A month or two ago, my dad called and explained that he was coming up to surprise my brother for his birthday and that I needed to make plans. I asked "Can we go to Chez Panisse?" - I was expecting one of two answers: 1) Ha ha ha ha ha ha... and so forth and so on, or 2) Sure, if it's you're treat. Needless to say, I was elated when the answer was "Sure, just make the reservations." 6 Years ago my dad and I tried to get reservations at the restaurant when he came up to visit me in my freshman year at Cal. There were no seatings on such short notice, so instead we ended up going to Rivoli, which may have been a blessing in disguise. It is another of my favorite Berkeley restaurants. I digress. So I looked up on the web site that they have a policy that reservations can only be made one month in advance. So bright and early on March 21st, the day that we left for our Oregon Spring Break trip, I called. They open at 10am for reservations - by 10:13am, when I finally got past the busy signals, I was given a choice of 6:30 or 8:45. I took 8:45.
Finally. I had done it. I was going to Chez Panisse Restaurant for dinner. I have to admit, I have been to the Café twice. Both times I had amazing meals, one of which was with my brother.
April 21st arrived and Antonia and I set off to Berkeley from Davis. We were being lodged at the Claremont, so we went in there and checked in. Wow. I had been in the lobby to go to a function once, but never to the rooms. They are really nice. Cozy, but elegant. I went to Oakland airport to pick up my dad and Janeen. We got back from the airport, went to the restaurant for a pre-dinner drink. I got a glass of Trefethen dry Riesling. Ok, but a little bit on the hot side. I called my brother and set up a meeting time and then we got ready.
We get to the restaurant and tell them that we are here. They needed a few more minutes to set up, so we went upstairs and hung out by the bar until the table was ready.
It was time. We went through the velvet curtains in to the restaurant and were seated. What a beautiful room. Cozy, woody and warm. I was transported to liminal space. I looked over at the kitchen and it was a full 2 times as large as the dining room. How wonderful that disproportionate juxtaposition appeared. Our waiter Gianni came and introduced himself and started us of with an aperitif.
Aperitif: Citrus-ginger Prosecco
Citrus and ginger are flavors that are often found together in Eastern or East-West fusion cuisine. It was interesting to see them together in an aperitif, but it worked magically. The ginger was not overpowering, but stood up to the citrus. The prosecco gave a little bit of necessary sparkle.
Gianni came back and suggested a Sancerre for the fish and an Bandol for the lamb. I perused the wine list and went with his Sancerre suggestion but decided on a Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-de-Pape for the lamb. What a great decision that ended up being.
2004 Sancerre, La Croix du Roy, Lucien Crochet
Roasted tai snapper with celery root
The first course, fish, came out shortly after the wine. It was a perfectly cooked piece for snapper, simply presented with a celery and celery root puree. It was well-seasoned with a salty skin. The flesh was buttery and cooked impeccably well.
Spring vegetable ragout with morel mushrooms
It must be morel season. They had a big bowl of morels at the entrance to the dining room. Last time I came with my brother to the cafe, we had Campanelle with Morels and Peas. It was a great pasta dish and I gained an appreciation morels, now my second favorite Ascomycete to eat (after truffles). The dish came out in a very simple sauce. That was the theme of the evening: Simple Sauces. Nothing was over-sauced. The ingredients were the stars and nothing was going to detract from that. I have a lot of respect for that viewpoint of cuisine.
The red wine came out next and I was chatting with Gianni while he was opening the bottle. I asked how many of the wines he had tasted, as I wanted to find out what he thought of the Chehalem Dry Riesling which was on the list. He hadn't tasted them all, but explained that every week they have a class where the waiters can come and try the wines and listen to the director of their wine program. What a great experience.
2004 Chateauneuf-de-Pape, Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe
Grilled rack, loin and should of Watson Ranch lamb with roasted potatoes, spring onions and garden lettuces
With wine in hand, the lamb arrived. The CdP was great - A little bit reserved but full of berries with good acidity and nice tannins. If I come into some money, I may start buying this wine. The lamb was cooked rare - perfect for lamb. All of the lamb parts were great. I enjoyed the shoulder the most, I think. It had a little bit more fat than the rib chop and consequently was a little bit richer. All in all an wonderful dish that celebrated lamb.
While we were having dinner, Gianni brought over Jonathan Waters, the director of their wine program. We talked a little bit about wine and I told him I was a grad student in the V&E program at UC Davis. His advice to me was to go to a cool region to grow grapes on the west coast. I think that is a fine idea. It was great to meet someone who has been in that job for 20 years or so - he has seen a lot of wine and a lot of people and a lot of food go through that restaurant.
Bittersweet chocolate and strawberry gelato cassatta
Happy birthday! This was a playfully elegant interpretation of Neapolitan ice cream - chocolate strawberry and pistachio gelatos sandwiched together. It was rich and flavorful, but light at the same time. A great way to end the meal.
We had assorted dessert wines with dessert - a port, a banyuls and a French dessert wine that I cannot remember at the moment. It was the greatest meal that I have had to date. It is going to be hard to top, but I will always keep an open mind when comparing future dining experiences to this one.
Thank you to my dad for helping me realize a 6 year old dream and to my brother for having his birthday during morel season.