This was one of the most difficult posts I’ve written or attempted to write in some time. When Chez Panisse is the topic du jour, there is so much to be said. Anyone who has heard me talk about Chez Panisse has willingly engaged in an impassioned (at least) 5 minute soliloquy to what has become one of my favorite restaurants ever.
The problem is I already wrote a very long love song for the restaurant. That was back in June when they were in the midst of their 40-Year Anniversary summer of celebrations. In fact, I was so inspired to write about the significance of that particular milestone, that inkling became a de facto launch of the Nopalize blog. I digress, but suffice to say I feel strongly. In the original love song, my last words were: when I make my next trip, I will do so in awe and gratitude.
That was back in the early days of summer and that’s where I left it. It ended up happening on Halloween, but was set in motion the day before. Xandre, my friend, neighbor and fellow manager (of late, I’ve randomly taken to calling him my “co-conspirator”) and I have the same schedule. Sunday is our Friday and we always check in to see what the other has on the radar.
When the question was posed last Sunday, I said Chez Panisse. It was weird because I didn’t have any firm plans to go there, nor had I spoken it aloud. It was just a feeling that it was time. And it spilled out of me. Xandre laughed and said that he’d been planning the same. It was enough of a coincidence to validate our unspoken, mutual beckoning to North Berkeley. For both of us, the summer was filled with lots of reading and ideas shared about the local food movement. I guess a meal at Chez Panisse just felt like the right way to close out the season. We were joined by a friend of ours who is a cook at Piccino (actually I joined them).
I really want to tap into our state of mind before this meal. It was somewhere between preparing for great theater and going to visit to shrine or spiritual center. This, you could argue, is an unfair advantage for the restaurant. After all, if your dinner patrons enter carrying that type of aura, there is a pretty wide and elastic threshold for positive guest experience because people are just so happy to be there.
In the States, only the French Laundry has this type of a “Mecca” vibe. Even with infinite dollars and ingenuity, this is an impossible effect to manufacture. Almost everyone who walks in has been coached to some degree on the significance of the restaurant. It is very hard to walk under the ancient trees and red bricks and not be affected.
It is the equivalent of the “willing suspension of disbelief” in theater. In order to fully appreciate the production, it is best to prepare the mind for the experience. It requires imagination and awe, but that doesn’t make it a crutch, or prerequisite. If Chez Panisse consistently failed to deliver memorable experiences, in time, they would be exposed. But for maximum impact, I am of the opinion that it is healthy, and in fact, part of the Chez Panisse experience to enter with some measure of reverence.
Pappa al Pomodoro. The early stages of love.
Now I will close my eyes and recount one of the best nights of dining I have ever experienced. Our dinner was upstairs in the cafe. We were quickly shown to the back of the cafe, in what is best described as a tree house. It is a tiny adjacent dining room corner with windows abound. It is a cozy little nook that exuded warmth and dinner-party comfort. On a perch just above the courtyard, we were surrounded by green. It was fun to imagine this elegant proceeding on the branch of the 100-year Araucaria evergreen.
There are lots of photos from the evening, but for some reason I didn’t save our menu. Since I usually write 1,000 words to go along with the picture anyhow, it’s probably for the best.
So back to it. Once again, this story picks up from the night before. A newly established regular diner left me a gift. His name is Micah Joseph Wirth and he is the co-founder and winemaker for Joseph Jewell wines. It turns out that he is a really good one too. He left us a bottle of Humboldt County pinot noir rosé from Prarie Ranch. I was caught off guard by its beauty. It was a perfectly constructed rosé; ripe and dense, with a freshness that was accented by herbs and acid. It was the best domestic rosé I’ve had in a long time. The fortune of this night multiplied from this point onward.
Before the slideshow, the last thing I will quickly mention is our server, Sarah. Sarah (or actually, could be Sara) was the perfect host. She deserves an entire entry. Perhaps one day I will write a post all about excellent service and it will be all about Sarah. Right timing, warm, graceful, professional, knowledgeable, etc. As Xandre said, “her service was like a big hug”. We loved her.
Now for some pictures.
Opener: Bellwether Farms Ricotta with spicy herbs, broccoli di cicco, pine nuts, Nardello Peppers and capers.
This is the food I love most. Crispy Liberty Duck, also crispy polenta cake, green beans, mixed greens and Barhi dates.
One of the highlights of the night: a beautiful plate of Hog Island clams, herbed saffron broth and grilled bread. So, so good.
Grilled Lamb Leg from Elliot Ranch, kale, gratin and I think olives and raisins… We drank it with 2008 Dard and Ribo Syrah and I may or may not have cried. It was love. All love.
After drinking wine for the last 7 and half years, sometime in 2011 I decided that Syrah was my favorite grape. I have always been a firm believer in appreciating individual qualities of a grape for what they are and why they are that way based on where they’re from. But after tasting transformational syrah (Salinia, Arnot Roberts, Peay, Wind Gap, etc) from California, coupled with my ongoing love affair with Northern Rhone, I decided this year that no one grape brings me as much pleasure and intrigue as the perfumed rouge chameleon. How can something be exotic? Who knew the scent of violets and smoked meat could coexist so harmoniously?
The bottle in this picture smells and tastes of no other wine. It is a complete original. You really have to taste it to appreciate. My words would be lost on this wine other than to offer that its bouquet alone (of fresh flowers and herbs) is reason enough to discover this producer. It was the third bottle of the night, ordered with lamb in mind. The decision to go forth on this elevated the dinner into a rarefied space for me of all time great dinners.
My favorite dessert of the evening. Bittersweet chocolate pavé with burnt caramel ice cream. It’s even better than it looks.
There were a few major takeaways from this meal. I am reminded that just like in life, in eating, sometimes the stars align and everything is perfect. You can feel it from the second it begins, or on the ride over, or even a fortuitous recognition that one of your best friends had the same idea for dinner. I thought about this a lot.
Evidence of merriment
We closed down the place, so after the other diners had taken off, we walked around and looked at menus from years past. Menus on top of menus that cover the walls upstairs. I got emotional looking back at all of the decades of magical nights-like the one we were having- and thinking of how many people have been impacted by Chez Panisse in this way. I thought about the many different hands, heads and hearts the went into those menus. That part is unseen, and rarely considered, but I relish it. It makes me think of love. There is so much love required to push onward and create a place like that, and a place like that is created through the love of the many people who played a role in creating those menus. That includes farmers, chefs, artists (for the ones that made the wall, each menu is beautifully and uniquely designed) and servers, like Sarah who has been there for six years, doing what she loves.
This also happened to be the last night for David Tanis, the Chef. In what was public knowledge for some months now, he left to focus completely on his career in writing. He’s written two cookbooks, has two more on the way, and has a weekly column in the New York Times. There was a going away party for him and the ending of our dinner spilled in to the beginning of their goodbyes. In retrospect, it was kind of a big moment in their history as David has been around there since the 80’s. Even though completely by coincidence, it felt cool to be there. Lots of beautiful music and electric moments in this time. People said their goodbyes and soon after we did too.
I walked away overcome with joy and gratitude. I was grateful for people who do what they love and the work that love produces. And that love begets inspiration to see and make more love. The walk in to Chez Panisse reverberated hallowed grounds. But the feeling of overwhelming love on the walk out, that was far more powerful. That is how I will remember this night.