Rem and I had an incredible dinner earlier this week. We’d talked about going to Chez Panisse someday, and eating in the downstairs restaurant. They recently marked their 43 anniversary. I visited the upstairs cafe about 29 years ago but I’ve forgotten most of the details (though it was the first time I ever had crème brûlée). It was time to experience dinner at the restaurant.
Rem had an unexpected windfall, a gift from his dad, with a note saying “Take Dianne out to dinner.” It was the trigger to do something special. We weren’t celebrating anything yet the evening felt celebratory. Rem had just called two days prior and asked when they had seating on a weeknight and we got a table for the early (5:30) seating.
The restaurant at Chez Panisse serves a set menu of four courses that changes daily. It is posted on their website a week ahead but if you make a reservation for a date further ahead then that, you’ll have to be ok with whatever they’re serving. That isn’t a bad thing though, because what they’re serving is bound to be good.
Their signature is serving food created from the very highest quality, seasonal, organic ingredients. It is mostly sourced locally and sustainably, and it is all beautifully prepared. It is deceptively plain and simple. This is not hefty servings, swans made of spun sugar, pheasant under glass with esoteric spices and herbs, or blanketed with fancy sauces.
We arrived a little early for our 5:30 booking and were invited to wait in the foyer or upstairs in the bar. We decided to try a non-alcoholic spritzer. Since they had two types listed, Plum Berry, and Lime, we got one of each and shared them.
Before I go any further, I’m must apologize for the photos. The lighting wasn’t great, especially when we got downstairs to the restaurant, but more critically, I forgot to take pictures several times because I was so eager to tuck into whatever was on the plate or bowl set in front of me.
These drinks were a delicious start to the evening. They both achieved a beautiful balance of not too sweet, not too fizzy and just right fruitiness. The aroma bloomed up from the glass and reminded me, for some reason, of fruit popsicles – but the best most perfect popsicles ever! Every time I lifted the glass and tipped it for a sip, I was greeted with the fruity fragrance. They were so flavorful and refreshing on a warm, sunny afternoon. We traded the glasses back and forth so we could both enjoy the two different drinks.
Before we finished our drinks, it was time to move to the dining room. Going down the narrow stairs from the cafe and bar to the dining room, I noticed the copper railing. The foyer is decorated with big posters and a large bouquet of fresh flowers.
The dining room has interesting looking nooks and crannies and is warm with lots of wood, copper light scones and lamps. There was a huge arrangements of flowers and leafy branches in one corner and and a footed plate of tomatoes on a sideboard.
As we follow the host, I see the open kitchen and I’m delighted when we are seated just to the left of the wide entry to the bustling space. The menus, small works of art with a beautiful linoleum block print of strawberries, sit on the white-clothed table under a large leather bound wine list.
A waiter brought a small bowl of rosemary olives and then a basket of bread with a small dish of butter and our feast began.
The main course is roasting on a spit just inside the kitchen. Rem sits with his back to the kitchen to start but we switch for a course so he can check it out. We nibbled the olives and mopped up the herbaceous juices with bread, anticipating the first course. The waiter said there were “tomatoes in everything since they’re so good right now,” which wasn’t quite true, but they had a starring role on the first plates set before us.
Again, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t manage a photo until I was well into the dish. It was just so enticing.
The different varieties and colors of tomatoes were drizzled with a vinaigrette and then scattered with shreds and leaves of two types of basil. Two milky white slices of fresh mozzarella were the perfect counterpoint to the juicy, sweet tomatoes. A large, golden brown fan at the top of the plate was a big zucchini flower dipped in tempura batter and fried to delicate crispness.
When I talked to my friend, Tom Hudgens, cookbook author and chef who worked for a spell at Chez Panisse, he said that much of the beautiful produce and other ingredients at the restaurant aren’t available to the average shopper because the vendors save their very best, peak-of-season items for Chez Panisse. One bite of this perfectly plain but absolutely luscious plate of tomatoes had me convinced. More of the good Acme bread sopped up every bit of juice and dressing from my plate.
Rem had been a bit apprehensive about his encounter with fish. We knew it was on the menu and he wanted to have the full Chez Panisse experience, but having worked on a salmon fishing boat one summer in Alaska, he was a little cautious about the next course.
A piece of roasted halibut, crisp on the surface and flaky white inside, sat in a rich gold soup of fish stock created from lobster and rock fish, with tomato and saffron. Dried fennel was scattered over the broth and soup. I believe it was the most succulent, delicious, perfectly cooked piece of fish I’ve ever eaten. Rem agreed that it was incredible and ate it all. He didn’t love the broth but I wanted to pick up my bowl and lick it clean!
At some point, I knocked over my glass with the dregs of the Plum Berry Spritzer. I’d been letting the ice cubes melt a bit then sipping the last of the ambrosia. Luckily the glass tipped but stayed on the table and I only lost the ice. The staff dealt with it quickly without making me feel clumsy.
The cute solo diner at the next table over asked in a charming British accent if there had been much left in the glass and when I said no he said “then nothing lost.” We chatted a bit and learned he’d been anticipating his visit to the restaurant for 10 years! His dinner partner had cancelled but he decided to stick to his much awaited plans. He was enjoying his meal as much as we were enjoying ours.
We’d been watching the main course roasting over open flames: spit-roasted pork loin. It was served with shell beans (more bits of tomato in the bean broth), chanterelle mushrooms and crispy-fried sage leaf garnish. Meyer lemon is mentioned in the menu and I didn’t taste it, but I guess it was used on the pork. A small salad of watercress and escarole completed this plate.
Rem enjoyed a class of Rosso Scarpa with the entree. It was very tasty but didn’t reach the same heights as the others. Once again, I soaked up the juices with bread and left my plate nearly clean.
Our neighbor told about his vacation so far including a terrible trip to Las Vegas that he wanted to forget ever happened. He spent a5 days picking raspberries at an organic farm in the Central Valley, part of WWOOF, an organization or network, really, of organic farms and volunteers who work at them for room and board in exchange for 5 hours a day of labor. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. He was still looking forward to visiting Harbin Hot Springs before heading back to London.
The pace of our meal was slow and relaxed. The room was a bit noisy but not because of loud music, which seems to be popular in some places these days. Cooking and serving in the kitchen along with a crowd of happy people eating, drinking and celebrating whatever they were celebrating made for a constant babel.
The final course: dessert! I’d watched the plates go by and was happy when ours arrived. Profiteroles, one with plum ice cream and the other with toasted almond ice cream.
I couldn’t decide if I did or didn’t like the toasted almond ice cream. Alternating bites between the two different flavors made them somehow even better than each tasted alone. The almond was made by soaking toasted almonds and caramel in cream. Then the almonds and caramel are squeezed in cheesecloth to get all the flavor out, the nuts are discarded, and the infused cream is used to make the ice cream. There was something about the flavor that reminded me of milk left from a bowl of cereal, but better.
However, the sauce on the plate and the garnish of sliced peaches, strawberries and raspberries lifted this dish beyond what you might expect from looking at it. Rem tasted a bit of peach and exclaimed “did you taste the peach??!” as I was savoring a perfect raspberry that almost moved me to tears. It was a transcendent moment.
It was shortly after reaching this blissful state that I noticed proprietor Alice Waters in the kitchen. I don’t know if she comes every night but it was a thrill to see her in person. She came out and greeted guests at a nearby table. Johnny, the Brit at the table next to ours was nearly overcome. After she returned briefly to the kitchen he looked at us in amazement and said he was more starstruck than if Tom Cruise had walked by.
He asked a waiter if Ms. Waters could possibly sign his menu. She came by and they ended up having an extended conversation including a discussion of organic farms, his travels, her daughter living in England and who knows what else! They ended up exchanging emails and he sat looking stunned after she shook his hand and departed to visit with other guests, his dessert melting in front of him. It was delightful to witness and clearly the cherry topping off his evening and perhaps even his trip.
A last, final small plate was set on the table, something more than what was listed on the menu, an encore to our meal. Three small bites for each of us and yes, once again I forgot to take a picture before I ate.
These little bites or mignardises were, for each of us: half of a ripe Mission fig, a strip of candied grapefruit peel and a chunk of dark chocolate almond bark. We were sated and happy. Our meal had been all that we had imagined it might be and more. I’m already thinking about returning for my birthday next March.
Thank you for your visit.