Wednesday, June 11, 2008

RFC Visits: Chez Panisse

Though we are known as the Richmond Food Collective, occasionally we take the time to leave our lovely river city in search of other exciting food destinations. This week I am enjoying myself on a ten-day family vacation out on the cold and windy West Coast. While here I managed to drag my family to Chez Panisse, a top restaurant destination for locavores, foodies, and anyone else who enjoys fine dining. Chez Panisse founding chef Alice Waters was cooking with fresh, local, organic in-season produce long before the current frenzy inspired by Michael Pollan's works and the other locavore books; Alice has authored or co-authored many cookbooks and and other books about restaurants and cooking, including 'The Art of Simple Food,' an appealingly down-to-earth and joyful manual on basic cooking practices and philosophy. I have always thought of Alice as a cooking superstar, and I was thrilled to get a chance to visit her restaurant and try the food.

The door to Chez Panisse is open!

I loved the atmosphere of the restaurant. The inside was all old wood and matched very much with the Berkeley vibe we had been enjoying for most of the day. We dined, of course, in the 'upstairs cafe,' which is more casual than the downstairs 'dining room,' where patrons eat set meals for $55 or more per person.

Fruits and a delicious tart.

As we were led to our table, we passed a kind of bar, where fresh fruit and a delicious-looking tart were placed in the open air, giving the restaurant an old-fashioned, European feel. I don't mean to say, though, that there was any sense of snobbery -- the other diners carried on animated conversations and the art on the walls was unique and colorful. I guess what I want to say is that it was a pleasing combination of classic and bohemian.

Gazing at the menu. What to choose?

None of us know much about wine, so I admit we tried local beers on tap instead. I looked over the menu and decided on a morel gratin with roasted asparagus and herb salad. Before the main course, we shared two appetizers, choosing fresh toast with avocado spread and a dish of greens and warm goat cheese. The goat cheese was amazingly soft and flavorful, a refreshing change from our standard oval of chevre supplied by Faith Farms (I eat that goat cheese almost every day on my salad). The toast and avocado topping was fantastically fresh.

Morel gratin with grilled asparagus and herb salad.

My entree was also fantastic. I had never tasted morels, and I was not disappointed. The flavor of the gratin was remarkably subtle -- savory and filling, a great contrast with the rest of the vegetables on the plate. There's not much to say about a meal at Chez Panisse other than that it was wonderful; my expectations were certainly satisfied. The menu did list the sources of some items, though others were unspecified. I admit I was enjoying the dining experience so much I didn't bother to ask.

For dessert, my mom and I shared a piece of the tart we saw on the way in; I also drank a delicious cup of fresh peppermint tea.

On our way out, I was thrilled to happen to meet Alice Waters herself. I was told she was there to eat with a friend, and I stopped her briefly to thank her for a wonderful meal at her restaurant. She was very kind and listened to me as I gushed about coming all the way from the East Coast to visit Chez Panisse -- she laughed and implored me to come back and eat there again. It wasn't really the time or place for a detailed conversation, so I waved 'goodbye,' and walked down the stairs quite star-struck. All in all, my evening at Chez Panisse was exactly what I wanted it to be: a taste of Berkeley and northern California both culinary and cultural, and an experience with the finest of real food.

Unbelievably, after leaving the restaurant (where we had early reservations), we ended up walking right into the Berkeley farmer's market. Check back later for a continuation of my tales of local food and lovely eating on the West Coast!

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