraded to Zagat-type tourist trap.

                    2. re: ML8000

                      Reading her review, though, it seems like the problem wasn't that what she was served wasn't cutting edge or innovative and didn't "blow her mind," it's that it wasn't well prepared (soggy, overcooked, oversalted, etc.). Hopefully that was just an off day in the kitchen, but it is worrisome: what's the point of having the best ingredients if they aren't prepared properly?

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        Thank you, Ruth -- you are correct. I am actually quite weary of having almost continually dined upon "the innovative and cutting edge" and have been growing weary of tricks and flash. There is nothing I enjoy more than simple ingredients, excellently prepared and this simply was not the case.

                        1. re: Carrie 218

                          I had nearly the same experience as Carrie 218 this past summer. The entire meal was lackluster, a sad contrast to CP meals in the past that have sparkled with intense simplicity, if there is such a thing. The crowning blow came when the peach "crisp" was so heavily thickened with flour it tasted like paste and looked gluey. Such a letdown.

                    3. Whose downstairs these days? David Tannis, Jean Pierre? Is Kelsey back at the hearth? Alan Tangren is not foraging anymore - it's been years. Mary Robida-Canales is at Ici. I've been out of state for 18 months - so no ideas on whose in the kitchen. My money has always been well spent upstairs - aside from that one occasion when my breaded fish was blackened. Downstairs has never been less than stellar. Service always the same. I think this was a bad night. I hope this was a bad night.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: blowphishery

                        When I was there 2 months ago, David Tannis was at the helm that night.

                      2. I was also completely underwhelmed when I went in March. However, I think perhaps that the overall culinary excellence in the Bay Area has risen to such a high level that even Chez Panisse (which obviously helped set the bar so high) is bound to disappoint at one time or another.

                        1. I haven't been there in a few months (it was fava bean season and they were everywhere,
                          whenever that was, and buttery and delicious). But my most-recent experience was just
                          about the opposite of yours: excellent, excellent, excellent food and a waiter from Planet
                          of the Bad Waiters.

                          I'm so jealous you knew what cheeses you were eating. When our cheese course came
                          he flipped it on the table without a word and turned away. "Um, what's that?" I dared to
                          ask. "It's cheese." "Um, any particular kind?" "It's from Sonoma," he snapped over his
                          shoulder walking away. That part of the drama led one of my companions to point out
                          that we were almost certainly interrupting a fight he was having with his boyfriend.

                          But isolated service issues aside, I wonder if there were some problems with expectations?
                          You seem to be dinging them for what, as described, seem to be perfectly prepared
                          dishes. I mean, maybe we have different meanings for "fresh" but to me it doesn't
                          mean "raw". So in a pear tart, regardless of how long the pears have been off the
                          tree, there's a perfect point where the pears just lose their "toothiness" but keep
                          their form and become, well, they become cooked pears.

                          Likewise vichy carrots. I'm not sure what CP was going after but they're traditionally
                          overcooked in mineral water. So sexual innuendo aside, what you describe is a
                          nice plate of vichy carrots.

                          In my experience, I've never noticed CP having any hesitation to actually cook
                          the food they serve, and I'd be surprised to find them hopping on the raw food
                          bandwagon just for the heck of it.

                          1. I'd be reluctant, Carrie, to use a time as unusual as a Monday (day of the special lower-priced restaurant menu) of a major holiday weekend as a basis for concluding a decline or a mythological religion. Unless it is being compared to other recent holiday Mondays, for instance, or unless it's part of a larger trend of which this dinner was just one data point. I haven't been recently myself but am interested.