Exploring the Myth of Chez Panisse

Chez Panisse, the Legendary Restaurant in Berkeley

Chez Panisse, the Legendary Restaurant in Berkeley

I knew about Chez Panisse even before I heard of the French Laundry. Chez Panisse is a legendary restaurant, known as one of the innovators of "California Cuisine" which took French techniques and applied them to local, seasonal ingredients found in the San Francisco Bay Area. It has earned countless awards, including being named among the top 50 restaurants in the world and being given a prestigious star rating in the Michelin Guide. It even has it’s own Wikipedia article.

Chez Panisse’s owner, Alice Waters, is a high priestess in the Slow Food Movement. Its alumni include some of the most celebrated chefs on the West Coast. Jeremiah Tower of Stars, Judy Rogers of Zuni Cafe, and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery all worked the venerated kitchens of Chez Panisse.

The Open Kitchen at Chez Panisse

The Open Kitchen at Chez Panisse

Heads of state dine at Chez Panisse. But in all our time in the Bay Area, we’ve not gone. Until now. Tonight, Annie and I visited this restaurant for the first time, in celebration of our wedding anniversary. Is Chez Panisse really worth it?

Sit Down and Drink Up

We made our reservations a month in advance. There are only two seating times, the dinner is prix fixe ("fixed price") and the menu is set that week to take advantage of whatever happens to be in season and available at the time. We made it through rush hour traffic from San Jose, managed to find street parking close by, and arrived just in time to be seated at 6:30.

We were presented with our menu:


Country pork terrine
with green beans and leeks vinaigrette

Steamed mussels with garlic,
parsley, and wild fennel

Grilled Sonoma Liberty duck breast
with roasted figs and corn fritters

Muscat, huckleberry,
and pear ice cream bombe

which is quite simple compared to the extensive wine list we were handed. We didn’t know what bottle or half bottle to go with but our waiter informed us that there were open bottles that they could pour single glasses from. Annie got a Pinot Noir and I got a Chenin Blanc.

Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc @ Chez Panisse

Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc at Chez Panisse

Both wines were very nice. The red was pleasantly oaky without being too tannic, while my white was a little on the sweet side, but not cloyingly sweet like a Riesling.

First Course: Country Pork Terrine with Green Beans and Leeks @ Chez Panisse

Country Pork Terrine with Green Beans and Leeks at Chez Panisse

Our salad course was the Country Pork Terrine with green beans and leeks, dressed with a light vinaigrette. This is a definitive example of what Chez Panisse is all about: simple food, done simply well so that the ingredients speak for themselves. This dish was a delight.

I want to point out a couple things that you can’t see too clearly in the above picture. Mixed among the chervil, red pear tomatoes, green beans, and cornichon pickles are poached Chioggia and Golden Beets. These root veggies were simply marvelous. So sweet, mildly "beet-y" but not overpowering. The way these were done will make any beet hater rethink their position.

The pork terrine was another palate pleaser. Seasoned with thyme, savory and sage, the meat is mixed with a generous amount of fat. Combine that with a little dab of Dijon mustard, and it’s an explosion of flavor in your mouth.

Second Course: Steamed Mussels with Garlic, Parsley, and Wild Fennel @ Chez Panisse

Steamed Mussels with Garlic, Parsley, and Wild Fennel @ Chez Panisse

(I apologize for the slight shake in these photos. The lighting in the Chez Panisse dining room isn’t the best. I brought out the big gun but still had to hand-hold at long exposure times.)

These mussels were cooked only a few minutes, retaining their plump juiciness. The classic white wine, garlic and parsley broth was taken up a notch with the addition of wild fennel seeds. I would have preferred some shaved fennel like we had at Town Restaurant in Kaimuki, but this was still nice.

Oh, have I mentioned the bread yet? The bread that is served at Chez Panisse is no ordinary, lifeless roll. These French-style artisan loaves (I believe they are called "fendu") have a thin, crackling crust and a soft, very open crumb. Perfect for sopping up the remaining mussel broth.

Fendu Loaves @ Chez Panisse

Fendu Loaves @ Chez Panisse

After gorging on bread and finishing every last morsel on the first two plates, we were getting to that satisfaction point. The point where you start thinking, "can we eat any more?" But we knew the third dish was coming, and there’s no way we would consign that to the doggie bags.

Third Course: Grilled Sonoma Liberty Duck Breast with Roasted Figs and Corn Fritters @ Chez Panisse

Grilled Sonoma Liberty duck breast with roasted figs and corn fritters @ Chez Panisse

The duck breasts were seasoned with allspice and cloves, then pan-seared. The salad came with fresh greens (but thankfully no microgreens!), fresh corn, a corn fritter, and roasted figs. The figs were out of this world. The waiter explained that the chef roasted these figs atop fig leaves, so the leaves imparted some flavor. Muscat wine was also added to the roasting pan to raise up the sweetness quotient.

My duck breast was a little more chewy than I’d like but Annie said hers was cooked just right. She said one of her duck breast bites melted in her mouth. (I wish I’d had some of that.) But she also noted that the Pinot Noir did not go with the spices on the duck as well as she had hoped.

By this point, we were seriously full, but quite happy as well. Here’s what I like about Chez Panisse: There’s no fussing with the food here. No fancy names for dishes, no foams, no deconstructions. Just simple food, done simply well so that the food speaks for itself (wait, haven’t I said that already?)

Dessert: Muscat, Huckleberry, and Pear Ice Cream Bombe with Huckleberry sauce @ Chez Panisse

Dessert: Muscat, Huckleberry, and Pear Ice Cream Bombe with Huckleberry sauce

This is three layers of flavor: muscat ice cream on top, followed by huckleberry sorbet, and finally pear sorbet on the bottom. We both thought that, out of the three flavors, we’d enjoy the pear sorbet the most. Surprisingly, we preferred the muscat ice cream at the top. Not that the other flavors weren’t good, but the muscat ice cream was so amazing. Who’da thunk that muscat grape juice would go so well in vanilla ice cream? Apparently, the pastry chefs at Chez Panisse know their stuff.

Visiting the Kitchen

Our waiter informed us that we could go into the kitchen and take pictures, even ask the chef some questions if we’d like. Us? Set foot into those hallowed halls? Sure, why not!

Into the Kitchen @ Chez Panisse

Into the Kitchen @ Chez Panisse

The kitchen staff were busy getting ready for the next seating when we walked in. We didn’t want to bother them too much, just say hello and compliment each chef at their stations. One thing I did note was how calm and quiet it was compared to the frenetic pace and foul language so characteristic of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen.

Everyone in the Chez Panisse kitchen was pleasant and relaxed. I’m sure it comes from knowing exactly that everyone in the restaurant is eating the exact same dish, and is being served at roughly the same time. This must have been the last of the ice cream bombe being prepared for the 6:30 seating:

Preparing Ice Cream Bombe @ Chez Panisse

Preparing Ice Cream Bombe @ Chez Panisse

Post Dinner Thoughts

The only other Michelin-starred restaurant we’ve been to is Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos. It’s a Michelin two-star compared to Chez Panisse’s one star. And the difference is like night and day, at least presentation-wise. Manresa is fancy, fussy, foamy and futuristic. Chez Panisse, on the other hand, is rustic, relaxed, representative yet refined. Both of them have a "Wow" factor, but for different reasons. And both of them will burn a big hole in your wallet.

So here’s my take on the myth of Chez Panisse. I’m not sure I would spend $75 per person, plus drinks, PLUS tip, PLUS tax, for this kind of food. What we spent on our total meal would have allowed us to visit Akane Sushi three times! Not to mention the gas it took to drive from San Jose to Berkeley and back – that’s not cheap either.

I am not saying that I am disappointed or regretful that we went to Chez Panisse. The food may be good, but it’s just not the best and it’s not wise to travel all the way there when there are perfectly good restaurants who are executing Alice Water’s local, seasonal rule with excellence, a lot closer to home.

Aloha, Nate

23 thoughts on “Exploring the Myth of Chez Panisse”

  1. >Nice review, and that duck looks perfect. I would suggest that if you do go back to Chez Panisse, make reservations upstairs in the cafe. It’s a bit cheaper and features a daily a la carte menu, which gives you more options. The food was great and our entire meal was actually cheaper than what we normally pay at Ad Hoc (less than $100 for two…but we don’t drink).

    Here’s my take on Chez Panisse Cafe.


  2. >Thanks for the heads on, wonderful info I shall keep in mind and definitely dine there… About Asafoetida, they are not very essential in cooking but they are a good digestive aid so we use them in chutneys etc… they do not change the texture but right amount gives a good aroma to the dish… thanks for dropping by…

  3. >Wow! What a romantic dinner! I do share your view that it is not worth the time spent to dine at those far away places unless you have plenty of times for it.

  4. >Nice write up, sounds like a really good meal, and I can understand where you are coming from at the end.

    In many ways, Chez Panisse is probably most important for its historical importance on American food. It might be hard to be completely unique if you are doing the crazy innovations, but what is really wonderful is that this kind of high-quality, unpretentious fare is not unique!

  5. >Happy Anniversary you two! I’m jealous – not just because this sort of simple, rustic fare is my favorite type of food, but because of what Giff said: the historical significance of the place. Definitely something worth experiencing at least once. Great write-up, gorgeous pictures (as always) and how fun that they invited you into the kitchen!

  6. >I’m glad you got to experience Chez Panisse. I’ve had friends visiting from out of town who have longed to go to Chez Panisse, only to go there and feel “let down.” Let me explain: I think Chez Panisse is one of those restaurants where the reputation has reached such stratospheric levels that people expect a really fancy, out-of-this-world experience. But the beauty is that’s not what this restaurant is all about. It’s as you put it: Simple, local, seasonal, sustainable food _ done simply to bring out the natural wonders of each ingredient. It’s easy to hide mediocre food by gilding it. It’s much harder to spotlight food simply; there’s nothing to hide behind, and no room for error. Once first-time visitors get that, they understand why Chez Panisse changed the culinary landscape and continues to do so profoundly.

  7. >I have to second Arnold and say the upstairs cafe is the place to go. As far as I’ve heard the food is exactly the same in terms of quality, you simply get a choice. I actually had reservations downstairs and decided to let them go in lieu of a more relaxed atmosphere. I’m really glad I did. Both times I’ve eaten there have been outstanding.

  8. >I had the privilege of interviewing Alice Waters when I worked in journalism. She was quick to say she felt embarrassed when people came to the restaurant for a celebration, like an anniversary, expecting some grand experience.
    She feels the place is just a good food joint, and it is. It’s not a blow-out. It’s what it is.
    And, really, it has changed the way America eats.

  9. >For Chez Panisse, food becomes a political statement. But I love the simplicity and the unfussy presentation. But the food must be executed perfectly. No chewy duck!!

  10. >Hi guys,
    Thanks for all the nice comments. Definitely you have good cooking instincts! Thought I’d make sure you saw the answer about updating old posts. One of the best improvements Blogger had made is that you can edit an old post and then change the date and the post will come forward but the url doesn’t change. I put a note at the beginning saying (Updated Oct. 2008) so Google will hopefully re-index the post and also to alert that anyone might have the recipe bookmarked from the old post. Some of my old posts are pretty dismal (LOL!) and I’ve been working for more than a year now to try to re-cook them so I can update with better photos and sometimes better recipe instructions.

  11. >@arnold – well, if we’re ever in the area again, and want to eat at CP again…maybe.

    @ramya – so, asafoetida acts like lactaid does in milk?

    @food for tots – I agree. if there’s good food to be had, closer to where you live, isn’t that more sustainable and local?

    @Giff – I hope to find more high quality food a little closer to home!

    @Michelle – thanks! We did enjoy ourselves. Perhaps one day Chez Panisse will turn into a museum?

  12. >Love your candid review. When we lived in the bay area for 4 years, we went to all the top-rated restaurants, at first, it was pretty exciting–you know, it was an “achievement” more than anything else–bragging rights. But soon after that, I got over the fancy restaurant scenes (too frou frou and pretentious, many of them) because they all taste the same! I kid you not. As soon as I read the menu of these fancy restaurants, I know exactly how the dishes are going to taste. YAWN. Seriously, the most satisfying meals for me now are just simple and down-to-earth home-cooked meals and street food in Malaysia. So much cheaper and yet utterly satisfying. Michelin or not, who cares, I am not here to collect the restaurant medals. 😉

  13. >@Carolyn – do you think Chez Panisse deserves the one star?

    @Jesse – I think having a choice to eat three plates or just two would be good. Also, choosing two different dishes from your dining partner so you can see how they execute different dishes.

    @cookiecrumb – if CP is “just a food joint and not a blow-out” then why charge so much? It almost makes her food seem…I don’t know…elitist?

    @Manger – I heard that the chef is supposed to inspect every incoming dish to see if anyone doesn’t finish a dish, and find out why. Guess I shoulda left that duck on my plate instead of gobbling it up.

    @Kalyn – thanks for coming over and explaining that!

  14. >@Bee – We don’t have any money to go out and collect restaurant medals. I didn’t even think of CP as a food Mecca to be visited. Just wanted to take Annie there for something extra special. The food was delicious, but as you say, the good restaurants all taste the same. So why drive all the way to Berkeley? Stay in Santa Clara County instead.

  15. >what a sumptuous meal
    this kind of cuisine is non-existent where i lvie, except possibly (and i’m not so sure about this) in the tourist season at a few of the major hotels. we don’t have the chance to dine out like this
    the photos remind me of places i used to go to in new zealand before i came to greece (cest la vie)

  16. >wow! i bet you had a good time enjoying a superb meal! lovely to pamper yourself for a sumptious meal! I would do that once a while, just fun having people to cook for me! lol!

  17. >Having spoken with Alice Waters a few times, and heard her lecture several times, I am sure she would agree that you would be serving her ideals best by supporting and eating at your local providers. She has done a terrific service for local food and in creating, or perhaps, recreating a philosophy of eating food. By the way, I do like her other place, Cafe Fanny. Cheaper, same philosophy.

  18. >What a wonderful experience! I love good duck — one of my favorite (and simplest) meals ever was a duck confit dish enjoyed at Cafe Campagne in Seattle. However, as Annie experienced, my lighter red wine did not go as well with the duck as I had expected. I think duck is so fatty that you need a more acidic wine that will cut through the richness.

    And here lies one of my problems with multi-course meals: I love wine with my meals, but my capacity is ONE GLASS. And with so many courses, one wine does not fit all. This is one of the reasons why I have begun going to more casual restaurants (usually the more casual portions of the nicer restaurants) where I can pick and choose and not gasp when I get the bill.

    Still, I would give my right arm to go to Chez Panisse. Thanks for making me feel as if I were there!

  19. >@mediterranean kiwi – but if the food served in Crete is fresh, local, and sustainable, then it is every bit as good as Chez Panisse.

    @big boys oven – where do you recommend for a fancy pants French dinner in KL?

    @Robert – thanks for the rec on Cafe Fanny!

    @Jenster – yours and arnold’s suggestions are duly noted. No more prix fixe!

  20. >If you find yourself looking at just one glass, and a wide variety of foods, look to Italian wines, like Chianti classicos and German and Austrian kabinett reislings. They have a fine acidity that cuts through fats and spices, go with most everything. The chenin blanc was a great choice though.

  21. >@Robert – I was thinking the Chenin Blanc because of the pork and the mussel dishes. With duck, it’s tricky unless you know what it’s been seasoned with. Thanks for the suggestions!

    @mycookinghut – thanks!

  22. >I think you got to the core – it’s a tasty restaurant that everyone should experience once. In this day and age of local and fresh everything, where many restaurants are using the same suppliers, it has lost some of its impact. For me, it was a revelation way back in 2001 and, while i haven’t been in a long time, it does have its place in the American restaurant scene.

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