Wednesday, April 9, 2008

chez panisse

asparagus with brown butter and garden lettuces, spit-roasted pork loin, rhubarb tart a la mode… nothing fancy, simply good food. that’s what a satisfying meal is all about, and that’s what we had at an old wood house on a busy street in berkeley, california, which was known to be the birthplace of california cuisine, on a monday evening – the second day since we arrived in the bay area.

simple is the key word here at chez panisse – 2 seatings, one fixed menu (which changes daily), every day. we booked the second seating at 8:30pm so we won’t feel like having to rush through the courses (and also allow us time for an afternoon nap before dinner to overcome the jet lag) monday dinner menu is a 3-course fare (as opposed to 4 other days of the week and $10 cheaper).

according to wikipedia, california cuisine was defined as “a style of cuisine marked by an interest in fusion – integrating disparate cooking styles and ingredients – and in freshly prepared using local ingredients.”. at chez panisse, all ingredients inside a dish are seasonal, fresh, organic and locally-produced. if asked, the waiters can easily tell you which ranch their pigs were raised, or which farm they picked the asparagus from (and when). speaking of knowledgeable staff.

we were lucky to have seated right outside the open kitchen – that enabled us to see the full action as dishes after dishes were delivered right off it and we got a good smell too all evening long. the dishes were simply divine – there’s nothing on them that made you scratching your head thinking what they were, but they just came together in perfect harmony and made you wish you could do half as good in your own kitchen at home. the freshness of that asparagus dish we had for the first course still lingers in my mouth – well, those who know me know i don’t say so highly over a vegetarian dish often, if ever. so that must mean something.

yes, simplicity is still the name, but all the dishes were nicely presented too – yet there’s no extra garnishes that were put there just for the sake of it. wine list is straight forward and not intimidating (i.e. not expensive or overpriced or anything). we matched the food with a 2005 pinot from navarro vineyards up in sonoma. innovations also came in small ways at chez panisse -for example, the restaurant is among the first to serve carbonated filtered tap water instead of bottled one, out of environmental concerns. trust me, it all tasted the same, and hey it’s on the house too. when will this free tap water movement ever come to hong kong?

and another magical moment that we observed - all around chez panisse you only saw happy faces – whether that be old couples celebrating birthday (or anniversary or whatever), man and woman on a date, family gatherings, college students having a nice night out with friends, or people enjoying their vacation and california sunshine (that would be us) – laughter was filling the entire place with occasional woos and wahs as dishes arrived at each table and people started eating. even the wait staff and chefs – the night we went it happened to be one of the staff’s birthday, and the pastry chef made a tart for her and we could all see them celebrating inside the kitchen, singing “happy birthday” and enjoying a cheer. well, if you see only happy faces in the kitchen, you know the food simply can’t go wrong.

when many has turned to “forward-thinking” ideas of molecular gastronomy or turning ingredients and cooking methods upside down in search of a perfect dish, alice waters’ outpost in this college town across from san francisco bay bridge reminded us strongly that good food simply shouldn’t be that complicated and should be enjoyed by all. it’s so right 30 years ago when she first opened its door; it’s still so right now.

in many ways, chez panisse reminded me of m at the fringe, the old stable in hong kong’s dining scene which happens to be my perennial favorite – is it the similarity of background of their respective owners? the décor? or is it simply the common passion and commitment that they shared to serve good food to customers, day in and day out?

when? april 7 2008
where? chez panisse, 1517 shattuck avenue, berkeley, ca
occasion? vacation
menu highlights? fresh picked cannard farm asparagus with brown butter and garden lettuces
drinks? 2005 anderson valley pinot noir, navarro vineyards

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