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A Legend Continues to Thrive
by Karen Solomon on Mar 08, 2008
Who am I, mere mortal, to laurel or dart the dining experience of the legendary Chez Panisse? As far as restaurants and food movements go, this kitchen is the Mesopotamia of California cuisine. This is the very birthplace of sparklingly fresh, high quality ingredients coaxed to maximum flavor, and a menu that drops farm names as is they were boutique designers. Chez Panisse is credited with creating the sustainable, farmer-friendly agricultural wheel. Superstar owner and operator Alice Waters has also indirectly sparked some of the nation’s best eats from the kitchen’s Harvard-like alumni, including Acme Bread, restaurant Cesar, Oliveto, and Pizzaiolo.
I waltzed into dinner wondering this: Is the food merely a dusty institution living on its laurels? I was pleased to find that not only are the eats still exquisite and worthy of their place in the Culinary Hall of Fame, but that the room has the buzz and upstart energy that it must have had at the dawn of the restaurant revolution nearly four decades ago.
The first impression, however, did not immediately assuage my fears. No one greeted us upon arrival. And in a place where it takes a month to get a reservation for a mid-week meal, a diner desperately wants to confirm that they’re in the right place in the right time. We showed ourselves to the bar upstairs, ordered a glass of house red, and eyeballed both kinds of guests: tourists from the Chicago suburbs and the ironed Oxford shirt set in on an expense account. I gulped wine nervously.
Catching the eye of a man with a clipboard who looked like staff, I was briskly and coldly told that no, I’d have to check in downstairs -- despite the fact that I’d mentioned there was no one there. I sit tight and wait for our 8:30 seating like I’m waiting for the phone to ring.
At our appointed time we are shown to our perch, where we will be fed unfathomably delicious food with Piedmont wine pairings, trailed by our own Blue Bottle Coffee press, for the next three-and-a-half hours (be prepared for such pacing, either glacial or appropriately celebratory, on your visit). I start picking at my cuticles when I have a look at the belly of the ship from my table under the stairs. The décor is ancient, dark, stifling, and, I would guess, unchanged since opening day in 1971. In another ten years it will be pure retro bliss, but for now, diners must look past heavy wood paneling, oppressive architecture, smoky mirrors, thrift-store metal sconces, and servers in waistcoats.
Despite the self-reliant service that we’d received upon arrival, once seated, our waiter --obviously the career sort -- was attentive, informative, and perfectly laissez faire. Once the food arrived, wood and poor lighting no longer distracted us.
The evening’s menu (dinners are three to five set courses, ranging in price from $55-$85, Monday to Saturday) began with fior di latte with tomatoes, roasted peppers, and grilled eggplant, the latter being just a touch too oil-drenched. The former, a stunning jelly roll of mozzarella with bright basil and brilliant peppers, was elevated to art with the crisp of salt flake and a splash of EVOO that was a fine perfume behind the ears. My empty plate cleared with a desire to make my own mozzarella, as they clearly had.
I was already grinning when the pasta course arrived, pasta e fagioli with shell beans, pancetta, and rosemary, and I soon became giddy at this dish, most likely the finest plate of pasta I’ve ever had. It was a perfect execution that appears deceptively simple -- pasta, beans, and brothy sauce. Yet one could linger over the perfect chew of hand-turned sheet pasta, tender beans that had been in the pod mere hours before, and a light toss of freshly rendered pancetta flavor in a bath of concentrated stock. Superb.
It’s equally difficult not to gush over the Wolfe Ranch quail, a fowl I usually dismiss as novelty meat for its fiddly toying and “tastes like chicken” lack of character. Here, for the first time, I actually “got” why people eat quail: a dense, moist, pink flesh with a game all its own and a crisp, herbaceous skin. Paired with a housemade sausage, a smattering of chard and a dollop of rich, runny polenta, the dish felt modern and gained another dimension of meaty succulence.
The dessert that followed slid us down the bell curve of the meal, yet kept it on the charts. Good as it may have been, it’s hard to get too excited over a poached pear with a crunchy sugar crust, piddling in a foam of zabaglione. Like a hostess who brings out ice cream and boxed pound cake at meal’s end, it’s a fine, sweet finish. Good, but not great. And yet a modern incarnation of a post-modern culinary classic -- distinguished, alive, and seductive.
Reservations essential? YES!
by Karen Solomon on Mar 08, 2008