Sunday, January 17, 2016

Jérôme's final day

Eastside Road, January 17, 2016—
HE LOOKS RELAXED, standing there in his white coat, smiling at his guests as he works the dining room — but it's Jérôme Waag's final night as chef at Chez Panisse, and one can only wonder what may be going through his mind. He arrived, I think, in 1991, hardly out of his teens, the son of an old friend of Alice Waters's — a young artist in need of a job. He was taken on as a busboy. Before too long he was in the kitchen, where he learned his craft from two excellent teaching chefs: Jean-Pierre Moullé and Paul Bertolli. For many years Chez Panisse has worked with pairs of co-chefs: upstairs in the Café they've alternated half-weeks; in the downstairs restaurant, until now, alternating six-month stints. Jérôme's tenure as chef has been short by Panisse standards; he came to the position only two years ago. Alas, the experience has led him to yearn for his own restaurant, so he's leaving us. The restaurant will survive; it will even evolve. It always has. But I can't help feeling a tinge of regret: last night's dinner, like the one the night before, was very close to perfection. Here's what we had:

Endive, roe, chives
Striped bass and sea scallop
Agnolotti in brodo
Quail vigneronne
Apéritif: Prosecco flavored with orange and Meyer lemon
Amuse-Geule: Steelhead roe on an endive leaf
Nothing could have been cleaner, simpler, more promising of a fine evening at the table. The chives were chopped very fine indeed, and sprinkled very judiciously, lending just a hint of flavor to the fresh roe…

Striped bass and sea scallop carpaccio with olio nuovo, black truffles, and fennel salad
Vermentino, "Nùo," Cardedu (Sicily), 2014
Extremely light and delicate, this fish carpaccio — Jérôme's planning to open a restaurant in Tokyo, and I think a plate like this will make a big impression on the sashimi scene. The truffles, thankfully, like the chives on the previous course, were barely present, a subtle condiment, not a powerful constituent.
   The wine does not taste at all like a typical Vermentino; it's spent time on the lees, with an almost Sherry-like result — lending further structure to the delicate salad.

Black truffle agnolotti in wild mushroom, green garlic, and herb brodo
Riesling, Ostertag Clos Mathis, 2012
Here too there was no central dominant flavor, not even truffle: you could taste mushroom, garlic, thyme, the flour of the pasta — and, of course, black truffle: but all the flavors blended with great refinement.
   The Riesling surprised me with its own delicacy; it might have been better to reverse its position with the preceding Vermentino.

Wolfe Ranch quail vigneronne grilled over rosemary vines with pancetta, celery root and black truffle gratin, and garden salad
Nebbiolo, Langhe, S. Francesco, Fontanazza (Lamorra), 2012
When this course was set in front of us there was nothing to do but lift the plate to the nostrils, take in the aromas, set it back on the table, lean back and relax: this will have been an amazing, perfectly satisfying dinner. The bird smelled, and then tasted, as if it had been aged; though quite pink at the center the texture was gamy, almost liverish; the flavors of the fire and its rosemary fuel were completely integrated with those of the meat. There were tiny slender carrots on the plate, and the celery-root gratin was complex and toothy, like the quail; and the truffle again did not dominate but simply perfected the dish, binding the other flavors.
   Nebbiolo was a fitting choice to complement this complex meat course, and this bottle was characteristic and mature.

Passion fruit ice cream and tangerine sherbet meringata
Moscato d'Asti, Biancospino "La Spinetta," 2014
The contrasting colors, flavors, and textures of the two frozen desserts was pleasant, and I admired the thought going into the dessert's recollection, in color and shape, of previous dishes. There was a crunchy element, too: toasted coconut, of all things, cooked with honey to tame a tropical flavor that is easily too intense. And the meringue — soft, firm, not at all grainy; and that on a very rainy day. What a skillful pastry kitchen.

It's so interesting to think of this meal in the context of the previous night's. Many similarities: fish, fowl, the Italian influences — but very different experiences, like feminine-masculine, or Torino-Firenze. These dinners seems to me to prove the capability cuisine has of achieving a truly artistic level, combining deep appreciation of the media, intelligent awareness of history, and imaginative vision of possibilities. Sitting at this table you can't help become more appreciative, more thoughtful, above all grateful to those who have brought it to this degree of perfection…

• Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley; 510-548-5525
Restaurants visited in the last year are listed at Eatingday's Restaurants

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