Thursday, November 27, 2014

Chez Panisse

Berkeley, November 25, 2014—
A DRIVE UP FROM Ojai today; then dinner downstairs at Chez Panisse, with a couple of friends seen far too infrequently — no surprise, no reproach: they live in Hawai'i.

We are, my wife and I, most Constant Readers will know, associated with Chez Panisse, so anything I write about the restaurant will be suspected by many of subjectivity or, worse, marketing. Such cynics we have become. In fact over forty years' intimate association with the institution has taught me to respect and even, when possible, to try to adopt the very opposite values, selflessness and modesty. But I'll write no more about this here and now: let's get to the table.

We started out, needing to relax after the drive, with an apéritif: Antica Carpano for me, Lillet blanc for Lindsey. Soon enough our friends arrived, and the bussers and the waiter, and the olives and the water, and the menu:

Erbette chard galette with preserved lemon and carrot salad
Incrocio Manzoni, Castel S. Michele (Trento)

A marvelous course, announcing the theme of complexity of color, texture, and flavor that will characterize each course to follow. The galette pastry was properly dry and flaky, with enough salt to let its toasted wheat flavor come through along with that of the chard.

The wine was a new varietal to me, a hybrid of Riesling and Pinot Bianco developed in the 1930s. The color was beautiful, a light straw yellow, and though the aroma was elusive the flavor was not: floral, quite pronounced, unlike any other grape I can think of unless the old-fashioned Chasselas. The grape and its handling made me think of Collio whites, and that's a very good thing. (I found the information on the grape online at a very useful website.)
Grilled scallops and chanterelles with endives and chermoula
Trousseau Gris, Jolie Laide (Russian River Valley), 2012

Rich, succulent sea-scallops and deep, chewy chanterelles seemed at first a surprising collision, "surf-turf," as Norman pointed out. The slightly bitter note of the endives triangulated the scallops and mushrooms, lifting the flavors of the dish into a third dimension; and the green chermoula, a North African sauce or marinade involving garlic, coriander, and olive oil, bound the flavors together, while recalling the Morocco-leaning preserved lemon and carrot salad of the previous course.

Trousseau gris is another neglected varietal, dry and even a little astringent, making a fine well-structured rosé to offset this dish. Jolie Laide is a small winery not far from my home: I'm going to have to get further acquainted.
Braised leg and roasted breast of duck with quince and saffron, roasted new onions, and butternut squash gratin
Barbera d'Alba, Sori' del Drago, 2012

Duck has become a standby on the autumn and winter restaurant table, the lamb of poultry you might say (goose being the beef), and while a good duck doesn't need imaginative treatment it's still nice to find a new take on it, re-stating the qualities you've always liked. Braising the leg and roasting the breast solves one of the frequent problems with duck, as the two parts demand different cooking times. This was Liberty duck, beautifully grained, firm and deep-flavored, and the accompaniments recalled the previous course once again: duck for chanterelles, onions for scallops.

Barbera was the perfect wine, and this one was muscular, up to the challenge, though to my taste a little too young.
Honey ice cream with pistachio torte and persimmons

No wine pairing with this course, you'll notice. If we'd had time, a Champagne would have been perfect, or perhaps a good Beaumes de Vénise. The ice cream was solid, creamy, not overpoweringly sweet (or bitter) from the honey; the cake was firm and meaty with its nuts; the persimmon slices — not usually a favorite of mine! — seemed a fine counterpoint. And what a pretty plate, with its drizzle of honey syrup, its scatter of pistachio and pomegranate seeds.

The dining room at Chez Panisse is comfortable and beautiful, I think, and I don't like taking photographs at its tables. We were at a table in an alcove, though, and I think I was fairly discreet. Of course the photographs don't do the dishes justice. They're taken with an iPhone (5S), without flash, and I've pushed the results quite a bit, sharpened the definition, and corrected for color (using iPhoto's editing panes, nothing elaborate). I was struck with the visual rhyming of the four courses: the triangles of galette, chanterelle, sliced duck breast, and torte; the placement of straight lines and round ones, the continuity of autumnal color.

I'm sorry if I've gone on too long here; I don't usually dwell so much on these things. But it's important, I think, to reveal the grain of a beautifully conceived and executed menu. Cuisine can be an art form; this dinner was truly a work of art.

• Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley; 510-548-5525


Curtis Faville said...

I'm not at all offended by the implied exclusivity and favoritism of your position with respect to Chez Panisse, though the frequency of your repasts there does raise an occasional eyebrow.

Of greater curiosity for me, is the other side of your eating "program" if I may call it that, of restricting most of your other culinary investigations to "peasant" or unpretentious places, largely ignoring Chez Pa's competition. Is this because you see these others as unworthy, or boring, or is there some more particular reason? You seem to have a program of sampling less pretentious fare as if this were the key to the good life, while insisting that Chez Panisse's offerings are the top of the "very fine" pyramid.

It might help if you revealed some of your thinking along these lines.

Charles Shere said...

One reply: We travel quite a bit, and when on the road we dine at restaurants that interest us professionally and personally — which gets expensive. An example: last week's visit to Los Angeles, which took us to four restaurants, none of which was inexpensive.

A more penetrating reply would take up your last sentence. Lack of pretension (and pretentiousness!) surely
is one of the keys to the good life. I would never consider Chez P "pretentious": it generally accomplishes what it sets out to do. Nor do I place it at the top of a pyramid — partly for lack of personal experience with many local restaurants with high reputations. Why don't we go to them? Time, money, noise…

But your point is a good one, and perhaps in the New Year I'll try to be more investigative…

Curtis Faville said...

I guess one other possibility is that Chez Panisse has always invested in the "purity" of its ingredients, rather than their "richness."

But purity and freshness and imaginative energy don't come cheap, except very rarely. It would be hard to think of a restaurant that has a shifting, creative menu, with decent wines, that could market its fare for less the $40-50 per person per meal.

But Chez Panisse asks $65-90 per meal, which puts it in an entirely different echelon. And it sports a big service compris as well.

To be taken seriously as a gourmet blogger, I would think you'd be obliged to compare Chez Pa with other restaurants at the same level of aspiration. Otherwise, it's likely to be seen as promotion.

Charles Shere said...

My response has grown too long for posting here, and appears as an independent post on the blog