I’m on my own and on foot the day I visit Chez Panisse Café for the first time. I take the train from San Francisco across the bay and, mistakenly, 45 minutes south of Berkeley before I realize I’m going the wrong way. I change trains, take a deep breath of calm and start all over again. When the doors of the BART train open to the Berkeley stop, I’m already thirty minutes early for my lunchtime reservation and feeling as breathless as I did on my wedding day.
The second my feet touch Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue, I suppress the desire to skip and start walking the 9 blocks from the train station to the ivy covered façade of Chez Panisse.
I take in the Berkeley sights. There’s a half off bookstore on the corner that sells cookbooks along side textbooks and philosophy paperbacks. Almost every corner has a different pair of political students campaigning for the environment, peace or the health of a campus tree. A student in an electric wheel chair passes me on the undulating sidewalk with chair that’s tricked out with a keyboard, mouse and stereo speakers and a tiny dog that looks like Dorothy’s Toto perched on her lap.
Approaching Chez Panisse alone is not as climactic as it could be. Had I been with my food-obsessed husband we’d hug each other in delight or slap an excited high five outside the front door. Instead, I am left to snap discreet digital photographs that, in their sheer number, are the only way I can express the intensity of my culinary awe.
I’m first-date giddy as I take two steps up the well-worn stairs of Chez Panisse. My heart beats with a double-time cadence as I push open the front door. Cherry stained hardwood and a bouquet of green and celadon flowers entice me up the steep stairs to the café. Thought it’s quiet outside, once upstairs I’m struck by the noise of the many diners. The afternoon light pours in through the wood-trimmed craftsman windows, illuminating the tables with movie quality daylight. The space is comfortable as a friend’s house and the air is alive with excitement.
At my table for one, I sit on the banquet and watch the diners around me. Another solo diner finishes what looks like a business lunch and snaps a picture of himself with his iPhone. Three generations of women celebrate the youngest blonde’s birthday with stories of her as an infant. With a smile, a back waiter delivers a basket of perfectly made sourdough bread, butter and a pretty little glass water carafe with Chez Panisse and a wreath of olive branches etched into the glass.
Though the dining room spins with front waiters, back waiters and plates of food, Daniel, my waiter, greets me with a Zen-like calm. I confess to him my excitement. This is, after all, my first trip. I require a little hand holding. He suggests some dishes and, after leaving my table, steps up to a wood banquet that has a lid that lifts up like a child’s school desk. Inside hides the restaurant’s Point of Sale System. It’s clear that every detail, from the mirrored wall panels that allow guests unrestricted views of the room, to the perfectly baked sourdough bread, to the architectural details in the overhead lights, that every detail of the guests’ experience has been considered by the Chez Panisse family.
My appetizer of thin rounds of heirloom tomatoes topped with Bellwether farms ricotta, red onion and basil ($10.50) arrives quickly. The tomatoes are a mixture of red, pink and almost under ripe looking fruit that, when sliced, are clearly at the peak of perfection. Little jewels of soft creamy ricotta top the tomatoes along with vinegar kissed red onions, a muddle of basil and crushed black pepper corns. Each bite offers creamy ricotta, well integrated herbs that become a sauce with the sun warmed tomatoes and the bright acidity of the vinaigrette. This is one sexy California Caprese.
Daniel delivers Alice Water’s favorite wine, Domaine Tempier’s Bandol Rose ($16.25/glass). The wine smells of rose petals and Aix-en-Provence lavender and sparkles with orange zest freshness on the tongue. It is a perfect compliment to the Laughing Stock Farm Pork leg and belly with shell beans, rapini and sage ($22).
“This dish is almost like a classic Chez Panisse entrée, the way it’s made,” Daniel says as he presents the dish. I nod, like a dashboard mounted bobble head reacting to a bumpy road, as I take my first bite of the caramelized, salted cloud of pork belly. Past the salty crunch of the perfectly seared meat, it’s a pillow of pork belly fat that’s both light and rich. The pork leg is both dense and moist, with its tight meat and voluminous fattiness. The fresh shell beans–tongue of fire, trail of tears, black, and lima beans–are a revelation of flavor. The outer firmness of the hand shelled beans gives way to textured creaminess as each bite reveals the elemental protein structure of the beans.
As the dining room empties I order another entrée. I try the day’s pizzette in hopes of discovering how my beloved Nancy Silverton’s pizza dough measures up to Alice Waters’. Daniel delivers a glass of Roagna Dolcetto ($11.75/glass) to go with my wild nettle and mozzarella pizza. The simplicity of the oven roasted wild nettles plays against the creamy mozzarella. I can’t help but compare the Chez Panisse Cafe’s Pizzette to Pizzeria Mozza’s wet, almost alive foccia-styled dough. The Café’s pizza is dense and bready like a flour-dusted bialy.
After wrapping up the leftovers of my meal, Daniel winks at me as he delivers a copper bowl of fruit. I’ve heard stories from other diners about the fruit at Chez Panisse. My friend the very talented chef of Hatfield’s Restaurant, Quinn Hatfield, once told me how miffed he was when he was ser
ved a piece of fruit at the end of his meal. Then he bit into it. “it’s was the most ________’ing amazing peach I’ve ever tasted,” he told me with a smile. “Honestly, it was the best. And I’ve had a lot of fruit.”
With my first bite of the Flavor King pluot I am transported to another world. The tart skin gives with the easiest pressure and explodes with juice that tastes of marzipan and candied almonds. I’m grinning ear to ear as the juice drips down my arm and I treasure every bite until there is nothing left but a semi-naked seed.
Next to the plum, I am more restrained as I eat the teardrop sized green and sun red Flame grapes. Their sweet, palate cleaning sweetness and acidity goes perfectly with the herbal infusion of mint and lemon verbena. A perfect drink for a chilly San Francisco day.
By four o’clock, the dining room is nearly empty of diners and the cooks in their chef whites playfully elbow servers as they line up at the bar for a glass of wine. With the bar filled with happy employees with their shift drink in hand, I watch my brothers and sisters of the service industry bask in the glory of the end of the day’s service.
As I prepare to leave, Daniel offers to show me around. We pass the kitchen, glowing gold in the overhead lights, as a handful of chefs drink their wine and another cuts balls of dough for dinner service. Employees grab plates and enjoy the day’s staff meal of orecchette, wedges of watermelon and perfectly dressed organic greens. Daniel smiles at me. “Chez Panisse makes the best staff meal I’ve ever had.” Looking at the bounty before me–and remembering the frozen hot dogs, butter soaked pasta and mystery meat surprises I’ve eaten while working in restaurants–I nod in agreement. He’s absolutely right.
I can’t wait to go back.