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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.

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Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

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  1. 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.

    Positive reports

    Dec 27, 2001
    Report on Chez Panisse
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/18175

    May 25, 2002
    Chez Panisse, 5/17/02
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/19996

    Mar 30, 2003
    Dining with Little Kids at Chez Panisse Café
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/23510

    Apr 21, 2003
    Monday Night at Chez Panisse
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/23806

    Sep 21, 2003
    Chez Panisse Cafe shines on a Saturday night
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/25814

    Dec 29, 2005
    Some short reviews, some long reviews: Allegro, Chez Panisse, Boulevard, Iluna Basque, Yabbies
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/42411

    Sep 12, 2006
    Chez Panisse Lunch update
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/325206
    Apr 25, 2007
    Monday Downstairs at Chez Panisse – Report
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/395329

    Negative reports

    Apr 26, 2001
    Chez Panisse - I don't get it...
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/16738

    Jan 06, 2002
    Chez Panisse: Subtle Disappointment
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/18251

    Nov 29, 2003
    Chez Panisse Cafe disappointment
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/26752

    Nov 30, 2005
    Chez Panisse downhill slide
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/41664

    Feb 11, 2006
    Chez Panisse downstairs
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/43525

    Nov 27, 2007
    Alas, Chez Panisse
    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/464016

    2 Replies
    1. re: rworange

      Great report. Well put, and I agree with you whole-heartedly. I can relate to being a "food barbarian" and CP taming the palate. Really well said, and thank you for posting a positive report in contrast to the negative one recently.

      1. re: rworange

        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.

      2. 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.

        1. 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!

          http://www.kodakgallery.com/Slideshow...

          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

          1 Reply
          1. re: Carb Lover

            I love CP Cafe. Your pictures bring back wonderful memories of my meal there last summer! Wish we have a place like it in SoCal.

          2. 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...

            1. Properly poached pears should not be like canned pears. They should be cooked through but still be slightly firm -- toothsome, as Melanie would say -- not mushy like canned pears. I like canned pears, but fresh poached pears should be a whole other level.