For just about as long as I can remember, I’ve known about Alice Waters and her restaurant in northern California. My mom always instilled the values of eating locally and supporting local farmers by taking us to the farmers’ markets during the summer, planting our own vegetable gardens, and making sure we always knew where our food came from.
Alice Waters was one of the pioneers in the local and organic food movement, and opened her first restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California in 1971. The menu changes daily and is a prix fixe three- to four-course menu depending on what’s in season on any given day.
When given the opportunity to visit San Francisco to attend the FoodBuzz Festival, naturally, one of my first reactions was “Where am I going to eat?” I talked with some of my foodie friends, and discovered that Diana was going to be arriving the same day as I was.
“So,” I asked Diana, “Do you want to go do one super-fancy dinner when we’re in San Francisco before the Festival starts?”
“Absolutely!” she responded. “Where?”
I hemmed and hawed for a little while before it came to me.
“It’s a hike from where we’re staying, but would you want to try Chez Panisse?” I eagerly awaited her text response as I visited an electronics store with Adam.
“That sounds wonderful! Let’s make reservations!”
And the date was set.
After a rather nerve-wracking and very pricey cab ride from our hotel to the San Francisco outlying town of Berkeley, we arrived at the iconic restaurant. Immediately, our cameras came out and we started shooting photos. A lovely woman came up to us from under the awning of the front patio and offered to take our picture with the sign.
We chatted with the woman a bit and found out her name is Mary Jo and she’s one of the pastry chefs at Chez Panisse. She told us that she was particularly pleased with the first course, and to make sure to ask the busboy Pete for his “kick-ass kitchen tour”. We obliged and headed upstairs to check in for our 8:45 reservation.
We were greeted by a lovely French maitre’d who showed us to the café bar while our table was readied. Not 10 minutes later, we were seated at a quiet table in a corner near the kitchen. The light was warm and calming, the smells were intoxicating, and the excitement in the air was palpable as Diana and I read our beautifully printed menus.
Our server came over to see what we wanted as our beverage for the evening, and graciously offered to split a wine pairing between the two of us so that we could have the full experience. Not long afterward, a beautiful carafe of house-filtered water arrived, along with a plate of tarragon, thyme, and orange peel- infused olives.
Neither Diana nor I are huge green olive fans, but the gentle brininess and herb-scented oil on these olives made for a delicious start to what was sure to be a remarkable meal.
As I mentioned, the menu at Chez Panisse changes daily, and is fixed day to day. Unless prior arrangements are made, the menu is the menu… and the menu that night was simply lovely. The key word here is “simple.” Alice Waters is famous for taking simple food and preparing it well so that it tastes exactly the way the food is supposed to taste.
This was particularly evident in the incredibly rustic and chewy breads that arrived at our table complete with local butter.
And so the first course arrived. It was a delicate and buttery crust topped with wild mushrooms, creme fraiche, and a side of wild watercress and rocket greens.
The crust was crisp and flaky, and the mushrooms had an earthy meatiness that is impossible to imitate or replicate with boring white mushrooms. This was accompanied by a light and fruity white white, but being the wine novice that I am, I didn’t catch the varietal.
Next, the fish course was placed in front of us, and we were thrilled to see some of the most beautiful beans accompanying the delicate roasted cod.
Between bites of fish and mouthfuls of beans, both Diana and I waxed poetic about the true remarkable and simple flavor of the broth at the bottom of the bowl. “What is it? How is it so amazing?” And we checked the menu… it was herb butter. Not broth, but simple melted butter with fresh herbs. We giggled about the “broth” all weekend! Another light but more floral white wine accompanied this course and truly emphasized the flavors in the cod and shell beans.
At this point, both Diana and I could’ve been done eating. It was at this point that we decided to ask our bus boy if we could talk to Pete about this “kick ass kitchen tour” that Mary Jo had mentioned. We had lucked out and our bus boy was Pete! He told us that after our main course, we’d go on the tour.
So we waited a few agonizing minutes for our main course. A half glass of a hearty red was poured that had intense peppery notes, a whisper of cherry, and was dry enough but not so dry that it hurt. When the plates were set down, the aromas were intoxicating.
Spit-roasted Rancho Lleno Seco pork with wilted savoy cabbage and an apple-parsnip puree are now the words that will forever evoke a feeling of pure bliss.
The pork was juicy and tender, the cabbage cooked perfectly, and the puree… oh that puree! Roasted parsnips are naturally sweet, when combined with the mellow tartness of apple, and the richness of the pan sauce… there really, truly, are no words. We both noted though, that what was truly amazing was that the food tasted just the way the food was supposed to taste. There was no off-putting bitterness that sometimes accompanies root vegetables. The herbed crust of the pork tasted like herbs and not like burned fuel. It was lovely and simple and perfect.
At this point, Pete invited us to get up and take the kitchen tour. I’ve been on many kitchen tours before, and there was a very different feel in the kitchen of Chez Panisse. It felt like a large home kitchen and not at all like a cold, industrial kitchen.
The open grill for roasting, grilling, and the night we were there, spit-roasting:
A few thousand dollars worth of saffron and other herbs
The ticket system… old-school and flawless
The pastry chef for the night, plating the delicate desserts
Our tour guide, Pete, with a giant and beautiful Porcini
The view of the restaurant from inside the kitchen
After chatting with the kitchen staff, we took our seats and awaited the beautiful desserts we saw in the kitchen. We were both in awe of how remarkably run the kitchen was, and exactly how nice and normal the staff was… not at all pretentious or unapproachable. Pete brought us a surprise after-dinner drink: fresh mint steeped in hot water. It was poured into the most adorable little glasses.
When dessert arrived, I marveled for a moment at the balance of color, texture, and fruity aroma of the pear sorbet and accompanying wine-poached pears, quince, and pomegranate with a delicate champagne geleé.
The almond cookie (which I’m sure has a fancier name than “cookie”) was a perfect accompaniment. Diana made a very keen observation: the tea that was so hot that it was undrinkable when it was poured was, at the time the dessert was served, a perfect temperature. The timing of the meal was such that, upon receiving our check, we barely noticed that we’d been there over three hours, and were pleasantly full.
And then, two more bites arrived. Quince pate de fruits and ganache truffles in the most tiny and elegant bites I’ve ever seen.
These were the perfect end to really and truly a perfect meal. It was worth every single penny, and I’d visit again and again if it were closer to home. Diana was the perfect dining companion, and I’m beyond grateful that she agreed to indulge me in my dream to visit Chez Panisse.
This meal was one of the highlights of an honestly amazing weekend, which I’ll be posting about in days to come.