Monday, July 26, 2010

Decade Celebration

Theric and I planned only one activity for our tenth wedding anniversary celebration: Have dinner at the very famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California.

Why Chez Pannise? First: It's pretty famous. The founder, Alice Waters, she's kind of a big deal in foodie circles. [Theric says: How many restaurants do you know who's papers are curated by a major library?] Second: I'm not sure we will ever again live in such close proximity to such a famous and important eating establishment. Third: They have a special July 14 Bastille Day/ Garlic Festival dinner! We were married on Bastille Day and we LOVE garlic, we had to go!

After reviving ourselves from a fainting spell brought on by discovering how much eating here would cost, we knew we would have to save up our pennies. Our tenth anniversary seemed like just the right occasion. We made this decision a few years back, say 2005, though we didn't start seriously saving until 2007. And I am glad we did save up, because otherwise, I do not think I could have really truly felt good about spending so much money on food.

But what food it was! Over a week later and I can still recall those distinct clear beautiful flavors. It was an amazing, unforgettable meal.

Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera, otherwise I would be showing you a slide show of this meal--it was pretty to look at (especially dessert) but even better to eat!

We sat at table for two in the very back of the restaurant in a corner, at first I thought it wasn't a good table but it turned out perfect since it was away from the main area of the restaurant--it was private and allowed us to people watch and have pleasant conversation. From watching the people it was clear that Theric and I were the youngest couple there --- it was a room full of gray hairs --- which youthfulness the maitre'd [Theric says: I'm pretty sure he was a waiter, but he was, like, the Great Waiter or something. King of the Waiters.] [Theric says: After further consultation with Lady Steed, perhaps he was the maitre'd. He was also the sommelier.] took note of since, after having been sitting at out table for only a short while, he inquired if we were celebrating something special, such as an anniversary. [Theric says: We said yes.] I should also say that the King of Waiters was french, he had a very noticeable accent and was clearly pleased to be celebrating Bastille day (Vive la Revolution!). He and all the other waiters wore little red white a blue ribbons on their vests. And to make it extra french an accordionist came in and played a few songs including (of course) "La Vie en Rose".

On the table was a loaf of bread, fashioned into a branch shape or pain d'epi. Theric and I were both starving but somehow restrained ourselves from consuming the branch bread until they brought us bread plates and a little pottery container of butter. It was pretty and the butter was delicious on the bread, which was as sourdough. [Theric says: At first, I thought the butter must be actually a butter-cheese hybrid. Upon consuming great quantities, however, I decided Lady Steed was right. It was just butter.]

Next came a small plate with four onion rings and two smelt, breaded and fried. The onion rings were the best I have ever tasted. [Theric says: Unquestionable. I like onion rings as much as anyone else, but I had no idea that onion rings could be so wonderful.] The onion was sweet, the coating was crunchy but not greasy. The smelt was also really good, which surprised me. I do not like fish, I don't really eat fish --- let alone a whole fish, head to tail. But there it was, all fried and sitting on the plate, I had to eat it. It was good, salty, not too fishy. [Theric says: I ate my smelt not realizing it was a whole fish. It wasn't until Lady Steed says hers was looking at her that I realized I had eaten an entire fish. Like Lady Steed, I'm not much of a fish guy. The smelt was good, but was definitely fish in flavor.]

Next was a small dish of pickled carrots and olives and something else, squash? [Theric says: Yes, I think so. The olives were tiny and mostly pit but very good.]

[Theric says: This is as far as Lady Steed got, so from this point on, I am the primary point of view and she will make the intercomments.]

One thing Lady Steed forgot to mention was the aperitif. Not being wine drinkers, we had assumed we would miss out on this part of the meal, but not so. The sommelier instead brought us out some grape juice. But calling it grape juice is really selling this stuff short. First, it was packaged in a bottle ala wine and, I'm pretty sure, by a winery. (I wish I had paid closer attention to the label. I want to price this stuff.) It was white and astonishing. Grape juice is a little, well, it's for kids, you know? But this stuff was simple and complex simultaneously. I suspect we were give a sense of what wine is like, just without that whole descent into alcoholism thing. [Lady Steed says: Best grape juice ever.]

The smell was striking and I know enough to know that the shape of the glass is supposed to enrich your wine-consumption experience so I tried to involve my nose etc in the drinking process. It was crazy delicious, folks.

And it is at this point we arrive at the menu. (Everything to this point preceded the menu.)


So gelée is gelatin. But unlike, say, Jell-O, it is savory, not sweet, and softer. If it were Jell-O and you saw it at a potluck, you would say it hadn't yet set properly.

It was very salty and I found it striking how you could place a sliver on your tongue and the taste would permeate through your entire mouth. I liked it. [Lady Steed says: I didn't really like it. I wouldn't eat it again. I found the texture to be very disconcerting. But I can see why someone would like it. Every time I had some I really tried to like it, but couldn't wait to put a tomato in my mouth to get rid of the weird texture flavor combo.] But, that said, it is the only thing I didn't finish. Mostly because I was starving (I hadn't had a chance to eat all day) and slimy saltiness on an empty stomach didn't seem like the best idea. So I left a bit behind.

Then the tomatoes and aioli and the egg. Those were good too. The egg was small. I wonder if it actually came from a chicken or not. [Lady Steed says: It was from a chicken, the waiter said so. When she brought the plate out I was amused at the half an egg--Really, only half? But what a half! It was a poached fresh egg --- and possibly the best egg I've ever had. It was delicious. And the aioli --- that's where the garlic flavor was and I really wanted to lick it off of my plate, but I restrained. The tomatoes were also amazing. There were maybe three different kinds, all halves of small tomatoes. Very fresh and great tomato flavor.]


Just looked up Tomales Bay and learned it's in Marin County. Which makes sense because Chez Panisse is the original locavore restaurant, but the King of Waiters told the people at the next table that the shrimp had come from Santa Barbara. Or that's what we thought he said. That seemed a little far away from us.

Speaking of the shrimp, it was no shrimp. It had long striped legs (six inches?) [Lady Steed says: Six inches? More like three inches.] and he was super fresh. (We got to walk through the kitchen later and we saw the next batch of shrimp twitching, waiting for their boiling bath.)

Also on the plate were mussels and clams. And a squid. The squid was definitely the best of the animals. Not being seafood people, as a rule, these were not animals we are accustomed to eating --- in fact, this was our first bouillabaisse --- but it was great. Even though placing the internal organs of a mollusk on my tongue is abnormal, the flavors that seeped out were terrific. [Lady Steed says: I will admit to being a bit terrified by this dish. I studied it a bit trying to figure out how the heck I was supposed to eat this mess of leggy crustacean and shell encased bi-valves. While I cannot say that it was the best thing I have ever had, I did enjoy trying these little sea creatures that everyone else seems to enjoy so much. Plus, it was reassuring to know that since this was Chez Panisse this seafood was not only blazingly fresh and prepared by trained professionals, but mussels, shrimp, clams and squid probably couldn't taste any better than this. If I was ever going to try and like seafood, this was the best chance of it happening. The squid was definitely my favorite part of the bouillabaisse, I have had squid one time before and found it to be a horrible chewy tasteless thing, but this squid was tender and garlicky--yum. The broth was also delicious and had a light garlic flavor. So while this was my least favorite part of the meal, it was still quite good.]

The crouton was a slice of hard bread with a dark red rouille poured over it and into the soup. This was even better than the bouillabaisse and really made the dish. And this is where the garlic shone, in the rouille. [Lady Steed says: Yes, I wish there had been some more.]


Let's start with the corn. Because this was the best corn the world has ever seen. Shut up and don't try to argue. You weren't there. It had crème fraîche and lots of butter in it and it was hard to eat in polite company. It was . . . good. [Lady Steed says: There was definitely quiet moaning from both of us. It was celestial corn pudding.] How it's a pudding though, I don't know. Clearly I don't know all meanings of the word pudding.

The pigs (six-months-old) (the heads were on display, in a pretty way, at the opening to the kitchen) had been sliced and rolled and I must say that the idea of putting fennel on meat had never occurred to me, but it was a revelation. I had desired not to come of as provincial, but I found it utterly impossible not to use the remaining bread to sop up every bit of pig juice. I am sorry. I had to. [Lady Steed says: Agreed. That pig was super delicious.]

Green beans were also served on this plate and while quite good --- just picked and perfectly cooked --- Lady Steed found them utterly disappointing in comparison to their otherworldly neighbors on the plate. I agree, but not with the same strength of emotion. [Lady Steed says: They were good, just kind of boring in comparison. Maybe that was on purpose though, so you had something to give your taste buds a little rest before skyrocketing them to heaven with that corn pudding and baby pig.]


A scoop of one, a scoop of the other on a base of nectarines garnished with a few raspberries and blackberries, two of the latter being sugared, and a long sugared twisted pastry stick of some sort.

Wow. [Lady Steed says: Wow. I think I will always remember the peach leaf ice cream. Days later and I can still recall that almond-y peachy taste. Also, they put this little flag on our dessert, a very nice touch.]

We talked to the maker of desserts when we were in the kitchen and learned a bit about peach leaf ice cream.

She steeped young leaves --- the ones at the end of the stems, just unfurled --- in heavy cream (very very gently). Too much steeping and it gets bitter and inedible without warning. Just right and you get this mild, almondy, peachy flavor that's hard to describe but which should be part of everyday life. The sherbet had a stronger flavor and was orange rather than white, but the two played together nicely. And the berries were great too. (Lady Steed often teases me for my orgasmic reaction to the raspberries at our wedding reception ten years ago and wanted to know if these raspberries beat those. Short answer: No. Long answer: Those had the unfair advantage of being practically the only thing I ate on one of the best days of my life.) [Lady Steed says: Those berries were so so good and the nectarines were perfect. All that delicious fruit made me realize that the fruit I have been buying has really not been all that good in comparison that fruit.]

End of menu.

With our check came cocoaed candied almonds (aka dragee almonds) and garlic-shaped meringues and sugared currants on the stem. This was the sugar that made the $230 check go down. They were good enough to do the job. And, like everything else we had been served, they were beautiful to look at and amazing to eat.

We both agree that it was the best meal we have ever eaten in a restaurant. We hope to go back. Maybe this time we'll do it the affordable way and just go to the second-story cafe.

So we loved it. If it had been possible, we wouldn't have eaten for a week, allowing our palates to focus on remembering those clear and intense flavors. Food since then seems a little gray. So though delicious, Chez Panisse ruined our lives.

Vive la Revolution!
cover, screen printed, of menu


Blogger Carina said...


I think everyone should have at least one amazing meal in their lives.

And that bouillabaisse? I wish, wish, wish I'd been there.

Monday, July 26, 2010 11:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Wm Morris said...

Not quite Chez Panisse (not that I would know -- the most I've ever paid for a meal for two is $60), but if you want have an excellent (and much cheaper) fennel and pork experience, go to Top Dog, and order the Calabrese. It's awesome, and I miss it very much.

Monday, July 26, 2010 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Wm Morris said...

Also: congratulations on 10 years!

Monday, July 26, 2010 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger Marianna said...

Marvelous review!! We LOVE Chez Pannisse. We have only been to the cafe though. The grape juice is infact from , a local winery. It is AMAZING! We've keep some on hand for special occasions!

Monday, July 26, 2010 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Recession Cone said...

Thanks for the detailed review. I almost felt like I was there with you guys. Although without spoiling the atmosphere for everyone.

One of these days...

Monday, July 26, 2010 11:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Wm Morris said...

Question: how did you establish the no alcohol thing? Did they seem put off by the request?

Of course, it's Berkeley so I'm sure they're used to working with all sorts of dietary restrictions.

Out of curiosity I just checked the French Laundry -- $250 per person (although that includes the service and includes quite the series of tasting plates).

Monday, July 26, 2010 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Natasha said...

I need to know from whence the grape juice came. Please? If you get that info?

Sounds incroyable. I'm disappointed there were no photos. I just go ahead and take photos in amazing restaurants.

Fun to read. Feel like cooking something utterly delicieux maintenant.

Congratulations on ten years. Lovely synchronicity with the garlic festival on Bastille Day. I love things like that.

Monday, July 26, 2010 12:37:00 PM  
Anonymous kip said...

Fantastic review! I'm so glad you did this because I love living vicariously through your Chez Panisse experience.

(I have my own small Alice Waters cookbook library. We should get together sometime and dedicate an evening to her.)

Monday, July 26, 2010 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger Th. said...


A couple replies:

1. I don't know the name of the winery. I wish I did. We'll ask Marianna.

2. They didn't mind at all, as far as not drinking wine goes. Clearly, teetotalers are part of their normal day.

3. French Laundry is the Other Great West Coast Restaurant. But since one person costs more than two at Chez Panisse (and since it's not right next to us), we shan't be going there soon.

4. God bless Top Dog. I don't think I've tried that particular sausage. I will upon our next visit.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010 11:21:00 PM  
Blogger Schmetterling said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative authorship of this post. How exactly was it done?

Friday, July 30, 2010 12:20:00 PM  

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