During the visit of the in-laws, my MIL was quite enthusiastic about going toe Chez Panisse. She was finishing up the behind-the-scenes book about the restaurant and wanted to see what all of the fuss is about. She was generous enough to let us tag along.
So the theme of this review is – what happens when the revolutionary becomes institutionalized? The thing is, I think the world has caught on and caught up with Chez Panisse. Alice Waters and her staff should be immensely proud that the standard they have set is now the standard for most high to middle end restaurants not just in the Bay Area, but the United States. Let’s start with the location. It’s smack dab in North Berkley in the middle of what they call the Gourmet Ghetto, where Berkeley food culture sprouted. Like the beginnings of Chez Panisse, the Gourmet Ghetto was a collection of collectives. Worker owned and run food establishments like the Cheese Board Collective that were hippy dippy, let’s get back to nature places. In the intervening years, the Gourmet Ghetto is the East Bay version of downtown Bethesda. It’s predominantly white and predominantly high income.
The interior of Chez Panisse is a sophisticated take on the arts and crafts style. Everywhere is warm, dark wood and golden lighting and details of people who clearly care about their craft. One revolutionary aspect of Chez Panisse that remains revolutionary is their investment in their workers. MIL was telling us how workers can get shares in the company if they work long enough and how Chez Panisse does make a legitimate effort to take care of their employees. I think it is reflected in the care and friendliness we received from the waitstaff. I will also say that Chez Panisse is part of the Slow Food movement so the service can be on the slow side.
The food itself reflected how much the United States has come along since the opening of Chez Panisse. Some dishes were extraordinary, others were well made. Two were revelatory. FIL got the prix fixe menu with the green salad to start, the penne with tuna, black olives, capers, and majoram, and the ice cream with chocolate sauce. I ordered the green salad, the polenta with peppers and romano beans, and the pluot sherbet with langues de chat (tongue shaped cookies!). J ordered the shaved fennel salad with radishes, parsley, Meyer lemon and parmesan, the lamb leg with shell bean gratin, chard and pounded savory, and the fig tart with raspberry ice cream for dessert. Finally, MIL had the pizzeta with roasted eggplant and ricotta salata, the polenta, and the bittersweet chocolate pave with caramel ice cream.
So the salads. I know this is Alice Water’s specialty and trademark. The salad tasted exactly like a slad I had at a medium end hotel in Minneapolis. Twenty years ago this would have been avant garde. Nowadays, it’s what you could easily put together yourself. This is not to say the salad was bad in any way. The lettuces were fresh and vibrant and the salad itself was perfectly dressed. I would say the same of J’s salad as well. What WAS truly amazing was the pizza where the ingredients just sang. The flavors were earthy but bright at the same time.
J’s father has some specific food requirements that made us do some switching. FIL ended up eating the lamb while J had his penne. The lamb was wonderfully cooked but once again, something you could get done well anywhere. But the shell bean gratin was the star of that plate. I normally hate beans because of their pastiness but the beans in the gratin has nice integrity and a good savory flavor. And color me surprised, but the entree of the evening was the penne. What on paper looked like glorified hotel food was wonderful in person. The flavors were has bright and vibrant as the pizza flavors. The tuna itself was not a big flaky mess but chunks of fish carrying the flavor of the sea and marrying well with the saltiness of the olives. The polenta however, was just ok. It was well made but nothing really sang to me. Everything tasted subdued. I know you want the ingredients to shine but steamed beans and only shine so much.
I ended up switching with FIL becuase he has dairy allergies. The ice cream was fine and the chocolate sauce was fine. Nothing to write home about. The pluot sherbet was wonderful. I liked the balance of sweet and tart and the acidic tang of the prosecco. Even better was J’s fig tart that had a syrupy caramelized flavor from the figs balanced with the freshness of the raspberry ice cream. That was definitely a keeper. But I think the best dessert was the chocolate pave that was resonant with chocolate flavor. I like that the caramel ice cream was light and airy in contrast to the intensity of the chocolate. I like that the intensity came from the strength of the cacao beans and not just sugar.
Overall Chez Panisse is a great ocassion restaurant. I’d go back in other season to see what they could do. Surprisingly, their unfussy dishes tend to be more subdued but the dish where they amplify the flavors really sing.