Friday, June 30, 2006

Chez Panisse

Everything else seems to change, worsen, or disappear but Chez Panisse is a place I can return to and find that, if it changes at all, it is always a change for the better. I may be voting for a winner here but I agree with people who think Chez Panisse is the greatest restaurant in America. Better than that, it is a place I call home. I had my first meal there when I was 20 years old and on a blind double date. The food was the most memorable thing about the evening.
Whenever I come home to San Francisco, I make my first stop in Berkeley to have lunch in the upstairs café at Chez. It's a tradition.
Today I am having lunch with my friend Sue Moore who is the meat forager for Chez and has her own company, "Let's be Frank", a grass fed hot dog outfit.

To start with I order the brandade that is served on toast baked in the wood oven and accompanied by a fennel salad. I adore brandade which is a puree of cod and potatoes. The texture of this brandade is perfect as is the long slice of baguette. The salad of fennel and parsley is quintessential Chez. The parsley is pungent yet subtle and parsley-like—a hallmark of Chez Panisse where each ingredient is brought to perfection.

My next course is the Hoffman Farm chicken al mattone with fava bean fritters, coleslaw, and gremolata. The whole combination is delicious, especially the fava bean fritters with their light breadcrumb crust and tender interior. I must have this recipe…

Finally, I order the nectarine and summer berry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. The cobbler has the right kind of biscuit nicely baked with the fruit and it is not too sweet. The ice cream has a slight vanilla bean flavor and the whole thing exudes the essence of summer.

We are drinking a bottle of the 2005 Bandol Rosé from Domaine Tempier, a wine that seems to go with everything I love at Chez. The 2005 is one of the best vintages I can remember from Tempier. Incredibly elegant, soft tannins and really expressive concentrated fruit.
Partway through lunch I sense that something in the restaurant has changed, but can't figure out exactly what. Then, as I am served my main course, I realize that the plates are not the standard white that the restaurant has used since the very beginning. Recently, Alice has collaborated with Christine Kim from Dosa to create a dinnerware line produced by a local pottery company, Heath Ceramics in Sausalito. The hues are beautiful pale shades and will be available in retail outlets. Ten percent of the profit goes to Alice Waters' foundation The Edible Schoolyard. So I guess Chez is always changing a little bit and always for the better.

Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, California 94709. 510.548.5049

Heath Ceramics, 400 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, California 94965. 415.332.3732.


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