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Review: Chez Panisse, Berkeley


Chez Panisse opened its doors in 1971, started by Alice Waters and an assortment of idealistic friends. A neighborhood bistro named after a character in Marcel Pagnol’s 1930′s trilogy of movies (‘Marius,’ ‘Fanny,’ and ‘Cesar’), the Restaurant and Café are a homage to the sentiment, comedy and informality of these classic films. From the beginning, Alice and her partners tried to do things the way they would like them done at a dinner party at home. The menu changes every night, designed to be appropriate to the season and composed to show off the finest ingredients obtainable including meat, fish, and poultry. Alice and Chez Panisse have become convinced that the best-tasting food is organically grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound, by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. The quest for such ingredients has largely determined the restaurant’s cuisine.

Chez Panisse has tried for years to make diners here partake of the immediacy and excitement of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. In doing so, Chez Panisse has stitched together a patchwork of over sixty nearby suppliers, whose concerns, like the restaurant’s, are environmental harmony and optimal flavor. Chez Panisse restaurant was named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine in 2001. Alice has received numerous awards, including the Bon Appetit magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 and the James Beard Humanitarian Award in 1997. She was named Best Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation in 1992 and Cuisine et Vins de France listed her as one of the ten best chefs in the world in 1986!

As you can see Alice is one of the most brilliant chefs on the planet and is known for starting the slow food movement and the sustainable organic restaurant. I was incredibly excited for my visit to the restaurant, I felt as though I was at some sort of gastronomic pilgrimage. I would soon be ticking off Lunch at Chez Panisse on my list of “Things to do before I die.” As we walked up to the restaurant I thought to myself that I must add “Eat dinner at The French Laundry in Napa Valley” to this Before I Die list. The restaurant has an authentic, French peasant ambiance. The walls are lined with Art Nouveau posters, celebrating fresh food and fine drink. As you walk up the stairs to the cafe you are actually greeted by Alice! I was star struck and almost fainted. To the left of the entrance is the most fantastical open French kitchen with the most beautiful copper pots and wood burning stoves. Alice encourages visitors to watch as the cooks (and one of the cooks while I was taking a picture actually said he was so used to the nuisance of camera flashes as people travel from across the globe to eat at this restaurant). Alice always places the days freshest ingredients on the counter of her open kitchens so visitors can gaze at huge bowls of fresh organic sugar snaps, bins full of rustic French bread and delicately sliced pies and cakes.

We were seated in a small alcove surrounded by cute little stain glassed windows. All of the furniture in the restaurant maintains the French peasant communal consumption theme with antique wooden furniture. Company consisted of Amy and her room mate (and foody fanatic) Joy (who has been to the restaurant several times). Joy is actually the first person in my life who I have seen carry around a food and restaurant experience journal (other than myself of course). She and I both jotted down interesting factoids about the menu before we ordered. The restaurants service philosophy is simple: they want to serve guests in an invisible fashion so that you can chat with friends without being interrupted. We barely knew they were there, masterfully clearing our tables. Most interestingly, they have a water waiter. An employee whose sole purpose is to fill up water. We decided to share our food so that we could all nibble on the restaurants best creations. I tasted the following dishes with much glee:

Bellwether Farm ricotta toast with fava beans, sage and green garlic
Marin Sun Farm beef tongue and cardoon salad with salsa verde
Baked Sonoma goat cheese with garden lettuces
Carrot soup with yogurt and mint
Spaghetti with pesto and Riverdog Farm sun-dried tomatoes
Half Moon Bay sand dabs with snap peas, fennel, basil and ginger vinaigrette
Lucero Farm strawberry tart with candied rose petals
Kirsch-chocolate truffle ice cream with bittersweet chocolate cookies

Yum, indeed. For the record, I actually found this meal life changing, a culinary awakening. It was so inspiring to meet the one person on earth who started this monumental culinary movement which can now be seen across the globe. Without Alice we would never see the name of the farm or grower beside the dish we were eating at a restaurant. We have her to thank for sustainability, quality food products, use of strictly locally grown food stuffs and social slow food dining. Her beverage list even shines through with these characteristics as she sources the finest Napa and Sanoma wines just north of the city. Her juice and milk list also include such items as: Staus Family organic milk, 2006 Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer grape juice, Mosta d”Uva biodynamic grape juice and Nikolaihof biodynamic elderflower fruit soda! This place truly is a dream, incredible.

We left the restaurant feeling far from painfully full, but delightfully satiated. We were given a complimentary copy of the Chez Panisse 35th anniversary 2007 Engagement Calendar which is illustrated throughout with the beautiful Art Nouveau drawings created for the restaurants walls. Joy thankfully had a copy of the Chez Panisse Vegetable book back at the apartment. I read through the introduction and flipped through several of its pages with much satisfaction. I highly suggest everyone purchase as many of her books as possible. They are beautifully illustrated and have mouth watering recipe suggestions followed by an in depth discussion on each vegetables typical harvest. After flipping through these pages I decided to head to my room to clean up and pack all of my things as I fly home tomorrow afternoon. Packing can always be daunting so I took a much needed nap, dreaming solely about floating organic lamb shanks and vine ripe tomatoes.

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