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Dec 2, 2007 06:59 PM

Chez Panisse -- a vangard still...

I appreciate the posts to Chow on Chez Panisse and thank you all. They helped me to prepare for my first visit to CP downstairs last Friday (11/30) which was quite nice and well executed. It was a great time. Having enjoyed lunch at French Laundry in November 2002, and being a student of food, I was eagerly awaiting my CP experience.

The first course was an attractively presented fish tartare with new olive oil, lime, and the young garden greens for which CP in renown. Flavors were “punched up” with finely diced onion (or scallions) and rock salt—which I found to be a pleasant attention-getting welcome to the restaurant. This was followed by ricotta gnocchi with spinach and wild mushrooms which provided a fine transition to the main course. The gnocchi effectively served as pillows to showcase the subtle herbs and oil with which they were covered. The mushrooms were characteristically full-flavored and quietly suggestive of what awaited all of us. I found the grilled squab to be a delightful pleasure—similar to duck in its smooth texture and nicely seasoned with a balsamic vinegar sauce. This humble pigeon amazed me! A host of autumnal accompaniments that included squash purée, roasted chestnuts, turnips, carrots, and parsnips as well as a surprise rustic paté on crostini were a wonderful compliment to the squab on this final November night. Dessert of poached pear with Riesling sabayon—a perfect whole fruit in an elegantly light custard--were flavorful together and provided a superb finish.

For all of the discussion on service, CP earned my high praise that night. We came as a party of six from Sacramento. One in our group was really clueless about CP and was constantly asking for variations. I was waiting for him to ask the kitchen for ketchup at anytime! The sommelier was unfailing patient and resourceful with our outspoken associate, while calmly concealing any shock he may have felt with the requests. Staff may have been a wee bit hasty in clearing the courses, yet often would ask us before clearing if in doubt. All were attentive and professional.

Notwithstanding significant distractions from one of my compatriots, my CP experience was excellent. Chez Panisse was and is an extraordinary restaurant. It was a privilege to enter the sanctuary and finally pay homage to the spirit of gustatory excellence for which we are so thankful.

Gold River, CA
December, 2007

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  1. Thanks for reporting back with your nice post. Glad you enjoyed your dinner.

    Chez Panisse
    1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709

    1. Also pleased you enjoyed your dinner. The inconsistencies are troubling, however.

      19 Replies
      1. re: maria lorraine

        Concur with Maria Lorraine -- and I am looking forward to a return visit shortly to see if my recent experience was just an off night.

        1. re: maria lorraine

          I read this post three times and don't see any reference to inconsistencies in the OP's dining experience. Perhaps you are using the word 'inconsistency' to refer to recent posts that weren't as favorable. IMHO that's not an inconsistency; it's a difference of opinion! (Does not necessarily mean that the restaurant is inconsistent; all we can really conclude is that different diners have different views of it).

          1. re: susancinsf

            Inconsistencies meaning the same diner has widely varying dining experiences.

            Also, inconsistencies are on a broader scale, beyond the normal bellcurve variation at either end that allows for individual perception/opinion.

            1. re: maria lorraine

              OP didn't have widely varying experiences. I am not in a position to judge whether the differences of opinion that you apparently have/had are broad enough to rise to the level of an inconsistency: that too is a matter of opinion (IMO).

              To me, it would be more helpful to know your experiences, rather than just your conclusions.

              1. re: susancinsf

                Agreed, the OP didn't have an inconsistent experience.

                This thread is one of several CP dining reports of late, a few of which describe inconsistencies, a consideration variation from the established norm of excellence at CP. So it's not this specific thread, but several current threads on CP, and some going back further. Carrie 218 has posted of these variations from the established norm of excellence, as have I, as have others. You may wish to read the previous threads.

            2. re: susancinsf

              I think the constant stream of positive and negative CP reports posted to Chowhound demonstrate some degree of inconsistency. I can think of no other restaurant in the Bay Area that receives such extreme, mixed reviews. My own experience at the cafe included a fabulous piece of lamb and a dry, tasteless piece of pork - inconsistencies from the same kitchen on the same evening based on the judgement of the same two diners.

              1. re: Morton the Mousse

                "I can think of no other restaurant in the Bay Area that receives such extreme, mixed reviews." How about Zuni Cafe, or Olivetto? Notice the theme? I don't think these places are inconsistent, I think that people's reactions differ wildly.

                1. re: Paul H

                  There are two different kinds of bad reactions: people don't "get" the food and/or the hype, or the food was just plain not good. In Carrie218's recent thread, she criticized the execution of the food, not the concept, and I got the impression she's a long-time CP fan, so it wasn't just that she isn't the kind of person who likes/"gets" CP. Another diner who ate the same meal Carrie 218 reported on agreed with one of the criticisms (that the lamb was oversalted). So the "inconsistencies" discussed here recently have been "inconsistencies" in the quality of execution, not of whether or not people like the style/concept of the food/restaurant.

                  Chez Panisse's whole concept is pristine quality ingredients cooked "perfectly" so if the kitchen isn't delivering that consistently, then I'd consider that a serious problem. If a restaurant of CP's stature is having execution problems, that merits discussion.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Very well summarized, Ruth!

                    And, yes -- I am not the kind of person who doesn't "get" CP. I have been dining there and writing about food for a number of years. Having eaten at too many concept restaurants (read: multi-course, molecular gastronomy, etc), I look to CP as a haven of simple ingredients, perfectly prepared for an occasionally transcendent experience. Even when the meal is not that religious experience, I still look for well-prepared, executed, AND served. In my recent experience, it missed on all three points.

                    1. re: Carrie 218

                      Actually I got that from your first post, Carrie.

                      Because I have always eaten very well following your food tips, it made me check out CP to see if something had changed. It was around my usual drop in time anyway.

                      I think the problem for me with that post was projecting the decline and fall of CP based on one meal and then doing a comparison to restaurants that really were doing a different thing. Compounding that was saying that people who were devotees were deluding themselves.

                      CP has always marched to its own drummer and doesn't try to be anything than what it is.

                      It was probably the worst time to go ... a Monday dinner after Thanksgiving weekend. I'm sure the B-team was cooking and the vendors probably weren't out in the fields the day before.

                      THAT being said ...

                      I thought your diner was inexcusable. As you say ... which describes CP perfectly ... it is "a haven of simple ingredients, perfectly prepared for an occasionally transcendent experience"

                      Holiday weekend or not, B-team or not ... this restaurant should never put out a dinner like that... at $55 ... even if it is the exception rather than the rule.

                      1. re: rworange

                        Your last point, RW, is the key one. A place like Chez Panisse shouldn't have a "B" team, really. There isn't anywhere for any mistakes to hide, given their philosophy of food and style of presentation. They have to have top quality ingredients and they have to execute well, because that's all there is. If there is actually a "worst time to go" then they need to either figure out how to overcome that or simply close for that night explaining that they wouldn't be able to source the level of ingredients their food requires.

                        1. re: ccbweb

                          And there IS something to be said for reviewing a restaurant at "their worst time," isn't there? That is the true reflection of how good a restaurant is, I think; lower price, after a holiday, or whatever. When I go back, maybe it should be the day after Christmas or New Year's, correct?

                          1. re: Carrie 218

                            Here's the link to Carrie 218's recent dining report on Chez Panisse
                            as a comparison to the OP's:

                            1. re: Carrie 218

                              And there IS something to be said for reviewing a restaurant at "their worst time," isn't there?

                              Only if you post the same type of report for Valentino's or The Ritz given the same circumstances

                              1. re: rworange

                                RW, I would be more than happy to post the same type of report for Valentino and Ritz if I could afford to eat there as often as I eat at CP. Those restaurants are both $250+ per meal (with wine). CP is never in that price range, nor do they offer what those restaurants contend to offer (which I seem to be beating the dead horse over): Haute Cuisine and/or Molecular Gastronomy. Different animals entirely.

                  2. re: Morton the Mousse

                    I can: Zuni Cafe! Oh yeah, and Boulevard 8-)~

                    1. re: Morton the Mousse

                      I should be clear that I'm talking about full reviews on Chowhound specifically.

                      Oliveto - maybe, though the negativity is usually focused on the service, and the glowing writeups of their special dinners outweigh comprehensive negative reviews by at least 3:1.

                      Zuni and Boulevard don't get anywhere near as much press on the board as Chez. Complete reviews get posted maybe once per year and are usually positive. There's the occasional offhand remark when somebody posts a query, but that's about it.

                      Something about Chez causes people to take the time to write comprehensive, passionate, scathing criticisms. Other restaurants just don't provoke that sort of reaction.

                      1. re: Morton the Mousse

                        It could be at least in part the fact that CP is so well known that provokes the comprehensive and passionate criticisms. If one has high expectations that aren't met....

                        For that matter, I do think that in some instances it may be easier to write a comprehensive negative report than a comprehensive positive report. It certainly can be more fun (which in and of itself might encourage the passion).

                      2. re: Morton the Mousse

                        rworange wrote "I think the problem for me with that post was projecting the decline and fall of CP based on one meal." Even if CP's traditional standards justify such epic extrapolations, CP is hardly the only restaurant to receive them.

                        I find restaurant comments useful in proportion to their specificity. What was ordered, when, what did servers do. Diners are welcome of course to form their own conclusions from this about what the restaurant is "like" or where it's going (even based on a grand total of one meal), but then we move from report to interpretation.

                  3. I see Maria Lorraine's point. People can conclude differently about the same restaurant, from different opinions OR inconsistency or both. (Rarely for instance do I see conflicting reports from two people at the same table, who ate the same with the same servers -- an unambiguous case of different opinion.) Whether inconsistency (or opinion or going on a discount Monday of a holiday weekend) was the issue came up in recent CP discussions.

                    But I resonated with the "ketchup" part! I dined (at the restaurant) some time ago with a large group, some of whom didn't know about the place and its European-style menu of the day. One friend innocently asked for a Diet Coke (they did the best they could to accommodate her with mineral water or something), another automatically requested blue cheese dressing on his salad (server politely explained the salads were a different kind) and so on. The servers did the place credit and the diners were happy.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: eatzalot

                      >> (server politely explained the salads were a different kind)

                      And that, of course, is exactly what makes the place what it is. They've been patiently explaining that difference for 36 years and slowly changing the way people eat.

                      I think the real measure of "oh nos! they're collapsing in upon themselves!" is whether or not people are still coming out of the kitchen and opening really great places on their own. Pizzaiolo, Bakesale Betty, Quince, and what else I don't keep good track of these things, say they're still flying high.

                    2. I find the whole discussion very interesting. I think every excellent cook has days which are not as good. I've been very lucky with CP I guess. I've eaten downstairs much more often than in the cafe. I like the concept of the dinner party better than the concept of the menu. I like not having choices, and so naturally I like the restaurant better. I also like the concept of the full downstairs kitchen staff concentrating on one dinner. Even if I did have a less than perfect meal downstairs It wouldn't bother me because I would feel like I was cutting an old friend some slack. Anyone who is dissatisfied and feels the quality and expense don't match should just not go. I look forward to the easier reservations, though I don't see that happening.

                      1. A recent dinner was much as I remember the restaurant in periodic visits since the 1970s: Low-key, accommodating, simple tasteful dishes, fresh ingredients. Newcomers to the restaurant were at ease; servers adroitly handled minor questions and requests.

                        Menu included light crab salad on seasonal greens, vinaigrette; slow-cooked pork belly on lentils in a reduction sauce ("pork and beans," I said to one diner talking of simplicity in good cooking; maybe so, but I haven't had it as good as this before, was reply). These were small courses. An ample fan of duck breast slices with a Zinfandel sauce and vegetables followed. (It was the day's fixed restaurant menu in "Zinfandel week.") Server then asked if we'd like any cheese before the sweet course (we did -- it was just a little, satisfying), then a tarte tatin (simply explained, for anyone new to it at our table, as an apple-caramel upside-down tart) with good fat apples. Our group of six brought two bottles of my friend's favorite Champagne (Billecart's Brut Rosé) -- it being her birthday -- she having first determined it wasn't on the restaurant's online list. That went well through the first few courses. We then had an older Ridge Lytton Springs Zin from the restaurant's list, with the duck course and cheeses. A fine pairing, the wine exquisite and aromatic, as the meaty Ridge Zins can be with 15-plus years in bottle. (Incidentally there's a consensus, among many of us wine geeks who often bring special bottles to restaurants for corkage, to also order something from a restaurant's list if there's anything appropriate, which there certainly was here.) The list for the week was a few dozen well-chosen wines of notably moderate prices, scarcely any as high as $100. In contrast, in many US restaurants with pretensions or expense-account leanings I see wines listed that are either highly fashionable or impressively expensive, rather than good-value and food-appropriate.

                        To me at least, the general consistency of these dinners through four decades at the restaurant speaks louder than the journalists misidentifying Alice Waters as chef, out-of-towners let down by no cocktails or flashy ingredients, diners dissecting Panisse's decline and fall based on one particular dinner, etc. etc.