08 November 2010

Five Days of Gastronomy, California Style (Day 4)

The day we had all been anticipating for months was finally upon us. It was Thursday, and we were going to Chez Panisse that evening for dinner! We were so excited, expecting a wonderful evening! But to tell the story correctly, I must rewind the clock back three months....

Alice Waters has long been one of our culinary heroines, so between us, Jack, Drake and I had decided that a dinner at Chez Panisse was our top priority for a meal out in the San Francisco area, other than Farallon which, OF COURSE, Jack and I wanted to try while Drake was working there! (See my post on our Farallon dinner here.) Per instructions on the Chez P. website, I waited patiently for two months, and called exactly one month in advance of the date we wanted to eat there.

I had set my stove alarm for precisely Noon, Cape Cod time, which was 9AM in California, and called to make my reservation before the tables were all gone (which has been known to happen within minutes of 9:00, when the reservation line opens). No reservations are taken at Chez Panisse, earlier than one month in advance. I started getting nervous, as the line rang and rang. Finally, I got an answer and was asked if I would mind holding, which I gladly did. HOW, I wondered, did someone else get to them before I did?!

No matter... I secured a table for three at the earlier seating (5:15), as I thought we might be tired from all of our sightseeing, and didn't want to make it a really late night. YAY - we were in! Two days later, Drake threw a monkey wrench (albeit a very good one) into my carefully crafted plans - he had invited three friends/coworkers from Farallon to join us. Yikes!! I called immediately, but naturally all of the tables were spoken for - no table for six at the earlier seating. By sheer luck, there was one table for six available at the later seating. Needless to say, I grabbed it!

Fast forward back to San Francisco...Jack and I tried to eat lightly during the day. We ended up getting sushi at Delica, a Japanese restaurant in the Ferry Building Marketplace. This was a great choice - fresh, light and just filling enough to hold us over until dinner. We ate our lunch on a bench on the pier, watching seagulls and boats in their daily routines.

Drake, on the other hand is 20 years old - another story altogether in terms of eating capacity! He and Tara went to the Ferry Building on their own, and he bought a picnic almost as big as the one we had shared two days earlier on the road to Arroyo Grande. Here is what Drake ate in our hotel room, just a hour before we left for Berkeley:

 A true French style baguette from Acme Bread Company, with organic butter, Mt. Tam cheese from Cowgirl Creamery's shop, and orange and fennel sausage from Boccalone Salumeria.

Accompanying this "little" snack was a selection of French olives, fig mostarda, black truffle paste, and several other goodies I can no longer recall. (Of course, Drake had no problem enjoying and finishing his entire meal at Chez Panisse, just a couple of hours later - almost makes me wish I were twenty again, so I could eat this way!)

We had been invited to Fred Sassen and Liz Hopkins' house, in Berkeley, for a glass of wine before going to the restaurant. Fred is the Executive Sous Chef and Liz is a Sous Chef at Farallon, so naturally, our pre-dinner conversation revolved around food. We ended up having an impromptu tasting of their homemade vinegars, as Fred and Liz explained the differences and processes to us.

Their charming home has a backyard, a large part of which is dedicated to their kitchen garden, which we toured. My favorite part of the garden is their espaliered apple tree which has six different apple varieties all grafted onto the single trunk. I had never before heard of so many varieties on one plant - so cool! (I hope to have a similar tree here next summer, as most of my apple recipes are better when made with multiple varieties.)

Driving to the restaurant, it's easy to miss the place, as it is completely unassuming. Below is the house that has been home to Chez Panisse since its inception in 1971. 

The entryway still has the original doors of the Craftsman style house.
(photo: Google Images)

The minute we walked through the door at Chez Panisse, we were graced with the genuine pleasure the staff conveys at being able to treat and serve their customers well. The restaurant is in a former house, and still has the feeling of a home - cozy living room, sitting room, and homey looking kitchen - all open and connected, so that diners can see the chefs in action while they eat. Chez Panisse has always cultivated the feeling that their guests are just that - guests in a home.

View from the dining room toward the kitchen.

I love the Craftsman style architectural details, including the coffered ceiling and the lighting. Our table is the long one on the right.

The original concept of Chez Panisse - that diners are served one single menu, as if they were eating in someone's home - is exciting, as not only does it bring in the element of surprise, but it also ensures that each night's meal is special, different from the night before, and therefore cooked with close attention to details. This is the menu we were presented with when we sat down to table:

Each week's menu is posted the previous Saturday, so diners can call ahead or check online, to see what will be served on the night they have reserved.

The first thing the waiter asks is if you want still or sparkling water. It is then poured from French carafes, etched with the logo of the restaurant.

Chez Panisse filters its own water - both sparkling and still - rendering it healthy, fresh and delicious, as well as environmentally friendly - no plastic here!

The Chez Panisse name and logo, which is etched onto their water carafes, was inspired by the movies of Marcel Pagnol, one of my favorite French writers/filmmakers.

 Bread from Acme Bread Company. At the urging of Alice Waters, Steve Sullivan, began baking bread while working as a busboy at Chez Panisse, 30 years ago, and subsequently opened his own bakery. Made from organic flours, it is and has always been the only bread served at Chez Panisse.

A plate of marinated olives arrives with the bread, to whet our appetites.

Our first course: crostini three ways - all three very good. My favorite was the pate. Jack and Fred's favorite - the eggplant. (Sadly, this is the only plate I thought to photograph. I was enjoying the meal and my companions way too much to remember my camera.)

The spit roasted pork was tender and juicy. I believe the seafood and vegetables had been cooked individually and combined at the very last minute, since they all tasted like themselves, a real tribute to the quality of the ingredients.

Fred and Liz had previously eaten at  Chez Panisse several times, always with great satisfaction. During dinner, Fred explained why they love it so much. He pointed out that the food, while simple, was perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned. As a chef, he said this is not an easy thing to do consistently, unless you intimately care about the food you are preparing, and have a sensibility toward it that allows you to know exactly when a dish is cooked just enough, and then seasoned just enough, without going even tiny one step overboard. 

At the time, I felt that the dessert was a bit bland, but in retrospect, I absolutely appreciate its subtlety. The pear sherbet was incredibly delicate, and was accompanied by three wine gelees - white, rose and red. These were just barely sweet... enough to complement the sherbet without overpowering it. And the figs were gentle in flavor, as fresh figs should be.

As a last little treat - espresso: a fine French style finish to the meal. A plate of candied orange rind and various chocolate truffles was presented with the coffee - all housemade, of course.
(Picture on right, by Claire Ptak, former Chez P. pastry cook.)
The table between the dining area and the kitchen is laid out each night with some of the fresh produce that appears on that day's menu. The bread basket is always full of just-baked Acme bread.

After dinner, we were privileged to tour the kitchen. (It helped that the Chez P. staff recognized Fred and Liz as fellow cooks.) During dinner, Liz had told me she loved that the cooks there use the same kinds of bowls and implements they would use in their own home. The entire kitchen feels like a home kitchen (well, okay - the ultimate home kitchen!) rather than a commercial restaurant space.

 Absolutely my dream kitchen!
(The above and following pictures are from Google Images.)

 Homestyle pottery (some of it antique) is used in the kitchen. 

I was pleased to see that they use the same antique copper and porcelain double boiler that I have and use frequently. (Hey - I'm one step closer to my dream kitchen!)

 Chicken under a brick.

 Meats are spirt roasted, after marinating or being cured.

Marinade with fresh herbs.

The meat locker is a couple of steps down from the main kitchen. Every bone is saved and then used to make flavorful stock.

 The wait staff and kitchen staff interact like one big family.

Everything used in the kitchen has been picked within hours of preparation. Many of the herbs and veggies come right out of their own garden. Others are sourced from local farmers who practice sustainable growing. Ditto with the meats and seafoods that are prepared here. You simply cannot get anything fresher than this. 

 Peeling asparagus fresh form the grower.

 The prep rooms (pasta above & meat below) next to the kitchen are tiled, with wood counters, wood floors and homey cabinets.

 I love these copper lights.

 Looking out toward the dining room.

 Drake just loved this little nook, with its hand painted tiles.

 The pastry chef who gave us our kitchen tour. Our waiter also showed us around and chatted for a while with us about wine and food pairing. Everyone was so generous with their time and knowledge.

Happy diners on the steps of Chez Panisse after our superb meal -
Jack, Drake and me, with Fred Sassen, Liz Hopkins and Tara Gallegos.

A gigantic thank you to Alice Waters and all the cooks and waiters at Chez Panisse - the evening was quite simply perfect.

For anyone interested in learning more about Chez Panisse, and Alice Waters' philosophy, I found this video to be very interesting. (Warning: it will make you salivate!)

Pin It


  1. What a great blog - my mother Jilly Walsh (Walton) told me about it, she went to RISD. I'll definitely be following you now - food is a huge passion of mine - loved "visiting" chez panisse. Do check out my blog too - http://nenaghgal.blogspot.com.
    Look forward to new posts.
    Lisa McGee

  2. Very fun. Interesting how pretty the tiling is in the kitchen. I'd like to try the Chicken Under a Brick.


Share on Tumblr