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Chez Panisse: Like Big Game Hunting

Posted by Austios on February 26, 2010

Before I begin, think about this question: What are some of the hardest restaurant reservations in the world? Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin or Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York? Thomas’ Keller’s The French Laundry or Bouchon in Napa? What about Ferran Adria’s El Bulli? I think El Bulli is arguably the hardest reservation to get in the world. There are some who will agree with me on that.

If you have been fortunate enough to have dined at one of these restaurants, you are in a select group of individuals who have experienced and tasted culinary greatness. I equate it to big game hunting. The aforementioned restaurants are like the most prized game animals and once you’ve eaten at them, you feel like you want a trophy you can mount on your wall or mantle. Now, before I continue, I personally have to say I am against game hunting. Unless you plan on eating the animal, I don’t really believe in hunting at all.

But for arguments sake, I make the analogy. But I digress.

While the above restaurants are near impossible to get a reservation to the point where you have to plan a trip around the reservation and not vice versa, there are a plethora of other restaurants across the country and around the world that are not impossible to reserve, but for a variety of reasons, can be difficult to reserve. Some of these places require a reservation several months in advance or always have the prime dinner times filled up very quick, so you are essentially forced to eat dinner early at either 5 PM or rather late at like 10 PM.

Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse is considered to be in this category. They accept reservations up to one month in advance, so chances are if you make a spontaneous trip up to Berkeley and try to call for a reservation on the day of or a day before, they’re going to be booked. For me, I knew I was going to be in Northern California for a conference the prior weekend, and having decided to extend my stay a few extra days, decided to try and make reservations here. I called exactly one month to the day, so making a reservation for 8 PM on my desired day was not a problem.

If you knew anything about Alice Waters, you would maybe assume that this restaurant would be located on a more rural neighborhood or even on farmland (as I imagined it to be), but no, it’s located a less busy stretch of Shattuck Ave, about ½ mile North of Downtown Berkeley. I do, however, love the outside entrance of the restaurant, which does make you believe you are out in the countryside.

My dining companion was running late, so the host invited me to wait at the bar upstairs in the café. Even the café itself is really gorgeous with it’s own separate kitchen. I went up to the bar and ordered a glass of prosecco and texted my friend that I was upstairs.

Once she arrived, we went back downstairs and let the host know we were ready to be sat. The dining room is beautiful but not extravagant, which probably was Alice Waters’ intentions when designing this space. She wants the focus to be on the food and not on the décor. I mean, makes sense, doesn’t it? *sarcasm*

Our table was right next to the kitchen, so I had a great view of everything going on. We started with a nice crusty sourdough baguette and nicoise olives.

For those of you not familiar with Chez Panisse, the menu changes DAILY, a testament to Waters’ desire to find, cook, and serve only the freshest ingredients possible, getting all of their ingredients from farm fresh and local purveyors. For a chef, it’s quite a very bold practice to not know what you’re making until that morning, but all the more power to those who work there. I actually do appreciate the desire to put out only the freshest things you can find. Based on what they find, they will create a pre fixe 4-course menu for $75. Very reasonable for same day ingredients if you ask me.

There seemed to a seafood theme among the first 3 courses. The first course was a chicory (Annabelle’s chicory to be precise) salad with a creamy herb vinaigrette and bottarga. We initially picked out a seafood like flavor. I looked at the menu and I actually had to ask what bottarga was. He told us it was a cured fish roe, which explains the seafood flavor. The dressing, despite being “creamy”, was in fact quite light.

2nd course was Saffron tagliatelle with Dungeness crab, green garlic, and wild fennel. The tagliatelle was very nice yet I didn’t really taste much saffron, as it was overpowered by the delicate crab. The green garlic and wild fennel added nice earthy notes to the flavor of the dish. Only thing is my friend found a tiny piece of shell in hers. Oops….

Main course was grilled stripped bass with black truffle sauce, celery root and sunchoke puree, chanterelle mushrooms, and braised escarole. While everything on the plate was really great, the fish was DEFINITELY the star. Cooked perfectly, you know the fish is fresh if you can still taste the ocean. Yes, I could still taste the ocean on this sucker. I absolutely loved it and I wish I could have had another piece.

For dessert, meyer lemon soufflé. Simple, but very good. Garnished with a slice of candied lemon, the soufflé actually had bits of candied lemon mixed in throughout, so you got these little bits of citrus to texturally contrast the light soufflé. Great flavor and wonderfully executed. Though some sort of sorbet or sauce would’ve been nice, it didn’t need it.

We finished the meal with a pot of decaffeinated tea, which I forget the name but was good and a couple different mignardise.

Now that I have been to the famous Chez Panisse, I can essentially take this off my list of restaurants to try before I die and mount it up on the wall above my fireplace. Or maybe I should make myself a trophy and engrave it commemorating the evening.

Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 548-5049

Chez Panisse in San Francisco
Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

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5 Responses to “Chez Panisse: Like Big Game Hunting”

  1. I want it all! So lucky!

  2. kevinEats said

    The toughest ressie? Rao’s. 😉

    I used to live right down the street from CP during my undergrad years at Cal–only went to the upstairs cafe though. I’ll be rectifying that come April.

  3. This is one of the best CP dinners I’ve read about. You’re lucky to receive such a seafood intensive dinner!

  4. One of the place I really want to try, thanks for blogging about it! I guess it’s sinful for me not to go since I go to Berkeley quite often. I’m really intrigued with Alice Water’s cooking!

  5. Rainier Wolfcastle said

    We had dinner at French Laundry before he got his stars; perhaps a year or so after he opened — 1996 or 1997. Now there are only 2 ways to get in: go for lunch and be VERY flexible as to dates, or put together a large enough group that you can get advance reservations. Can’t remember if it requires a party of 8 or 10 to do so. Two friends of ours went for lunch a couple of years ago, and dropped >$900 for lunch for the two of them (with a single bottle of modest-for-French-Laundry wine).

    We ate at Bouchon a couple of years ago (Napa, not Vegas; Vegas is easy). Not difficult at all to get the reservation but again, though, it was lunch, not dinner.

    If you are going to be in the general Napa area and want that kind of experience, I recommend Redd in Yountville. We haven’t been in a while, but went a few times not too long after it opened and it was fantastic every time. The only bad thing that ever happened to us there was when we made the mistake of ordering the 9-course tasting menu — it was just too much food for us, but we couldn’t stop eating because it was so awesome. 😉

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