Finally we get to eat at Chez Panisse.
Ever since moving to Cali, I have taken a greater interest in eating locally sourced produce and goods. By establishing relationships with local farmers, not only are we helping to stablize our local economy, but we can better understand where our food comes from. Now, I wish I could take credit for the local food movement, but these ideas have actually been around for quite some time.
A preview of the dessert offerings.
Alice Waters established Chez Panisse in 1971 with just with those thoughts in mind. She believes that the best food is locally, sustainably, organically farmed by people who take care of the land. She also wanted to make her guests feel like they were at a friends dinner party, where they can feel comfortable and taken care of.
Summer squash salad with toasted pine nuts, mint, and pecorino.
After planning a month in advance, I set out with AJ and my parents in tow to experience Alice Waters cooking. Reservations are available a month in advance, and a month in advance is when they fill up. I called as soon as the restaurant opened in the morning and dialed repeatedly for an hour until I finally got through to a real person. The earliest they could seat me was 8:45pm. They certainly aren't feeling the effects of the recession.
Chez Panisse is divided into a downstairs dining room, which serves a 4 course pre fixe menu, and an upstairs cafe, allowing diners to choose items a la carte. We got reservations upstairs and were seated in a homey booth with an excellent view of the open kitchen.
Avocado and beet salad with lemon vinagrette.
The worn wooden benches certainly reminded you how long Chez Panisse has been around. The warm wooden decor and the baskets of produce and racks of fresh desserts certainly make one feel at home.
Mixed greens with goat cheese.
We all chose salads to start. My mom was absolutely in love with her avocado and beet salad. The creamy avocados were the perfect vessels for the sweet, slightly crunchy beets. The pungent garlic, and acidic lemon vinegrette provided the perfect foil. I ended up replicating this salad a couple nights later, it was that good.
AJ ordered the mixed greens and goat cheese salad. Simple with large chunks of cheese, AJ could not have been happier. My dad and I ordered the summer squash salad. The extremely fresh mint really brightened this dish. The salads are an exemplary microcosm of the restaurant. Composed with only a few ingredients, the attention is focused on the quality and pairing of ingredients.
Our table had a great view of the kitchen.
For the entree I ordered the house made spaghetti with Louisiana gulf shrimp and tomatoes. I was curious to understand why Chez Panisse would use Louisiana gulf shrimp, when there motto seems to be "local and organic". What I forgot to take into account is Chez Panisse's dedication to sustainable farming. This would explain the tender gulf shrimp. The shrimpy broth was sweetened further by the tomatoes and perfectly cooked pasta.
AJ ordered the leg of lamb with fennel mashed potatoes and green beans. The olive tapenade brought out the earthiness of the lamb. While the lamb was good, the fennel mashed potatoes were really excellent - creamy, buttery, with just a slight hint of licorice.
Homemade spaghetti with Lousiana gulf shrimp and tomatoes.
My mom worked as a manager at an Italian restaurant in the Valley when she was younger, and she has always held a spot in her heart for eggplant parmesan. While this may not compare to Leonard's thinly sliced version, she really enjoyed the flavors of the cheese, eggplant, and tomato.
Lamb with olive tapenade, green beans, and fennel mashed potatoes.
Seared tuna with corn and tomato salsa.
My dad's tuna was an example of where the accompaniment may have stolen the show. The corn and tomato salsa was extremely fresh and bright. The oversalted fish fell a little flat in comparison.
Cozy Cafe Area.
While I felt very full, especially with two glasses of wine inside of my tummy, I couldn't resist ordering dessert. AJ and I got the nectarine tart with creme fraiche ice cream. Nectarines are practically overflowing from our local farmer's market, and so I was glad to see this ripe fruit in a starring role. The warm fruit went perfectly with a dollop of rich ice cream.
Panna cotta with fresh strawberries.
Nectarine Tart with creme fraiche ice cream.
My ordered the panna cotta with strawberries, an interesting play on strawberries and cream. In some ways our beginning and end to the meal overshadowed our entrees.
What a lovely dinner with my parents.
Chez Panisse does a great job of creating simple dishes with fresh, local, and sustainable ingredients. While they don't always wow you with technique or presentation, the flavors are what will keep you coming back. The one criticism I have to offer is in regards to the service. Our wait staff took quite some time taking our order and even longer bringing it to the table. They failed to check up on us regularly. For a restaurant of this stature, you would hope they would welcome new guests with the same vigor as regulars.
Despite the service, I still think Chez Panisse has a lot to offer, and I intend to come back, even if only for appetizers and dessert.