Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dinner at Chez Panisse

If the menu at your favorite American restaurant mentions that the cooks use local or seasonal ingredients, you have Alice Waters, and her imagination-child, Chez Panisse, to thank. Over thirty-five years ago, Alice wanted to recreate for her friends here at home what she fell so in love with during her visits to the French countryside ~ food that tasted good because the ingredients were harvested within hours of being eaten, food that was indicative of the region where you ate it, and food that actually tasted like the chicken, green bean, or cheese that it was. And at that time in America there was no framework for such a restaurant venture.  Alice started talking with the farmers in her area, farmers at the farmers' market, and buying produce and meat directly from their farms and ranches.  It just so happened that not only did these transactions bring her the finest, freshest, ripest, tastiest, most beautiful ingredients day by day, they also created relationships that supported those farmers, the local community and economy ~ and the local environment, because it also happens that the tastiest foods are (wild, or) the ones raised with the greatest care.  Once she realized these connections, and got the restaurant more or less off the ground, Alice took her revolutionary idea to the streets ~ to middle schools where kids now raise their own gardens and use those ingredients to make their own meals, to colleges where the cafeteria uses local organic produce in the menu, to the White House.  She joined forces with Old World purists who resisted giving up their heritage of small local seasonal foodways in the first place.  (Which dips into the Slow Food Movement ~ another, connected, story in itself.) 
That, in a very tiny, Tiffanie-summary nutshell, is the story of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse (learned in large part from the recent biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse).  And that is why this woman and her restaurant are iconic in my Pantheon of Good, Real Food.  ([Jaded] locals might tell you different stories, but this is mine and I think it's a good one.) 
Chez Panisse is literally right around the corner from our little sunny house in Berkeley.  I pass by it, and its posted weekly menu (every day different), several times a week in my sidewalk comings and goings.  The building is a house, set off from the sidewalk, and shaded by huge old trees.  The sign is incorporated into a wooden archway which is weather-worn and unobtrusive. To eat in the "dining room" at Chez Panisse (there is the a la carte Cafe' upstairs, and the set-menu dining room downstairs) you must call to make reservations a month ahead ~ to the day ~ of when you wish to dine; they don't take reservations any earlier than that, and later than that = you won't get a seat.  Gyrlene is a *much* better researcher and planner on that level than either Mr. Sealion or I, so her birthday was the first time we had good enough reason, and plans enough in advance, to partake in the dining room at Chez Panisse.
Gyrlene and I had heard so much about this place, and had waited so long for the opportunity to eat there, that on that night, we attempted not to be too anticipatory.  But I must admit I was a child ~ with my senses on all the way, not wanting to overlook a single detail ~ before I even walked under that wooden archway.  
The dinner at Chez Panisse was well worth the hype we had heard, and our expectation.  The ambiance of the place was perfectly warm ~ it did not have that holier-than-thou expensive "fine" restaurant feel.  People seemed casual, yet festive.  The room, as opposed to being primly hushed, was almost loud with laughter and conversation.  The service was warm, informative, and attentive, but not stifling or rushed.  And the lighting made everything and everyone look good. 
Birthday Gyrl and Mackindaddy.
Sealion and Mr. Ro-Jo.
The kitchen, well in view of all of the tables, where the staff calmly assembled masterpiece-after-masterpiece. Those are fava beans in the pedestaled bowl, and bread in the basket. 
The meal started with an aperitif that I enjoyed tasting, and then passed to Senorita Birthday Girl.  Each course was artfully yet organically arranged.  I was actually surprised by how big the portions were; very early on I had to pace myself so that I would have room to try it all (and room for dessert!).  Of all the different flavors and textures and fine pairings, my favorites were the very airy fried onion rings and fava beans that adorned the fish course, and the handful of dainty lettuces (on that same dish?) which exploded with flavor upon touching my tongue ~ they seemed fresher-than-straight-from-the-garden.  Inspirational ~ and that's not even preparation, but just how delicious mindfully raised and selected produce can be.  
We were not yet done with our main course when the server brought our neighbors their dessert.  The smell of the chocolate from that cake was overwhelming, seductive, penetrating ~ and distracting!  The rest of our meal seemed like a challenge in patience until that final plate arrived.  To eat it, it was melt-in-your-mouth moist and warm, and the taste was the embodiment of chocolate.  Gyrlene and I took one bite, and looked at each other in awe and worship.  She said, "This is orgasmic."  I said, "I must take a photo for Woo." (Woo is my chocolate dessert authority.  She's not scared.)  
If you've eaten a meal with me, you can imagine ~ I still had another half-hour of slowly savoring bite-for-bite after everyone else at my table had devoured theirs.  I couldn't finish the cherries.  You can see, the piece of cake was not that large, but I couldn't have eaten a bite more (though I would have tried!).
It was a perfectly memorable evening ~ best friends, great conversation, gorgeous atmosphere, superior food.  I was pleasantly filled to capacity.  As a memento of this First, I bought myself a signed copy of the newest book by Alice Waters:  The Art of Simple Food.  It's my bedtime story this week.  Highly recommended; a little bit of philosophy, a whole lot of practical advice, how-to, and good recipes.  I will end this salute by quoting the "fundamental guidelines" listed on the back cover ~
"Eat locally & sustainably
Eat seasonally
Shop at farmers' markets
Plant a garden
Conserve, compost & recycle
Cook simply
Cook together
Eat together
Remember food is precious".

amen and bon appetit!

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