For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to eat at Chez Panisse. When I moved to the Bay Area, in October, 1995, I actually drove by the restaurant, just to check it out. I found a bakery nearby that I liked, and from then on, every once in a while, I would go over there to get cookies and goggle at the menu in the glass case out front. (The original Peet's location is also just around the corner on Vine.)
The downstairs restaurant was a little out of my reach at the time, and the Cafe didn't take reservations. I remember driving the 45 minutes or so at least once to try my luck for a table, but never made it. I did frequent Cafe Fanny though, for beignets, mochas and poached eggs on toast, and the downstairs Cafe at Oliveto was my favorite lunch spot. I'm not sure if I knew at the time that Paul Bertolli, the chef and owner of Oliveto was a Chez Panisse alum. Other Chez Panisse alumni have become successful in their own right. Jeremiah Tower had Stars for a time, and Judy Rogers has the Zuni Cafe - which is wildly successful to this day. Lindsay Shere - the longtime pastry chef and co-owner of the restaurant opened the Downtown Bakery and Creamery right on the square in Healdsburg.
Chez Panisse has the feel of a magical place - it has the mythology, certainly, but there's something about the building itself and the aesthetic that has a fairy tale quality. It's welcoming, the lighting is just right, the noise level has just the right murmur. The service has just the right tone. Every detail - though not necessarily perfect - is just right. At least for me. I loved walking in, up the stairs past the dining room with it's wild flower arrangements, to the copper toned bar with the marble counter - then past the wooden bar laden with the evening's desserts, to a booth just opposite the kitchen. (We snagged a last minute reservation in the Cafe - no luck on the dining room.)
When we were seated, we were immediately presented with a plate of Acme bread, some amazing butter and a carafe of eau de Chez Panisse. The restaurant has repudiated bottled water, and serves filtered tap water in elegant, etched carafes.
The menu changes daily, and on this particular evening there happened to be so many good choices we had trouble deciding among them. While sharing a bottle of "Vigne di Alice" Prosecco, we elected to try two starters, the fresh mozzarella with tapenade, asparagus salad and prosciutto, and a toast topped with cardoon, kale, egg and anchovies.
You already know that everything at Chez Panisse is perfectly fresh and responsibly raised, but that isn't always a guarantee of delightful flavor. A little originality and composition is always appreciated when it works well, and in these dishes it worked perfectly.
For main courses, both Tommy and James chose the Pork Milanesa with Celery Root Remoulade and Little Potatoes, while I picked the pizza of the day - spicy squid with tomato sauce and aioli. Yes, Aioli on a pizza. It may sound a little strange, but it was genius. The crust was light and crisp, the squid perfectly cooked with just the right amount of spice.
The Pork Milanese was crisp and juicy, and combined with the celery root remoulade to create a perfectly balanced dish in terms of both flavor and texture. The celery root has a juicy almost apple-like texture, but isn't as sweet. A bit of mustard in the dressing, watercress, capers and a squeeze of lemon rounded out the dish.
The dessert list was tempting but deceptively simple. Both of the options we chose provided more satisfaction than I expected based on their descriptions. Tommy chose the white and dark chocolate ice creams with chocolate sauce, and I had the blood orange upside down cake with cardamom cream. James opted for a cheese plate - which offered three small servings he very much enjoyed.
The ice cream was silken and smooth, like frozen chocolate mousse, and the cake was buttery and dense - topped with a layer of caramelized blood oranges. It's something I've never thought about trying at home, but I'm pretty sure it could be done. The cardamom spiked whipped cream alongside was lovely, and it was all fabulous with the little pot of their own Blue Bottle coffee that I had ordered.
I can see how one might become frustrated with Alice Waters and her idealistic philosophies, decide the restaurant couldn't possibly live up to the hype, or simply look for a way to find fault to be contrarian, but there was no temptation to do any of that, at least for me. The restaurant has lofty ideals, but it's the tradition of excellence, simplicity and attention to detail that has kept them in business for nearly 40 years. It's both inspiring and encouraging to see that tradition being carried on - not just by David Tanis and his crew - but by all of the restauranteurs, chefs and eaters who have been informed and influenced over the years by Alice and her little house on Shattuck Avenue.
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, California 94709
The Cafe is open 7 days a week, lunch and dinner. Prices range from $10-$30
The downstairs restaurant is open 7 days a week, dinner only - prix fixe. $60. on Mondays, $75 most other nights, $95 Fri and Sat.
Reservations are recommended and are taken one month to the day before dining.