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
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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.