OF COURSE IT IS one of my very favorite dining tables: the little one between the pastry section and the salad counter in the downstairs kitchen of Chez Panisse. We eat the same table-d'hôte menu as do all the other guests in the dining room, but instead of a convivial group of mostly strangers, all carrying on their own private conversations, the Contessa and I converse with one another, with the cooks (carefully, so as not to distract them), and with The Meal.
I capitalize those words, because the culinary component of the dining experience assumes a position it rarely manages to attain; a rightful position — after all, the provender and its treatment are the center of every meal — but one so easily taken for granted, whether at home, a friend's home, or a restaurant.
Two or three cooks and the pastry chef are on my left, preparing the desserts for upstairs and down, and "plating" the servings. We see the tarte pastry rolled out, shaped, and set on its parchment-paper; the cook takes up a pair of scissors to trim the paper into a neat circle just bigger than the shell itself. The apples have been peeled, cored, and cut into uniform slices; the slices distributed evenly and artfully on the pastry. She carries it to its oven; it cooks while we eat our dinner.
We begin with an apéritif and an amuse-gueule: olives and citrus peel; a glass of Prosecco flavored with a drop of Carpano and some lemon zest, the latter then removed. A piemontese Kir Royale, if you like: it signals the beginning of a meal with piemontese leanings.The salad is scallops, squid, fennel, watercress, and rémoulade: we watch the salad cook and her assistant assemble it. There is some discussion between them as to the amount and placement of the watercress leaves, and the chef steps over to listen in and contribute his advice.
The celery-root rémoulade is bound with sauce mousseline, Hollandaise with whipped cream folded into it to lighten it. We have a little discussion about this, and I promise to look it up in Repertoire de la cuisine when I get home. (I don't, of course; I look it up in the very useful article on Hollandaise sauce in Wikipedia.) The scallops rest on a bed of chopped parsley, I think, bound with olive oil. The squid is beautifully deep-fried in rice oil, the tiny scallops (from Martha's Vineyard Bay: hooray for airplanes) sweet, innocent, fresh.
We had been to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art earlier in the day, and had paintings fresh in mind (meaning: in visual memory). This bowl of soup was a painting; it made me think of Tibetan Tantric art (not that I'd seen any of that at SFMOMA). You have to marvel at the visual appearance, and at the skill of the cook who served it. But the proof of the soup is in the slurp, and these two soups proved out. I wondered if they'd complement each other as well in the mouth as they did to the eye: they did. The mushroom soup was thick, with a little texture; the spinach was an utterly smooth purée, but dense as well. Both were very deeply flavored, and the crunchy little garnish made a fine contribution.
I'm a big fan of cooked lettuces, and I thought the radicchio, barely warmed but tender, was the right addition to the plate, along with the tiny artichokes, halved and trimmed, and these marvelous potatoes that seemed to have been barely browned (gilded a better term) in duck fat. Apple was the chief ingredient of the Mostarda di frutta; it lifted the plate toward a very special level, festive, preparing for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Altogether, one of the finest meals we've had from this kitchen, and our experience goes back now getting on to half a century!
•Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley; 510-548-5525We are partners in Chez Panisse; my Companion was its pastry chef from the beginning for nearly thirty years, and readers will be forgiven for detecting bias in my reports of meals taken there