Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chez Panisse

Everyone knows, or knows about, Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I assumed that it was impossible to eat there unless one made a booking months in advance. James, my host in Berkeley, encouraged me to try to get in to the cafe, and I did. Sorry sir, they said, we can't get you in until 9:15. That was certainly no pain. It took me half an hour to walk from the University, and I was hungry when I got there.

The room is pleasant and warm, but plain. Oak, copper, arts-and-crafts glass skylight. Here's an example of the detail.

I was a few minutes early, so I stood at the bar and ordered some olives and a glass of Muscadet. Immediately, I knew that I could expect a treat -- the olives were extraordinary, like none I have tasted before. Little things here are selected with care and taste.

My meal started with puntarelle: a kind of chicory, the waiter told me. This was fortuitous. For as it unfolded, the evening was a kind of tribute to the bitter. Coming from the Indian Ocean, I adore bitter vegetables. (If you don't, don't order chicory.) It was dressed in a delicious olive oil, with lemon and anchovy. As for the presentation, well -- it came on a plate. This reminded me a bit of Rome: green leaves on a plate, with oil.

Chez Panisse is obsessed with flavour. Making things taste good is a now outmoded idea from the seventies. I say: if the eye is bored, let it dwell on the room. Or on a book: nobody was offended by the novel that I had propped up on the table while I masticated the chicory.

My muscadet was overpowered by this time -- but isn't that the point of muscadet? Its essence is that its essence speaks from behind the screen of other flavours. Don't drink it on its own: you'd miss the point.

Speaking of presentation, Chez Panisse Cafe doesn't try. Which is fine by me. Downstairs, the restaurant has a Michelin star. Presumably, they practice the art of plating. But here:

This photograph was taken a couple of nights later, but you can see that there is no plate-sculpture at the cafe in Chez Panisse. Just food on a plate.

When my main course came, it was roasted vegetables with saltimbocca. True to their plating style, the veal was nestled in the vegetables, some of them above and some below. Now, I have roasted vegetables myself. I fancy I know something about the hard work it takes. The thing at Chez Panisse is that each little vegetable -- each forkful was a separate vegetable -- had its own little (bitter) flavour. (And just to repeat myself: I adore bitter.)

As it happened, I ordered a glass of cabernet with the meal. I think I did this because I was in an expansive mood, and wanted something oldish. The cabernet was a 98 from Whitethorn. It had this Italian taste -- not sweet and fruity like many French wines, but . . . bitter. Lovely.

The extraordinary thing about Chez Panisse though is the individual flavour of everything. The veal saltimbocca was light, and airy-slightly-crisp. Two nights later, I had a simple roast sirloin, which was sweet and intense, and completely individual:

Here is the company I kept that night:

Cost of a meal with wine: roughly 75. There's a prix fixe for much less.

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