Berkeley – A perfect lunch at Chez Panisse Cafe
I paid more attention to Chez Panisse than usual to determine if it really deserves its reputation. Was I just a mindless, unthinking CP ‘devotee’?
The meal was scrutinized with cool detachment. Usually I just go in and enjoy the food, which IMO is what CP is all about.
Everything ordered demonstrated Chez Panisse’s brilliance.
- Belgium endive salad with grapefruit, ginger and Dungeness crab
- Pizza with tomato sauce, eggplant, and ricotta salata
- 2006 Ribeira Sacra, Vina do Burato, D. Ventura, Spain
- Fresh ginger cake with poached pears and Chantilly cream
- 2005 Moscato D’Asti, Bricco Quaglia, La Spinetta, Rivetti, Italy
- Acme Levain with butter
The salad had julienned endive dressed with a light lemon dressing. Ginger was a background note and there were tiny, barely noticeable bits of grapefruit and delicate, sweet pieces of crab.
Like all dishes at CP, it was teamwork on a plate. No ingredient shouted and called attention to itself … and these are all ingredients which could easily overpower the crab. There was a play of sweet crab, bitter grapefruit accents for interest, endive for contrasting texture and the dressing and ginger uniting the dish.
Thanks to Robert Lauriston … wherever or whoever he might be these days … for his posts about CP pizza. The crust is so deftly made … beyond tender with smoky char notes. This is not a word to really use with crust because it doesn’t seem right … but there was some essence of creaminess about it. The toppings melted together and again were in perfect unity and balance.
The wine recommended by the server was a great pairing.
Another poster was disappointed with the pears in a dessert this week calling them similar in taste and texture to canned. It is a fair description. Poached pears are like that. There was no distinctive wonderfulness about the pears
However, like everything at CP it is about the whole. The texture of the pears with the light gingerbread cake and Chantilly cream was blissful.
The moscato DID call attention to itself … as well as perfectly complementing the dessert. It had wonderful effervescence and was pleasantly sweet, not cloying like some moscato. I’m going to have to buy a bottle of this … or a few.
What is brilliant to me is how the dishes pull together. Yes Chez Panisse uses stellar ingredients … so does every other top-notch restaurant in the area. IMO, none of them even come close to CP in producing such cohesive dishes.
Other restaurants dishes shout … taste me, taste me … aren’t I the perfect … whatever. Look at how clever I am.
That can be good. I consider myself a food barbarian … gravitating toward rustic, bold, in-your-face dishes. However meals at Chez Panisse tame my savage tastes and bring out everything noble in my palate.
For me the food at CP says this is the perfect … whatever. This is how it is supposed to be used.
Chez Panisse has never been a dazzler to me. However, I’m always impressed by its understated, thoughtful, intelligent approach to deliciousness.
You can buy an original painting or you can buy a print of that picture. However, the print misses the nuances and depth of the original. You can dine at Chez Panisse or the zillion other copies in the Bay Area. .
So that’s it for me and reporting about Chez Panisse. This is what I like about CP. I’m going back to just enjoying it.
To me Chez Panisse is a timeless classic.
1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709
Thanks for the report! I agree with you wholeheartedly.
I ate dinner at the Cafe last night and it was a wonderful meal, as usual. (But I love the Cafe and downstairs equally, for different reasons.) We had:
--avocado and beet salad
--nettle souffle with hedgehog mushrooms
--lamb meatballs with couscous, chard and chickpeas
--bottle of Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, a red wine from Le Marche (Italy)
The lamb meatballs were my favorite dish and they were so tender and juicy and full of lamb flavor it was amazing. The fluffy, real couscous (not the instant kind - someone steamed this the old fashioned way) was perfect and the sauce served with the meatballs was nicely spiced. The souffle was very satisfying and a nicely prepared plate with the souffle in the center, surrounded by tons of perfectly seared hedgehog mushrooms, a tangle of watercress, and caramelized onions and potatoes. Sounds boring, but it was not. Both salads were the essence of simplicity, with perfectly sourced ingredients shining through. The crisp was served with candied orange ice cream on the side that was so good it threatened to eclipse the crisp!
Wonderful food, friendly and attentive (but not obtrusive) service, warm atmosphere - it all added up to a memorable experience.
That is the perfect description of the service. I too like both upstairs and down for different reasons.
I haven't been upstairs for dinner in quite a while. I usually choose lunch ... after about 1pm I've never had problems getting a table. On a sunny late Autumn day like Wednesday it is lovely sitting next to the windows.
Anyway, I was wondering if there is a three course special for dinner like there is at lunch. It has been a while and I can't remember.
The lunch special is $28 and on the day I went this week it was ...
- Garden lettuce salad
- Handcut noodles with wild mushroom ragu and Parmesan
- Flying Disc Ranch Barhi dates and a Sunny Slope Orchard Fuyu persimmon
Ordered separately it would have been $33 ... so it is a little bit of a saving.
Yup, last night at dinner it was $27 and was the garden lettuce salad, followed by spaghetti with mussels and saffron (looked good - a neighboring table had it) and that yummy candied orange ice cream for dessert. A decent bargain, but I wasn't in a pasta mood last night. I think the savings was about what you calculated.
I think I'm going to have to play hooky at lunchtime one of these work days and BART it over there - I have never been there for lunch.
I'm thinking I need to get thyself to the Café - which I have yet to experience. I've heard pretty consistently that the café is better than the restaurant and it would be hard to believe that two such Siamese twins could be so remarkably different, but that is apparently the case...
Thanks for your up-to-date report of the cafe. I've never been to the restaurant but have been to the upstairs cafe twice now. The second time was a little over a year ago for my birthday, and I have very fond memories of the meal and overall experience. I don't consider myself a worshipper of CP but more someone who appreciates the vibrancy and delicate harmony of their food. Yes, the pizza crust is sensuous and creamy, as you say. My hunch is that they put some really good EVOO into their dough.
In the less-is-more spirit of CP, I'll leave you w/ photos from our last meal there. No subtitles since it's all pretty self-explanatory, but the rustic-looking meat dish is a roast pork w/ different cuts from the animal--intensely delicious!
Oh, and BernalFarmer's goat feast report from April def. made we want to get reservations for downstairs in the future: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/390401
Thanks for the detailed report and reflections, rworange. Thanks also for carefully distinguishing the Cafe from the restaurant. (With entirely different staffs and set-ups, observations at one don't always carry over to the other. The experienced customers all know this, but it's become common online to see postings about one establishment, answered with postings citing data from the other.) Not to mention that the Panisse and Alice Waters reputation that surrounds the place developed before the Cafe existed.
Diners seem to either love or hate Chez Panisse. Some people are disappointed because they expect a mythic food epiphany … the second coming of the god of food. For other people it is just not their style. There may be the off nights or dishes.
These are just a few reports and it seems like from the beginning of this site, there was the great divide. I would have added others, but once again I’m getting a 15 minute or more wait to load any page with a video on this site , so this is the best I can do before things tanked … however it is pretty split like this through time.
Dec 27, 2001
Report on Chez Panisse
May 25, 2002
Chez Panisse, 5/17/02
Mar 30, 2003
Dining with Little Kids at Chez Panisse Café
Apr 21, 2003
Monday Night at Chez Panisse
Sep 21, 2003
Chez Panisse Cafe shines on a Saturday night
Dec 29, 2005
Some short reviews, some long reviews: Allegro, Chez Panisse, Boulevard, Iluna Basque, Yabbies
Apr 26, 2001
Chez Panisse - I don't get it...
Jan 06, 2002
Chez Panisse: Subtle Disappointment
Nov 29, 2003
Chez Panisse Cafe disappointment
Nov 30, 2005
Chez Panisse downhill slide
Feb 11, 2006
Chez Panisse downstairs
Nov 27, 2007
Alas, Chez Panisse
Maybe part of it is the Cafe/Restaurant divide? Because while I enjoyed my meal downstairs, I have LOVED my meals every time I have eaten upstairs, which has made me never really need to go downstairs again (except for maybe on a Monday). I don't think that more choice is the issue, because I'm not particularly a picky eater, I think maybe it's just that the menus upstairs always seem a little more exciting to me than downstairs, and that the food reflects that.