June 2, 2008

California Part 3: Chez Panisse, Berkeley

Next stop on the California culinary tour: Berkeley, home of one of my idols Alice Waters and her beautiful Arts and Crafts style restaurant Chez Panisse.

The reasons for wanting to go there were many: I had never, ever been but had heard about it for as long as could say the word 'organic'. I love Alice and her philosophy, and admire her participation and involvement in the Slow Food movement, the farm to school programs, and as a pioneer of eating seasonally and locally. This from her website:

"Alice and Chez Panisse have become convinced that the best-tasting food is organically grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound, by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. ...The quest for such ingredients has largely determined the restaurant's cuisine. Chez Panisse has tried for years to make diners here partake of the immediacy and excitement of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. In doing so, Chez Panisse has stitched together a patchwork of over sixty nearby suppliers, whose concerns, like the restaurant's, are environmental harmony and optimal flavor."

I also knew the place would be a perfect example of what it means to take food --ingredients on their own--seriously. I knew that many people go to train in her kitchen before going on to open their own kitchens across the country. And, lastly, I was interested in seeing what the place would look and feel like. Would it be pretentious? Serious? Fun? Laid back? New age? So many expectations were swirling around in my head.

You can barely see the building for all the foliage that surrounds it. There is a tree that famously juts up through the courtyard at the entrance to the restaurant, as if heralding the confluence of nature and food, of beauty and nourishment. I wasn't the only one taking pictures either-- of the restaurant or of my food. A young Japanese couple were doing the same at the table next to us and I wondered if they, too, had a blog. Or were they just big Alice fans like me?

My friend Silvia, who lives with her family in Berkeley --one of the reasons for my visit-- had taken me earlier that day to see the Edible Schoolyard, Waters' project in which children at a local middle school learn how to grow, harvest, and prepare their own seasonal produce.

It was a beautiful reminder of what can be done when people such as Alice who are passionate about their ideals apply that to the community in which they live, creating much more than just a restaurant. Just like Chez Panisse heralded a revolution in the food industry back in the early 70s, this project has given rise to others like it all over the country. It made me wonder if something like that couldn't happen in my neighborhood in Nashville.

[... Speaking of ideals, Silvia had also taken me that day to one of the coolest places on Earth: The Cheese Board on Shattuck Ave. It's a bakery, an impressive gourmet cheese shop and a pizzeria all in one. The place is run as a collective in which every member is an owner and there is no hierarchy; everyone makes the same wage, regardless of status or seniority.

Not only was it a place with tons of integrity and heart (hippies notwithstanding), but the bread and the pizza I tried were some of the best I've had anywhere. Only one type of pizza is made each day and it's so good and so well-known that the line forms and goes around the corner before 11:00 a.m. We got lucky and didn't have to wait and were treated to two slices fresh corn, onion, mozzarella, feta and cilantro-pesto pizza that blew my socks off. I hadn't had pizza that good in Italy!

But back to our much-awaited dinner. Silvia and her husband, Paul, were able to join me, having secured Silvia's father ("nonno" who was visiting from Italy) as babysitter for their two adorable children.

(aka the cutest family ever)

(We ate in the café upstairs but I peeked in at the restaurant downstairs and was blown away with how the kitchen literally sits inside the dining room so you can watch everything and there was an exciting buzz of diners, servers, cooks and food frenzy, all in a very controlled environment.

On the café menu that night were such amazing sounding things that I really had a very hard time deciding what to order. It's a good thing my friends are patient and know me by now and don't mind sharing bites with the crazy person taking photos and stuffing menus in her purse.

My starter was the Riverdog Farm asparagus salad with hazelnuts and prosciutto (I unfortunately could do nothing about the lighting)

and we also shared the Blue Heron Farm Little Gems lettuce with cream, garlic, and bottarga di muggine (grey mullet roe) that was dried and then grated over the salad. Delicious. I have to say, I was not a fan of the bottarga until then. It tasted like a salty hard cheese, but one that had a fishy essence. Just trust me.

And the asparagus was as wide as a cigar, no kidding. And as tasty as any I've had, except the one pulled out of the ground at Tana's farm.

For my main course, I had the Northern halibut with green beans, beets and aioli (again, so fresh and so REAL).

What I mean by this is that the vibe really was all about the ingredients. The presentation was as simple as can be. No squeeze bottle swirls or stacked food here. And no heavy sauces or huge portions. Just perfect.

Silvia had the Farro pasta with Soul Food Farm chicken and morel mushroom ragu. And Paul had the Grilled Laughing Stock pork leg with peas, carrots, fried shoestring potatoes and sage. (No, I did not take pictures of their food from across the table. I do have some scruples).

For dessert, we shared a Brooks cherry tart with vanilla bean ice cream.

When I say to you that this tart was as simple as a flaky thin almondy crust with tangy sweet cherries in their own syrup, I mean it. That's it. Yet it tasted like Nirvana. Nirvana å la mode.

This was the kind of meal that makes you actually feel lighter than you did before you ate it. The freshness and the simplicity, the quality of the ingredients and their expert, no-nonsense presentation was about the best way to experience "California cuisine" I know of. After dinner we walked back home where and talked and sipped "nocino" (a home-brewed digestif made from walnuts) that Silvia's friend in Italy had made. It was a wonderful ending to a very full and fun day in Berkeley.


  1. how nice for you
    it sounds like the perfect place...

    i've always wanted to go

  2. well, how nice to hear the story and see the pictures... I will send it to the nonno, and to Alessandra (the nocino maker)! Next time you are in Berkeley, we'll take you to Oliveto...