Tuesday, May 27, 2008

When in California...

Research. Preparation. Nerves. These aren’t the things you’d expect a nice dinner out to include. But the dinner Andrew and I had Saturday night wasn’t just any dinner. It wasn’t just any meal out. It was our long-awaited, struggled-to-get-a-table-for, expectations-through-the-roof dinner at Chez Panisse.

Chez Panisse—for all you non-foodies out there—is more or less considered the birthplace of “California cuisine,” as well as the harbinger of the now-ubiquitous practice of eating locally and in-season, frequenting farmer’s markets for the freshest produce, embracing all that is artisan-crafted and lovingly made rather than mass-produced. Founded by foodie doyenne Alice Waters in 1971, Chez Panisse is still located in the bungalow on Shattuck Avenue where it made culinary history—and ultimately underwent a transformation from a cozy local hangout to one of the most famous and lauded restaurants in the world. Its claim to fame? Food that tastes, exquisitely, of exactly what it is. No fancy treatment, no kitchen alchemy. Just great food prepared simply, with respect.

In November, friends gave us a gift certificate for Chez Panisse—along with a copy of Alice Waters’s most recent cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, as a wedding gift. A month ago, I began the 45-minute, constant-redialing process that—luck of all luck!—actually procured us a table in the downstairs restaurant (versus the more casual upstairs café) for a Saturday night. And so our preparations began. We bought and read Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, a biography by Thomas McNamee. We rented and watched the first in the Fannytrilogy by French director Marcel Pagnol, a character in which is the restaurant’s namesake. We made a hotel reservation. Andrew bought Red Sox/Oakland A’s tickets for Sunday, to make the weekend complete. A week in advance, we held our breaths and checked the website—the downstairs restaurant offers only a prix fixe menu, and the selections are posted a week ahead of time.

Does this seem like a lot of work and obsession for one dinner out? Most certainly yes. But for us, going to Chez Panisse was an event, not just a dinner, the centerpiece of our exploration of Berkeley and a small celebration of this time as West Coast residents. Stomachs aflutter, we opened the door to Chez Panisse and stepped inside.

Chez Panisse did not disappoint. The interior is all gleaming, golden wood, lit to perfection; we were greeted warmly, and led to a table in a room full happy, chattering patrons. Fresh cherries and fava beans were displayed on pedestals. We selected a bottle of wine. Soon, our waiter poured our aperitif—cava (a kind of Spanish champagne) with Malaysian lime juice—and presented a small plate of gougères (cheese puffs).

Soon the progression of courses began. Up first: sea scallop carpaccio, tuna tartare, and some garden-fresh greens. Second: risotto with spring peas, fava beans, and spring onions, with a basil pesto. Third: grilled duck breast with morel mushrooms, pickled cherries, and polenta. And, finally, dessert: a lemon ice cream meringue tartlet with a few fresh strawberries.

The entire meal left us giddy with satisfaction. The bill—a personal record for us, but we’d been prepared. It was a true California experience.

Alice Waters

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