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 café 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?