Thursday, 13 May 2010

Chez Panisse - Berkeley, California

It seems, for the food enthusiast, that everywhere you turn in San Francisco Alice Waters gets a mention. Her name is almost eerily present and if you listen closely, you can hear it whispered through the cool Californian breeze everywhere from book stores, delis and farmers market. Ms Waters has most likely got signed books for sale on the counter too. A kicthen antique shop had a sign on the door reading "One of Alice Waters favourite shops". It seems the Waters seal of approval, whether official or not, is enough to draw in the crowds. I had planned to go and have lunch at Chez Panisse during my trip, but in my freewheelin' approach to holidays and travel I had neglected to make a booking. But we boarded a BART train from Montgomery and zipped along to Downtown Berkeley on the off chance of a walk in. We were surprisingly early and there was already a small queue almost an hour before they opened. We decided that rather than wait we would go and walk about some of the gargantuan University campus in Berkeley, it really is impressive.

We had no reservation but the old lady maitre'd greeted us with open arms and showed us to a table upstairs. I worried for a moment whether she would be okay to make it across the room without a zimmer-frame or walking stick but luckily she made it there without having to press her panic button and we were soon greeted by a very kind waitress who supplied the staples of water, bread and butter. It's quite dark inside Chez Panisse and considering the beautiful weather and vegetation around at first story height, all the windows have the shutters closed just that little bit too much. The age demographic seems to be the later side of 60 although the only other young person in the restaurant was a young girl of about twenty who wore socks and sandals. I said nothing but Mrs Lost in the Larder knew exactly what I had just noticed and pointed out that it was lunchtime on a Thursday which explained most of the pensioners but not socks and sandals. There's no excuse. They were pink socks too.

I took the roasted grass-fed beef bone marrow, toast with a salad of capers, parsley and celery. Fergus Henderson had just hosted a canape evening at Chez Panisse the night before and maybe this pre-empted a Chez Panisse version onto the menu, although the salad had too subtle an acidity to bite through the rich beef marrow. The marrow from my first bone was very nice but the middle was not quite as giving enough as I would have liked and the second bone of marrow was undercooked which I found to be a great shame as the taste of the more firm and undercooked, pale marrow was incredibly subtle compared with the much softer, brown-grey, roasted marrow which released a much richer, savoury taste. For my main course I had the house-made spaghetti with pesto and Riverdog sun dried tomatoes. It was superbly put together with the pesto and sun-dried tomatoes accentuated with salty peccorino shavings.

For dessert I had creamy light balls of honey ice cream with a slightly bitter tangerine sherbert and a syrupy confit of baby tangerines which was gorgeous.

I had a great house wine, the Chez Panisse Zinfandel red. It really was fantastic and before now I had not tried many Californian Zinfandel. This is a grape I plan to spend much more time on in future. I was very impressed.

When leaving Chez Panisse I was still puzzled as to why the place is so revered. Is it simply because no one else is doing what Alice Waters is? Alice Waters is said to have created and developed Californian cuisine, but what defines it to be Californian? It all seems very mediterranean to me. Don't get me wrong though, I had a great meal, in a wonderful restaurant, in a beautiful part of the world. But I would find it difficult to define the style of cooking as, "Californian Cuisine". Definitely worth the trip out from San Francisco and a welcome breath of fresh air from some of the restaurants in the city. Chez Panisse doesn't try to be anything too special, well at least I don't think it does. It's simple, seasonal, locally sourced food, cooked carefully in what looked to be a very calm, open plan kitchen. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse aren't just selling meals, they are selling a lifestyle, a whole new attitude to food for some and maybe this is why she is so cherished out here.


  1. Good food in the states is hard to come by, it's normally always too much and too bland, looks like you landed on the good side there..

  2. Hi!! It was so nice to meet you at the bookstore!

    So - California Cuisine - I don't think that anyone thinks that Chez Panisse is the best food you are going to get around, but more the idea that is important - exactly what you said - simple, seasonal, locally sourced food - but the key is that 30 years ago when she started Chez Panisse, people weren't doing that here.
    People were living off industrialized cheese products, orange tomatoes in the middle of the winter, etc - post-war we had lost a sense of food culture.

    Alice started a restaurant really as a place where she could go and eat at - the food she wanted to eat. She championed local growers, and set standards for good food. She's essentially crafting a story that needed to be shared. And well, now everyone has gone and copied her style - I think for the better. And these people may be more techically proficient cooks, but you still can go to Chez Panisse and have that quintessential meal where you know where everything comes from - that's still rare to find out here anywhere other than California. (Sad, really.)

  3. Thanks Sam. It is a shame more places don't share the same attitude towards provenance, but thankfully, following the example Alice Waters has set, there seems to be plenty of places in California that now do. One thing I loved about Chez Panisse is the completely laid back, relaxing atmosphere. We rolled up in jeans and t-shirt and didn't feel out of place at all. I would have been really very sorry if I had not made the trip over there whilst in town. Thank you for reminding me of the story behind Chez Panisse.

    Thank you also for your recommendations by the way. We didn't manage to make them all but Boccalone meat cones are one of my new favourite things and I have some salami's in my bag to take home to the UK. The only thing now, is that once I run out, I will be coming back for some more.

  4. California wines are the best in the world. Also UC Berkeley, my daughter's Alma mater, is truly a beautiful world class campus.