Summary: This venerated Berkeley institution offers good but uninspired food highlighting fresh ingredients.
Chez Panisse. There isn't a more famous restaurant in the Bay Area, there is probably no restaurant in the country that has had as much influence on the way people eat today. Restaurant magazine just included it (again) in its list of the "Best 50 restaurants in the world" (then again, last year they included Manresa, which we found disappointing). People from all over the country make a point of eating there when they come to the Bay Area, and it's been in our list of "to go" restaurants for years. And yet, it wasn't until last April (2006) that we made it there.
One of the reasons for the tardiness of our visit was its fixed menu. I'm rather picky on what I will and won't eat, so a fixed menu worried me. Indeed, the menu for the actual evening of our reservation had two courses that I wouldn't have liked, so we had to move our reservation to the following day where the offerings were more to my liking. The second reason for not having gone before was that Chez Panisse gets definite mixed reviews in the Bay Area food scene. Some people speak of unbelievable meals, but more wonder what the hoopla is all about. In all, the impression I'd gotten was the Chez Panisse was overrated, and after a meal there, that's the impression I'm left with.
Now, there is nothing wrong with Chez Panisse. The food was, indeed, ingredient driven and fresh tasting and it was pretty tasty. It just wasn't very original or inspired. Indeed, Chez Panisse may be a victim of its own success - its formula of serving relatively simple dishes, using first rate, fresh and locally produced ingredients and letting their own flavors shine has been copied and sometimes even improved on by both its alumni and imitators throughout the Bay area.
Our menu that night differed slightly from that posted at the website. The first course was Alaskan wild king salmon salad with fava bean and spring onions rather than the web-advertised Northern halibut with the same accouterments. This was unfortunate for me, as I like halibut but not salmon but fortunate for Mike who got to eat my salad as well. He enjoyed it quite a bit. He liked the contrast between the soft, buttery salmon and the crunchy fresh fava beans, he also enjoyed the tart, citrusy taste of the salad dressing. I tasted it with bread, and it was easily the best part of the meal. Its flavor was intense, refreshing, like eating some mystical fruit. But it easily overwhelmed the flavor of the salmon.
The second course had been advertised as "Chanterelle mushroom soup with wild nettle cake" but it turned out to be nettle and morel mushroom ravioli in guinea hen brodo. I guess the nettle cake didn't work out for them. The dish consisted of three al dente ravioli semi-submerged in a pale broth sprinkled with chopped Italian parsley. The ravioli had a uniform salty taste, not particularly evocative of morels or any other fungi for that matter. The broth was weak and somewhat fatty but brought to life by the wonderful Italian parsley. Every taste of it was a revelation, it reminded me of how people used to eat herbs once upon a time rather than using them as toppings. But even here I couldn't give Chez Panisse too much credit, we've been having wonderful Italian parsley at the farmer's market for weeks.
Chez Panisse must have felt more confident about the main dish, as it was exactly that advertised on the web: "Grilled Sonoma County Liberty duck breast with kumquats and honey vinegar sauce, potato and green garlic gratin, and watercress." It was good, tasty and the caramelized kumquats slices were wonderful, a splash of piquant sweetness. The duck was nicely cooked medium-rare but it lacked the gaminess and depth of duck meat, to me it tasted like squab. But the honey vinegar sauce was pleasant, if somewhat boring. We've tasted sauces like it many times before. The potato gratin was also familiar, but in a better way. The potatoes provoked false memories of home and hearth, while the green onion tickled my palate for the exotic. Yummy. The watercress was, as you'd expect, vibrant and fresh.
Though the main entree had been on the smallish side, we declined the optional cheese course but I did get a Machiatto ($3.50) to go with the dessert. The coffee was good and strong and I enjoyed it.
Dessert was a Meyer lemon meringue tartlet, nicely sized. I liked the sweet tartness of the lemon, but found that it overwhelmed the delicate taste of the meringue. The crumbly crust, however, did not add much to the equation, and should be re-evaluated.
We had a couple of glasses of wine before dinner, so we decided to forgo the wine at Chez Panisse - I think we were the only table that did not take advantage of the lengthy wine list. Non-alcoholic beverages did not appear on the menu and none were offered. White and darker bread and lightly salted butter were served with dinner. Often by this time of night (our reservation had been for 9:15 PM) bread at restaurants is hard and shows elements of age. Here, it felt like it'd just been taken out of the oven (and allowed to cool, it wasn't served warm). The butter was good but not specially so.
I was surprised at how small Chez Panisse was. I counted fifteen tables, though there could have a been a couple more. The restaurant is [ shape, with walls covered in wood paneling, copper-and-amber lamps and opaque mirrors. At one end there is an open kitchen. It feels comfortable, but somewhat generic. Service was fine, efficient but not engaging. The waiters and waitresses just seemed to be going through the motions, though in a practiced enough pace that they didn't miss a beat. A 17% gratuity is automatically added to the bill and we didn't feel there was a reason to add any more (though our first instinct was, of course, to round up the bull by another $10 - I guess the point of the automatic tip being that customers are so accustomed to tip, that they feel bad not leaving any extra money on the table).
Dinner took only about 1 ½ hours - though we didn't really feel rushed. Other people's dinners, however, moved more slowly.
In all we had a nice time. With so many restaurants of similar qualities in the Bay Area, it may however be another 13 years before we go again.
Chez Panisse Restaurant
1517 Shattuck Avenue
M-Su 6:00 - 9:30 p.m.