Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Chez Panisse's Non-Glory

Houston Foodie just posted the list of the Global 50 Best Restaurants, which jogged a memory about my most recent meal at Chez Panisse. This, for you newbies, is Alice Waters’ formidable restaurant and cafĂ© in Berkeley, just east of San Francisco, and receives nearly constant attention as the original home of the local food movement.

Chez Panisse offers almost no choice in the menu. Waters and her staff design one fixed-price menu for the week, and that’s what they serve. You may select the vegetarian or pescatarian options, but there are no substitutions otherwise. Waters bases her courses on seasonal foods, relying almost entirely on fresh, local ingredients, rather than on technique. This is a great idea. In theory.

When I lived in San Francisco, I dined at Chez Panisse thrice, each time enjoying my meal immensely. I visited again this past March and had the complete opposite reaction. My gripe? The menu seemed fine in writing, but turned out flat in taste. Check it.

Course One: Tempura fried squid, calamari, and oysters. Sounds like something I might order regularly, so what’s the problem? It’s that I don’t go to Chez Panisse for fried seafood. Really, I don’t. So while this dish was very much OK, there were no fireworks. Like, at all.

Course Two: Vegetable soup. I love soups -- especially brothy ones -- and I loooove vegetables, but this one lacked flavor. Even *I* can figure out what’s in season, steam it, and add it to a bowl of flavored water. Hmmm. Still waiting to be impressed...

Course Three: Pork loin. What can go wrong here?! It’s PORK LOIN for Pete’s sake. Truth be told, this was the best dish of the evening, yet lacked a punch. Telling me that the meat is grass-fed, local, and organic can’t hide that it’s also cold and gristly.

Course Four: Apple turnover. Meh. But sure was pretty :)

Previous Chez Panisse experiences notwithstanding, this one left me flat angry. I’m all for fresh, local, and seasonal -- but not for plain and boring. Again, I’m glad you grew the vegetables in your own garden, but that’s not a silver lining when they don’t taste good. Monica Pope is an Alice Waters disciple, and she manages to embody the same philosophy without leaving her patrons hungry. Perhaps the student has become the teacher.

And this, my friends, is why I was surprised to see Chez Panisse occupying the 59th spot on the list.

A little long-winded for me, no?


Misha said...

I am starting to develop a theory that restaurants are all about momentum. My meals at restaurants not yet widely accepted as being "the best" are usually significantly better than those run by well known iconoclasts. It's a bit too simplistic to say that restaurants start to rest on their laurels, but you can definitely "taste" the effort the up and coming chefs put in to achieve upwards trajectory.

Note that French Laundry, where I had a less than memorable meal last year, has been taking a dive on the Top 50 list over the last few years. The meal was fine. It was just automatic. I suspect the decline in the food actually started before the tumble on the list.

The moral of this story is that these guides are loosely charted at best. Almost as the economists can only call recessions only when they are over, these lists recognize best restaurants only after they have already been cooking incredible food for years. And sometimes they get listed just as the restaurant begins begin their decline.

So choose a restaurant where the chef spent a lot of time working at a restaurant on one of these lists and now trying to make it on their own. You are much more likely to get a great meal.

On this SF trip I passed on Meadowood and Ubuntu in favor of a more universally acclaimed Cyrus. Big mistake. I hope my dinner at Coi tomorrow can salvage the trip.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to be confident about a blogger who says Chez Panisse offers a singe menu for a week, when we all know the menu changes daily.

Ruthie Johnson said...

Thanks for your comment. It is a single menu for the week. The same thing is not served every day, but there truly is one -- and only one -- menu for the week. You can see this week's version here: http://www.chezpanisse.com/pgdownmenu.html It does not change. That's what you get. No substitutions. However, I'm not sure what a singe menu is, so let me know if you need further clarification.

Anonymous said...

Well, of course I mistyped: I meant single menu, not singe menu. A menu is a list of courses. Each evening has its menu. Then there's the weekly menu, which is of six menus, one for each day (except Sunday, when the restaurant's closed). What you wrote originally was

"Waters and her staff design one fixed-price menu for the week."

That's misleading. A fixed-price menu is designed for each night -- with different prices, in fact, for end-of-week meals -- and all six menus are gathered in one place for the website posting.

Ruthie Johnson said...

Yes, I got that, oh brave anonymous commenter. I appreciate both the increased hit count and your feedback on the logistical content of my writing, but would prefer thoughts on its actual substance. If you have no confidence in my abilities as a food blogger, you're welcome to avoid. That's the thing about blogs.

Anonymous said...

I ate at Chez Panisse for the first time a few months ago (end of May). I was not disappointed. I would not say it was the best meal I ever had but it was up there in my ratings. There are going to be some menus that are not as outstanding as others or not as appealing to you individual palatte. So your experience will be flavored by that fact. The service was excellent. The setting impressive. I am an admitted sucker for craftsman details. My only regret is that I did not take more advantage of the situation and ask for a kitchen tour. Next time...

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Anonymous said...

I think I lost faith when looking at the picture of the "pork loin". Why is there a lamb chop on the plate?