Gastrotemple is the first word I heard to describe Alice Waters gift to dining, Chez Panisse. I had always wanted to go (for over a decade in fact), but it wasn’t until my third trip to San Francisco that I made the trek across the Bay to find out what all the fuss was about.
There were some small dramas in getting there, but once we were walking in downtown Berkeley it was pleasant. The streets are clean and bright; the area quaint; and the college brings a certain ambience in itself.
Inside, following the stairs up to the cafe, you are no longer in college but have graduated to the big leagues. The patrons are nicely dressed, and Alice greets you on arrival. Dark wood, sleek designs and the warmth of the sun fills the room which is rectangular with pockets at the front overlooking the street and the back a little more intimate.
The service is all rounded and reflective of experienced staff who are comfortable in their surrounds. I guess it is the epitome of gliding around a room.
For lunch, you have a choice of around 6-7 starters and the same of entrees (mains in this part of the world). There are also several desserts. What initially strikes you is the pricing; extremely divergent from what you would expect. It seems being 30 minutes out of town has its perks after all.
Catherine chose the avocado, heirloom beets and purslane (a watercress looking leaf) for starters and the king salmon for entree. I decided on the smoked duck breast and the rabbit.
The genius of Chez Panisse is its inventiveness across several decades. It led (and in a sense continues to define) the movement to seasonal and regional. The menu changes constantly and what I expected was very fresh and vibrant food with shining ingredients being beautifully represented in their best light.
We got what I expected. Catherine’s starter was divine. The avocado delicious, but the star was the roasted beets in varying colours, shapes and sizes, which were all amazing. My smoked duck breast was finely sliced but had a powerful flavour that allowed it to shine alongside “Bob’s rocket” dressed in a mustard seed vinaigrette and tarragon that added serious flavour. The pickled cauliflower and carrot was a great accompaniment too.
The Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit was fantastic. Served on a bed of sweet corn and beans, with a rich giblet gravy that lifted the dish. The more succulent pieces of the rabbit were the best I’ve had. Catherine’s Californian king salmon was served quite rare; again capturing the flavour perfectly as if it had jumped out of the Bay. The herb sauce alongside fennel, ginger, cress and radishes was a great match but the salmon was king.
Dessert showed huge promise by this stage and we eagerly anticipated the bittersweet chocolate bave with caramel ice cream, and the Frog Hollow apricot galette with chantilly cream. Again, central ingredients shone and the quite technical desserts were excellent, but not the stars of the three courses. The highlight of dessert had to be the apricots and the pastry of the galette was perfect.
The wine selection is nice and easy with a single page dedicated to wines by the glass or bottle. We enjoyed the wines but the Madeira to finish was the only one to write home about.
Finishing off with an espresso may have been my only misfortune (not terrible but should be better) but on the flip side, Catherine’s peppermint tea was incredible – filled with more mint than several mojitos!
Looking around the room at the diverse, but certainly older than college age, patrons, you could tell there was a good mix of tourists and regulars. Though, the enormous enjoyment of the dining experience here was the most consistent theme.
It is one thing to start something incredible but another to maintain its relevance over decades and decades. I love this restaurant because I have wanted to go there for a long time and the build up in expectation wasn’t just matched, it was eclipsed. I was close to shedding a tear at one stage and I have now shed it writing this review.