During all these years living in the Bay Area, I was always somewhat curious about eating at Chez Panisse, the “House That Alice Waters Built,” but never made the effort to go. Surprisingly, it’s not difficult to got a reservation, provided you are okay with eating during the weekday and at some odd time like 9:30pm. Instead, I called a month in advance – to the day – to book a reservation at a decent time: 8:30pm this past Saturday (June 11th). I was looking forward to that day, but didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy my meal.
Eating at Chez Panisse was one of the most pleasant and satisfying restaurant experiences I’ve ever had, all-around. It wasn’t just a matter of the food being delicious (which it was), or the service being the right amount of attentive and mindful of our space (which it also was); what made the entire experience was what the meal and the restaurant represent: the epitome of Alice Water’s culinary philosophy of using fresh, pure and seasonal ingredients, produced locally and sustainably.
When S and I walked into the dining room, we were greeted by an appealing display of some of the raw ingredients that would be used in our meal – bundles of artichoke, a scatter of morel mushrooms, a bowl of ripe cherries. From there, we were seated in the corner, next to a few windows overlooking the front courtyard. We were soon given our food menus, detailing the prix fixe meal that awaited us, as well as a wine list. We weren’t feeling the need for wine that night, so we skipped ordering any, but the menu itself started with an aperitif:
An aperitif (which was prosecco with some sort of ginger infusion)
Sonoma goat cheese souffle with shaved asparagus, radish and fennel
Local kind salmon filet cooked on the skin with sauce verte
BN Ranch Bolinas grass-fed beef tenderloin with morel mushrooms, porcini mushrooms, and pan-fried potatoes
Brooks cherry puff pastry tartlet with peach leaf ice cream
The aperitif was quite refreshing, and it came with some aromatic, roasted almonds. The two kinds of bread and the butter were also quite nice, but, for me (but not for S), they were just fillers before the rest of the meal.
As far as the appetizer went, the salad, drizzled with some vinaigrette, was crisp and tasty, but the souffle was unique (to me), surprisingly airy and the highlight of the dish. Next, came the two main dishes.
A note on portions: each of the salmon and beef entrees were large enough that they could have passed for main dishes, standing alone, at other restaurants. As it was, S and I had a lot more food than we could finish, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t try. Both the salmon and beef were cooked to medium-rare perfection, and were very tasty and tender. The presentation tended to highlight the quality of the raw ingredients, instead of masking them with too much sauce or spice.
By the time the dessert came, about two hours into our meal, S and I were both stuffed, but we couldn’t say no to the flaky pastry and the inviting glazed cherries on top. We topped off the meal with an order of tea as a digestive, which came in an all-glass, see-through pot, and a small glass tea cup. The tea, which contained whole mint and other plant leaves, was very aromatic, and I could be seen just letting the brew waft into my sense of smell.
All in all, a superb meal. At $95/person (about $125/person after tax and included 17% gratuity), though, it’s not an “every day” or even “every year” meal, but it’s certainly an “at least once in a lifetime” meal.