Chez Panisse in Berkeley (Restaurant Review)

While in San Francisco, I made it a point to check off a handful of the restaurants and other food spots on my “To Try While in SFO List.” Top on the agenda was Alice Water’s legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

 

The day after arriving at SFO International, a dear college friend and I made it girls’ night out and treated ourselves to Chez Panisse’s innovative, yet refined cuisine. This set the stage for the rest of my trip and San Francisco’s fascination with French-inspired fare.

 

We dined at the upstairs “Café,” which isn’t a café at all, but a fine-dining restaurant where the menu changes daily, according to seasonal products. There is also the downstairs “Restaurant,” which is where it all began in 1971 (here, they propose set menus). As a side note, “Panisse” was the last name of a character in Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s film trilogy set in Marseille (Marius, Fanny and César). The two-storey restaurant is located in a one-of-a-kind wooden house in a part of town that immediately made me feel like I was back in college again. Shattuck Avenue was bustling on a Saturday night, mostly with students squatting on the median eating pizza from a local, and obviously popular, spot (never mind the “Keep off Median” sign clearly planted in the middle).

 

Once inside Chez Panisse, the atmosphere changed completely and we were transported to a dimly lit room that timelessly hovered somewhere between a refined French restaurant and a Zen Japanese tea garden. In other words, I felt like I was in the Bay area- where many restaurants have taken Alice Water’s lead and succeeded in bringing out an idyllic combination of the past (French culinary tradition) and the present (fresh new attitude and natural, organic ingredients). I was especially interested in discovering Chez Panisse since it has been an important leader in supporting local, sustainable products.

The whole experience was pretty near perfect. The menu, inspired by Rose Gray* (see end), didn’t help our indecisive natures though! We must have spent a good twenty-minutes mesmerized by the array of tempting choices. Looking back, deciding between the local halibut tartar and the goat cheese salad, must have been one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in a restaurant.  In the end, we were content with what we ended up choosing:

 

Entrées:

- Local halibut tartar with Belgian endive and steelhead roe

- Orange salad with red onions, cilantro and pistachios

 

Mains:

- Ravioli di cima di rapa e ricotta with wild mushrooms

- Wood-oven roasted squid and artichoke with rosemary salsa and aioli

 

Dessert:

- Bittersweet chocolate truffle tartlet with candied bergamot and crème chantilly

- Vin Santo ice cream with almond brittle and biscotti

- 2 Cappuccinos

 

Wine:

- 2009 Navarro Pinot Gris, Anderson Valley

 

The starters were a toss-up, both excellent. The squid (calamari) was my very favorite dish- a perfect combination of flavors. I also enjoyed the ice cream, made of Italian dessert wine. The pinot gris, from California grapes, was fresh and reminiscent of citrus fruit.

 

Like I said, Chez Panisse was a special treat. I was glad to finally dine in the restaurant that is so well known for marrying traditional French cuisine with local products. This experience is up there with the one I had last year at Greens. If I were to compare two similar dishes though, (the raviolis), Greens gets the gold medal. I remember them simply melting in my mouth like butter. The ones at Chez Panisse were nice, but weren’t as memorable. Since Greens is purely vegetarian, I guess we’ll never know how they’d do roasted calamari. I’m happy leaving that to Chez Panisse.

 

*Rose Gray was a British chef, cookbook writer and co-founder of the River Café in London. Here’s a neat article about how she helped revolutionize British cuisine.

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