SF: Chez Panisse (in Berkeley, CA) (June 2013)
Exec Chef: Alice Waters
Date: June 29, 2013
I’d been here only once beforehand, it was several years ago with two of my best friends from growing up. It was amazing then, and I fondly remember their baked alaska with strawberry ice cream as being my favorite dessert ever. The meringue was so soft and chewy like a marshmallow, and I had never in my life liked strawberry ice cream before but Chez Panisse’s made me have that Ratatouille moment where my eyes glistened and I was mentally transported to a sunny field of strawberries. These memories had built really high expectations that I had to keep curbing, the giddy kid in me to be undoubtedly disappointed unless I gave him reality checks.
Luckily, it was a great experience. Alice Water’s pioneering of local organic food has always been admirable and I never fully appreciated it until I moved to New York. The fresh ingredients truly shine and make the dining experience a thoughtful one.
A livery, sweet, and slightly tart (from the fruit compote) amuse, it kicked off the meal wonderfully.
House-smoked King Salmon Salad with Basil and Summer Vegetables Sott’aceto
This dish was so light and refreshing, it was a great summer salad. The dressing was pleasantly sour, the lettuce very fresh and crisp, and the salmon was tender but meaty. The sweet plump tomatoes added an additional depth to the dish with every burst in the mouth.
Lasagna Verde Al Forno With Morel Mushrooms
I always think of Garfield when I eat lasagna, but this one would probably actually make that fat cat lose weight somehow. It’s absolutely the lightest lasagna I’ve ever had, it’s amazing. Still richly flavored, the lasagna tasted so fresh and left a slightly bitter/grassy aftertaste that mellowed out as the sweet cream overcomes the initial aftertaste. The morels added a deep earthy flavor, and were extremely tender as well. And all the while, I felt like I hadn’t eaten anything that would make me balloon into a pork bun. One of the best lasagnas I’ve had, ever.
After the previous amazing dishes, this one felt like a bit of a letdown. It was still really good, but I thought that the duck could have been more tender and that fruit element of the dish would’ve worked better with a sweeter fruit than apricot, which was quite tart. I know great apricots are supposed to be sweet and tangy, and this one was certainly a good apricot, but I think my taste buds just would’ve preferred l’orange. Still, it’s a great interpretation of a classic dish. Just not as mindblowing as the lasagna.
A great chocolate cake ended the evening, and was superbly made – but yet I was still disappointed. I’m getting spoiled, but I was really wishing that the particular time of the year would’ve yielded fantastic summer fruits for a fruit-based dessert. I discovered saturn/donut peaches and they’re insanely sweet, I wish Chez Panisse’s famed organic local products would’ve produced something along those lines. No matter, this cake was excellent, no doubt. Anyone with a chance to eat here should definitely take it – it’s an important institution that maintains its great tradition of cooking.