Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA)

// Visited: Nov. 16, 2014 //

Dinner at Chez Panisse on a Saturday night.

We arrived just on time for our 9:30 reservation. Unfortunately, it was for the wrong restaurant (Chez Panisse upstairs, cue the tiny violins).

We had also JUST had an argument. So I sat, stony-faced and trying to not convey too much upset, upstairs in the warm, friendly, cozy space while people wandered in and out looking for a table for dinner.

They called us downstairs. They graciously cobbled together a table for two, even though we had already passed the time for their usual 9:15 seating!

I sniffled through the amuse bouche. And the basket of Acme breads. And then I started to feel a little better, stomach warmed and brain softened by the orange-blossom syrup sparkling wine aperitif. And my heart warmed as I softly wrapped up the fight with J. while I smeared bread with butter and chewed methodically. (And we both knew I had definitely cheered up by the time I requested a second bread basket.)

We ate our way through the grilled shellfish salad with watercress, pancetta, and mustard sauce. “Taste the squid,” my husband blurted out. It was tender, charred, everything every other restaurant’s squid wanted to be. Grown-up calamari. The scallops were also tender. Lovely, simple, a little oversalted – but solidly great and perfectly cooked.

 

Grilled Shellfish Salad with Watercress, Pancetta, and Mustard Sauce

 

Next: the artichoke souffle with thyme and green garlic confit. This dish, how the idea of it had resonated with my imagination, had actually been the deciding factor for me in taking this reservation (well, the reservation that we turned out not to have). The souffle was tiny, the size of a mini-cupcake with a texture akin to a biscuit. It was served in a thick creamy soup-like sauce, not overwhelmingly salty. I jealously hoarded the sauce and swabbed the sourdough bread from the bread basket in it after I finished the souffle. The souffle – crispy, slightly biscuit-like even in texture / mouthfeel. I enjoyed it very much.

 

Artichoke Souffle with Thyme and Green Garlic Confit

 

Next: the main. Liberty duck breast and juniper crepinette with Chino Ranch tarbais shell beans, roasted vegetables, and sauce verte. I usually hate this kind of preparation of duck – I always wish restaurants would fully render out the fat, leaving crispy-skinned duck behind (and, if the chef is me, she’ll keep the rendered fat and steal it all for herself, drizzling it over rice with soy sauce). But this duck was so tender, juicy, and flavorful like a dream. Served in a light (albeit slightly oversalted) broth, with the most delicate, smush-firmly-on-the-roof-of-your-mouth large white beans, this is the roasted-meat-in-broth dish that French Michelin chefs, trying to incorporate “Asian” techniques, aspire to. (I’m looking at you, Le Cinq, and you, Robuchon).

 

Liberty Duck Breast, Juniper Crepinette

 

Anyway, back to Chez Panisse’s dish. It was just great. The roasted carrots and parsnips added sweetness – particularly ingenious to cut the pieces small to maximize crispy surface area. The juniper crepinette – I was too stuffed to appreciate it, but it didn’t measure up to the duck.

Red-wine poached pear feuillette. The pastry on the bottom was a little tough. But what does it matter, with roasted pears so good? The skin was a dream – caramelized and chewy – and the pear redolent of the sweet warmth of honey and the acid, round warmth of red wine. Served with creme fraiche or mascarpone – I couldn’t tell – but the cream was a perfect foil for the otherwise dry pastry. I loved it and ate every bite.

 

Red-wine Poached Pear Feuillette

 

We laughed as the server took our bread and we exclaimed how full we were (having gotten already one bread refill), and how guilty we felt at having not eaten the butter the second time. He disappeared, and a few minutes later, before dessert, brought out a plain glass pot filled with fresh mint and lemon verbena leaves and a few Turkish-style glasses for hot tea. “This is complimentary – I thought of it when you said you were stuffed and thought this could settle your stomach,” the server told us kindly. The tea was classic Chez Panisse and really summed up its philosophy in a nutshell. Simple, unpretentious diningware, simple, gorgeous ingredients, simple technique – I felt like i was enjoying my post-dinner tea and sweets in a luxurious commune.

 

Mint Tea, Turkish Glasses

 

Friendly, warm, unpretentious. Dinner is not theater here. Eating here feels like part of a neighborhood experience, where you experience the beauty of the seasons with other members of the community.

I loved it and I can’t wait to go back.

 

Cute little mignardises!

 

Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 548-5525

http://www.chezpanisse.com/

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