Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Chez Panisse my 2 year blogiversary dinner!

It's hard to believe that it has already been two years since I began this blog. I have been to so many great restaurants, learned how to cook wonderful new dishes, and have started to learn how to create recipes from scratch with lots of trial and error! There are lots of fun things I would like to write about in the future and I hope all of you continue to read and enjoy.

For such an occasion I thought it only appropriate to celebrate with a dinner I have been wanting to have for a long time, a reservation at Chez Panisse.

A little background for those of you who may have not heard of the restaurant or it's luminary Alice Waters.  Founded in Berekley in 1971 with the premise of serving fresh and locally sourced foods in the prime of their season using primarily French country style recipes. The atmosphere was meant to be like a thoughtfully planned dinner party, not with a menu to be chosen from but where all the guests are served the same courses based on the finest market availability. While this may not sound revolutionary in today's saturated market at the time it was a novel approach to fine dining. Chez Panisse was the birth of what is now considered California cuisine.

Alice Waters became to many the face of what is now known as the "slow food movement". She is ideological in her approach to gardening, sourcing, and cooking for yourself and the food choices we make. She has been a leader in the Edible Schoolyard that stresses the importance of feeding our chilldren healthful foods and teaching them about cooking and farming as well. She is actively involved in many aspects of food nonprofit & advocacy culture.
 Over the last 40 + years Chez Panisse has garnered an exceptional reputation and following in the restaurant world. Which, as always, reflects to a certain need for foresight in your dining plans. Not surprisingly it was only about a week and a half ago that I realized this week was my two year blog-iversary and decided on the spot to finally check this off my list. Hmmm... weekend reservations were out of the question. In a stroke of luck there were still spots available on Monday night (and with the least expensive menu of the week... my ailing pocketbook was glad for it) so I booked and started to get excited! With a 5:30 res and a drive to the East Bay from Santa Clara it might be a tight squeeze but I made it happen.
I was pleasantly surprised to find parking with relative ease and inexpensive. I walked a short block from my car and approached the restaurant with mounting anticipation. I had perused the menu online earlier in the day and was excited to see the results!

After a certain amount of stress through sections of traffic on my way there inevitably I was still early for my reservation. After snapping a few discreet pics of the foyer and the portion of the dining room as seen from the windowed portion of the entry I wandered upstairs to give the Cafe a quick look (reservations are not required upstairs and the have a more traditional service style of ordering from a menu, this will be an adventure for another time).
Being a solo diner and the first to check in with Maire D' I was seated first at my reservation time, the dining room filling slowly after me. I settled into my spot (perfect for a diner without a companion I had a nice view of the open kitchen)
The dining room is both warm and elegant with Cherry Wood paneled walls and art deco-esque lighting fixtures. There are lots of small windows about giving an openness to the cozy space. Each place setting has the evenings menu unique for the day in cover design and listing.

Monday, January 14 $65
Ramacche: prosciutto and caciocavallo cheese fritters with winter vegetable caponata
Cuscus trapanese: Sicilian-style fish and shellfish stew with almonds and
saffron couscous
Anise panna cotta with oranges and honey caramel

One of the 4 server's assistants brought water and later a bread basket along with an "Amuse Bouche" being served by the Chef, a toast square topped with bacon and duck liver.

When my Server (one of two that each seemed to be working their own half of the roughly 16 table dining room) came to tell me more about the Sicilian inspired menu which had some influences from North Africa he also took my wine order, suggesting instead of a single glass that I do the wine pairings for the evening which ended up being a fun choice as it opened me up to two varietals I had never before enjoyed.
For the first course a Grecomusc was poured. This producer, Cantina Lonardo, is the only one to produce this grape varietal singly and not as a blend. Grown in Campania in Southern Italy this white wine is crisp and refreshing with a nice light acidity on the palate and surprising complexity. It was paired with the Ramacche which were two smallish lightly fried balls of cheese with small cubes of prosciutto and had the texture of a slightly dense pillow. The outside was not as crisp as I might have expected but not in a disappointing way just different than my anticipation.
Served on top of a melange of vegetables (artichoke heart, carrot, celery etc) cooked to a nice al dente texture, a light citrusy butter sauce and finished with mache greens. I really enjoyed this dish, it made for a not overwhelming start to the meal, the Ramacche had a unique texture that I had not experienced before and the vegetables were perfectly cooked. I cleaned my plate.

Although my dish was served in what felt like a pretty timely manner (when you are only making conversation with yourself time can sometimes drag but I was enjoying people watching around the room and kitchen and unobtrusively eavesdropping on the table in front of me) I began to notice that not many others were coming out of the kitchen. While the two tables in front of me were greeted pretty quickly the table to my left who sat later were visibly uncomfortable with how long they were waiting to be acknowledged by the server although they were eventually brought water, bread, and the Amuse by the attendants. As my second course was arriving I could see my server beginning to get anxious that for most of his half of the dining room the tables were still lacking the first course. The table to my left was finally asked if they wanted wine.
Served with the main course was a Cerasuolo di Vittoria a light to medium bodied red wine from Sicily from the well know producer Cos. With light tannins and well balanced acidity this wine paired surprisingly well with the seafood stew. There were lots of bright ripe cherry flavors and aromas along with on my palate a little hint of Anise.

In the nature of full, unbiased, discretion I have to be honest- I wasn't very impressed with the main course. The plating seemed really sloppy. I understand this is a stew type dish served over couscous, as it was served on a flat plate the elements seemed to just tumble haphazardly all over the place, perhaps if it were served instead in a shallow bowl were the elements would be sequestered closer together the effect would have seemed more appealing and less.... well sloppy. While each item in the stew- Lingcod, Gulf Shrimp, and locally harvested mussels and clams were cooked nicely there weren't any stand out or interesting flavors to the dish. This may have been on purpose to highlight how fresh the fish was in which case wonderful, but the overall impression was very underwhelming.

AS I finished my main dish my neighbors received their first course....
Before describing my dessert course I feel the need to veer to the course of service. While all of the waitstaff, Maitre D', etc were all very professional and for the most part engaging it was really confusing to me as to why it took what felt like an exorbitant amount of time for those dining around me to receive their food. To start- everyone is receiving the same dish. Everyone. and the staff is aware well prior to the day how many portions will be served and when the seating's are. Via a chalk board visible to all in the kitchen each table's times were kept track of so everyone knew at what point in the meal all the tables were at.  From my vantage point the kitchen wasn't giving off a sense of urgency. In my many years working in restaurants (certainly not of this caliber but regardless) I have seen kitchens hustle underfire. It was hard to tell exactly who was making what but whoever it was felt to be taking their time. And with a seemingly uncomplicated plating I was a little baffled. Perhaps because it was the first seating of the week things weren't quite as well tuned as say a Saturday night. Whatever the reason it left me with a nagging distaste that was hard to get past.
Thankfully my beautiful dessert arrived and I was able to move past the parts of the evening that felt disappointing. The black licorice flavor of the Anise in the Panna Cotta was delightful and the fresh sweet and tangy flavors from the citrus fruits in honey syrup were lovely. The caramel tuille added wonderful crunchy texture. I was a little disappointed to realize that the wine pairing was only for the first two courses (I had assumed it was for the whole meal). As I ate I noticed one of the girls from the party near the kitchen had wandered into the throughway and was taking pictures, although my server offered that I could go explore as well before I left if I chose (and I was tempted... if for no reason than to see the method behind the slow service) it somehow felt... well rude and like I was over stepping a boundary. For a restaurant that requests business attire and no use of cellphones or computers (both things I noticed blatantly disregarded by a few diners) to take liberties lowered the standard for me.While I love being able to see the cooking happening a kitchen throughway is not a place for spectators. Watch from a safe comfortable distance and don't get in the way. Maybe this is a mentality that I need to get past if I want to expand my culinary writing insight but as a server who 1 too many times had to ask a bystander to get out of my way.... I just can't quite bring myself to do that to someone else.

Overall dining at Chez Panisse was quite an experience. I can now say I visited a culinary artifact of sorts. Although I'm not sure it is a meal I will rave about (I feel like I might be getting snotty....or as I prefer to think of it well traveled) it was an experience I will not soon forget!

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