Posted by: Travis | March 10, 2008

Chez Panisse

My parents decided to come up and visit for my birthday. Though they had both come to visit individually, it was the first time they had both been up to visit at the same time. Recently my dad found several lists of the best restaurants in the country and has been on a crusade to hit as many of them as he can  when he travels. Given my developing interest in food over the past year and a half or so, his visits usually involve a call to me after the meal to give a play by play of how it was. Given that the Bay Area includes at least  three places on many people’s lists (Chez Panisse, Manresa, and what many consider to be the best restaurant in the country and even the world, the French Laundry in Napa), it became clear soon after they decided to come visit for my birthday, that we were going to have to visit one of these places. Since my parents went to Manresa during a stay in Saratoga about a year ago, and the French Laundry is kind of the pinnacle of eating in this country (and also ridiculously expensive), we decided to wait until later for the French Laundry and hit Chez Panisse this time around.

After spending the day in and around Palo Alto, we got cleaned up and headed up to Berkeley for my birthday dinner. Luckily Chez Panisse doesn’t do the whole slap a sombrero on your head and have the whole wait staff  come sing to you on your birthday. I think it would be a little bit out of character. Our waiter never actually found out that it was my birthday, which i prefer. Anyway, we got seated at the closest table to the kitchen and i ended up in the seat at the table that had the best view of the kitchen. It was pretty awesome to watch all of our food get put together before it was brought to our table. As many of you know, Rachel is a pretty adventurous eater, except for a few things: raw tomatoes (its the texture, she loves cooked tomatoes), most seafood (im getting her to come around on milder whitefish and crab, but salmon, tuna, shrimp, sushi, and scallops are a definite no go). So it was pretty ironic when we sat down and looked at the menu that everything being served to us was fish. I guess we should have known this might happen if we were eating at a place with a fixed menu during lent, but we’re not Catholic, so it didn’t even cross our minds. Needless to say, Rachel was a little bit worried.

We started out with a serving of tiny fried fish balls and some fruit liqueur that kind of reminded me of Boone’s Farm, but better. Next we were served a halibut carpaccio with some sort of raw greens. I wasn’t really into it, but i don’t really enjoy carpaccio in general so i was kind of expecting this when i saw it on the menu. Rachel struggled through about half of it and fought valiantly, but had to throw in the towel. There was just a little bit too much gelatinous raw fish going on for her taste. The second course was a dungeness crab risotto that was phenomenal. The risotto was perfectly cooked and tasted simply of a little bit of butter and crab. It was simple, but delightful. The main course was a grilled seabass steak. The grill station was on the end of the kitchen closest to our table, so i was able to watch one of the cooks as he carefully arranged to coals under the grill, then dowsed the steaks in olive oil and sprinkled on some salt. He put the steaks on the grill, monitored their cooking, and flipped them completely by hand because tongs would have torn the steaks to pieces. I watched this guy perform his task for the night with such focus and attention to detail that he seemed oblivious to the busy kitchen that swarmed around him. The seabass came out perfectly cooked (a little bit of crisp on the outside, but delectably soft and moist on the inside) and sitting on top of a light hollandaise. On the side was a mix of sauted veggies including peas, asparagus, lima beans, and shallots. Its was simple but fantastic. Though the dish lacked any strong flavors or vibrate sauces that knock your socks off, it was simple and tasted like fish. The seabass was the star of the show. It was a risky move because there was nothing to cover up mistakes. Everything had to be done perfectly or the fish would come off as boring and bland. If it wasn’t done perfectly there was nothing to hid behind. Fortunately it was incredible. For dessert we were served scoops of kiwi and kumquat sherbet with pieces of mango and kumquat on top of a scoop of frozen meringue. I was a little skeptical of the kiwi sherbet but it turned out to be fantastic. The whole dish was light and delicious.

After dinner our waiter noticed that we were taking an interest in what was going on in the kitchen and offered us the opportunity to take a walk through the kitchen and chat up some of the cooks. The kitchen is like that of an old French country home rather than what you see in most restaurants. Cold stainless steel tables, shelves, and appliances sitting on cold tile floors had been replaced with warm brick with wood accents. The staff had a calm sense of drive and enthusiasm that exuded confidence without cockiness and was a refreshing alternative to the hot, sweaty, chaotic panic that you see and hear in many restaurants with open kitchens. When offered the walk through of the kitchen i feared that it was some gimmicky attempt at transparency that would turn me, the ignorant kid diner who was only here because mom and dad were picking up the tab, into a kid at Disneyland with glazed eyes, amazed as i walked past cooks who pretended to ignore me as they put on a show that this was a dignified and very serious kitchen. I figured that surely these cooks that work for next to nothing and give up the things most of us take for granted about our jobs (reasonable working hours, health benefits, weekends off, decent pay, 401K’s, a personal space with a comfy chair and computer) because of their sheer love of food would get tired of being paraded around like zoo animals in front of their rich and mostly ignorant clientèle who have no idea what its like to live ‘the life’. Turns out my fear couldn’t have been further from the truth. Immediately after we walked in we were greeted by the first people we approached. They asked us how the food was and we talked briefly about it. Rachel talked to the fish guy and commended him on his attention to detail. I chatted up the person working on a veal stock that had what looked to be about 120 quart stock pot up on th stove. You could have literally cooked a person in this thing. We made our way back to the far end of the kitchen, where the pastry chef was doing her thing. They were entering cleanup mode and i knew that it was going to be a while before they could head home (or out to bars with their friends) and relax, so we made a point not to keep anyone too long. But it was really great to get to see the kitchen.

The meal didn’t have the flare or complexity i was expecting from one of the country’s best restaurants. Thats not to say that it didn’t meet expectations, it absolutely surpassed them. It was just different from what i was expecting. Rather than doing many things pretty well, they have perfected the simple things. When my folks were in Chicago a few weeks ago they had the chance to go to Grant Achatz place, Alenia, considered by many to be in the top three restaurants in the country and a home of innovation in molecular gastronomy. After eating at Chez Panisse and Alenia in the span of a few weeks my dad’s take was that comparing the two was definitely like comparing apples to oranges, but he noted that it felt like Alenia was trying to be the best restaurant in the country, while Chez Panisse was just trying to perfect the dishes it makes. It was simply a fantastic meal.

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