Every July, when South Carolina gets hot and sticky, my dad and step-mom fly cross-country to cool, fog-shrouded San Francisco. Every year, I fly up from L.A. to join them for a weekend of great company, fantastic meals, and the occasional dose of culture. On my latest trip, no meal was better than our dinner downstairs at Chez Panisse.
At this Berkeley institution with the stunning copper-plated, bronze wood, Craftsman interior, Alice Waters’ downstairs restaurant features a set four-course menu each night of the week. There’s also a more casual upstairs café with a full menu. The downstairs menu builds in sophistication and price, from $50 (for three courses) on Monday to $75 on Saturday night. Since it was Saturday night, we expected a truly memorable dining experience, but only two of us got it.
Alice Waters named Chez Panisse for a character in Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of 1930’s movies (‘Marius,’ ‘Fanny,’ and ‘Cesar’). Ms. Waters even has a daughter named Fanny who has an organic café in Berkeley that serves breakfast and lunch. Café Fanny is located next door to Acme Bread, which supplies loaves to many of the top Bay Area restaurants, including Chez Panisse.
The 30-year-plus influence of Alice Waters’ eco-friendly, sustainable organic approach to cooking is off the meter. Though Ms. Waters long ago ceded control of the kitchen to a series of skilled chefs, her philosophy still pervades the restaurant. Chef David Tanis authored the current menu with many Alice Waters touches in evidence, including the extensive use of local farms’ produce.
Our waiter started us with a glass of lillet, a sweet yellow aperitif.
An Acme Bread basket featured slices of crusty sourdough and a terrific, soft baguette. There was also a plate of assorted black and green olives.
To complement our impending lamb, we split a bottle of 2001 Pinot Noir from Scherer Winery in California’s Russian River Valley, which was excellent.
Before the first course arrived, the waiter gave us permission to tour the kitchen, which was a huge thrill.
Dessert was a “Red wine peach leaf soup with blackberry sorbet.” It came with an almond longichaut (cat’s tongue), a long thin almond cookie studded with shaved almonds. Floating in the chilled red soup were the season’s freshest raspberries, blackberries and peaches and a tart scoop of blackberry sorbet. It’s not something I normally would have ordered, but it was very good for what it was.
On the drive back to San Francisco, my father, step-mom and I did what we do after every meal, we deconstructed our experience. Each of us conceded that everything we ate was as good as it gets, for what it was. Of course each of us has personal preferences. My step-mom and I love lamb, but my dad has never liked the flavor. He finished his lamb, but didn’t love it. And he didn’t care for the soup. We all decided that it may be better to eat upstairs at the café, where they feature a number of appetizer, entrée and dessert options.
Another factor that hinders Chez Panisse is its incredible popularity. Chezpanisse.com lists the upcoming week’s menus for the downstairs restaurant, and the entire month’s Monday dinner menus. But considering the demand to eat there, it’s virtually impossible to get a reservation a mere week in advance. So even if you see a menu ideally suited to your tastes, forget about eating it. This of course happened when my father and I looked at Thursday’s upcoming $65 menu: “heirloom tomato and watercress salad with torpedo onion rings,” spicy shrimp and lobster bisque,” “grilled Laughing Stock Farm pork loin with pickled peaches and mustard greens,” and a “blackberry jalousie tart with toasted pecan ice cream.” Almost every dish would have been more in line with our tastes. You’re stuck with whatever the restaurant decides to serve on the date of your reservation. Oh well. It’s definitely worth eating downstairs at Chez Panisse. I’m glad I did it. But next time, I’ll eat upstairs at the café. I like options.