Thursday, June 19, 2008

Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA)

Warning, there are literally 15+ pictures in this post, so if you're on a 56k modem this probably isn't good for you. Heck.. some of the pictures won't even have words accompanying them.. we all know you're really here to see the pictures anyways right? Now back to the blog!

A few weeks ago I drove up to Berkeley, California all by my lonesome. Six+ hours listening to Bill Simmons podcast and singing along to the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge. Now what would inspire me to sing along to movie soundtracks (albeit one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time) for six hours?

Two reasons.
  1. To see a special someone and take a well deserved post finals vacation
  2. Chez Panisse.
Located in North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, Chez Panisse IS California Cuisine. Started by Alice Waters in the 70's it's a multi level dining establishment serving California Cuisine. The downstairs serves their daily prix fixe menu and their upstairs restaurant is your standard restaurant style order off the menu kind of joint. The restaurant specializes in produce and meats that are organically grown and local so you get the very freshest in ingredients. As you'll see from the pictures, some of the most vibrant vegetables on this side of the Mississippi.

The restaurant itself is rather discreet, unlike most "fancy" restaurants with large bright signs and grand opulent entrances you get a very natural.. some might even say "hippy" entrance that says Chez Panisse in rather faded colors.

The downstairs restaurant has seating for approximately 45-60 guests. Nestled in a dimly lit and home-style surrounding.. almost.. wooden cottage interior each table is served Filtered sparkling or still water done by the restaurant itself. Chez Panisse pride itself in not serving bottled water. Heck, I'm happy that they are serving free filtered water, carbonated and non-carbonated. To match with our fine seafood menu I brought a bottle of Krug Champagne as a supplement to the wonderful water service.

Before we get to the set menu for the day, I'd like to take you all in for a tour of the kitchen.
Our table was near the kitchen entrance, when we first arrived I noticed a little boy sitting in the middle of the kitchen and eating. APPARENTLY if you are a VIP you get to sit in the kitchen.. this particular father/son combo comes from a rather popular SF eatery.

The restaurant allows for you to wander in their kitchen as long as you don't disturb the cooks or the service (which we may have done once or twice). Composed of soft brown wood tables (I was always under the impression wood isn't good for a kitchen.. bacteria infestation?), a handful of stoves and ovens, the kitchen is as simple as the cuisine itself.

The very first thing you see is a long L shaped table.

Garnish/salad creation for Chef #1

If you take a closer look at the table you can see they use one part of the L as a cutting area for the loaves of fresh baked bread as well as a display of some of the freshest looking leeks out there.

The first chef was responsible for doing the vegetables.

Cutting up fresh parsley, mind, beans, arugula the chef is one of the last people to touch the entree, and dessert (at least for today's menu).

Green as a freshly watered lawn, the fava beans sit in the bowl waiting to be devoured. Course salt, olive oil, leeks, onions.. everything to make a salad or any other vegetable dish.

To the right of the table is the grill.

Filled with burning hot charcoal, one person man's the grill and everything that's cooked on it. He/She seasons the meat and cooks it. The flame is a deep dark purple that seems to just be roasting away at everything around it.

The chef has his/her own seasoning table for the protein course. As you can see.. this dish is prepared with pepper and salt.. classic recipe for a not so classic dish.

On the other end of the L shaped table is the 1st dish of the night.

One chef is also responsible for this. He creates the salad that goes with the dish in a small bowl. After slicing the main part of the dish he puts a small handful of the salad on the dish. Add some sauce.. and it's ready to go!

Another island is for the 2nd dish

One Chef manning a stove with multiple pans. A bit of seafood here, a bit of stock there, and a bit of white wine in the pan. Each tables order is made fresh when they arrive.

Quick plating of equal portions seafood on each plate, some noodles, and the dish is ready!

And at the very back... the dessert table.

Here we have the chef chopping fresh fruit and another chef on the left scooping and plating. Aren't those ruby grapefruit gorgeous? Look at how well cut the grapefruit are, I was tempted to pick one up and just bite into it. Luckily I showed self restraint!

Anyone notice that they have quite the large amount of decorations composed of the ingredients at each station? I think quite a few guests venture through here =).

Now on to the dishes!

A few olives to nibble on

Still on the stem, the olives refresh your pallet. Too bad I dislike olives. These went to waste =p.

Next up is the loaf of bread you my dear readers previously saw.
You know, I'm a fan of warm soft bread that wraps around mounds of butter. I never understood the need to serve hard crusted cold bread. PASS! Of course.. this meal is not decided by what bread they serve. I would like if the butter was made by an old man with a beard in Russia who's sole job is to churn butter in the lonely mountainside.

First dish of the night is Gravlax with a horseradish sauce accompanied by a side of arugula and beets tossed in a light vinaigrette .

If you don't know what Gravlax is, it's a Swedish/Danish dish that is essentially cured raw salmon. It looks just like smoked salmon. The salmon is thinly sliced and about 3.5 inches long. Perfectly cured, the salmon is of upmost quality. A sushi chef would look at this salmon and say "HI! I WOULD PUT THIs ON MY RICE!". Oddly enough.. even as good as the salmon was.. it was... salmon. I enjoyed it even if it was JUST salmon. It was prepared well and it was a joy to start the meal with. But what was the star on this dish was the side salad. Sweet and fresh yellow/red beets along with a slightly bitter tossed arugala it was a refreshing pairing with the rich and slightly spicy nature of the Gravlax dish.

The next dish was the best dish of the night, Seafood Ragu with Parsley noodles.

Generous chunks of lobster , mussels, and a whole scallop adorn the plate of freshly cut noodles. A small quantity of seafood broth is poured over the dish with chopped basil.

All I can say is WOW. WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW. The dish is so simple. You can see in the picture. But the noodles are a perfect consistency, they are as al dente as al dente gets. All the seafood was fresh and seasoned well with the broth, you don't even taste the white wine reduction. To top it off you get a nice big diver scallop to go with it. It really doesn't get better than this. A light course that was so perfect in its execution I couldn't help but gush to the chef. It was also so good I ASKED FOR SECONDS!

Which leads to another story: When the waiter took the dishes away he asked "How did you like it". I replied "So good I could go for seconds"..... Which the waiter arranged shortly after free of charge. That's the first time I've seen seconds at a Fine Dining restaurant.. especially with all the fixings still.

The protein dish was Grilled yellowfin tuna steak au poivre with Fava beans, asparagus, onion rings, and a red wine reduction.

The style of this dish is to mimic the way you classically cook steak. Salt and pepper is packed on the steak and seared on a grill. It was a fun way to do protein.. but like the salmon dish.. this was just tuna. I really didn't find this dish to be that special. Sure, it was good quality tuna, it was seasoned well... I just can't get that excited for tuna. I'm just not a fan of thick/steak-y fish.

My dining mates liked the Fava beans, but they were too mushy for my tastes. But I don't like any beans that are mushy =P. But they did have great asparagus, crispy and well cooked I ate one of the dining mates asparagus.

Finally the dessert. A tangerine sorbet with ruby grapefruit ice and a touch of mint.

This was an interesting dish. I wasn't sure at which point of the bite would my taste buds say sweet or sour. I enjoyed the more "subtle" flavors of the ice that toned down the pepper heat from the tuna. I enjoyed the texture of this dish, the play on soft and crunchy. What I didn't enjoy was the ice cream being sweet and suddenly the sour acidity of the grapefruit piercing right through it and destroying all appreciation of the dessert as I make the scrunched up bitter face. But some people like that acidity with their grapefruit.. I just don't.

I found in the end that the dishes were well put together... each part in the dish was a compliment to the other part. The seafood Ragu was so tremendous that I'll overlook the fact that I paid $65 (after tax/tip 85+) to eat Tuna and Salmon. Ultimately you can only enjoy those two fish so much, they are simple fish that really are limited by their texture and flavor. But the simplicity of the dishes excited me and I'll definitely go again. The use of simple materials to make complex flavorings is a type of culinary art that I have great love for.

Service was a bit spotty in the beginning. We actually didn't see our waiter (only the bus-girl) until a good 15 minutes into the meal. He even went to tables around us that were seated later to talk to them. One table right behind us came 10 minutes after us.. and he still got to them first.. explained his wine choices for them.. brought their wine.. and then finally came. When he finally did start to talk to us, it went along far better. Hey, not too often you get seconds on a dish and corkage waved.

All in all a great experience made even better with great company. What more can a man want? Eating a fine culinary meal with two of my bestest friends and a glass of premiere sparkler.. more than enough of a reason to drive 6 hours while singing along with show tunes.



Jennywenny said...

Thanks for the descriptions and photos, I was really hoping to take my family there on my last trip, but alas they were closed for the week. Maybe next time!

Anonymous said...

Great pictures and descriptions. I'm also a big fan of the simmons podcasts!


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