Chez Panisse Cafe – Berkeley

I went to Chez Panisse Cafe with expectations that were both high and muted. Chez Panisse and Chez Panisse Cafe are, of course, Alice Waters’s bastions of local, organic, sustainably harvested food, and they are known for seemingly simple dishes that let the flavors of the food speak for themselves (though even simple dishes can require involved preparation). This is a very difficult standard, and from what I’d read online, quite a few diners have left unimpressed recently.

For the most part, though, I found that it delivered. I didn’t fall in love with it, but it’s a restaurant worth visiting if you can manage it… because you never know when you’ll stumble upon a plate of genius.

Panisse Pizzetta

Case in point: my Pizzetta with Wild Nettles and Pecorino was fantastic. The leafy nettles were the kind of crispy that slightly breaks and dissolves on your tongue, and reveals its hearty, slightly bitter taste. The wood burning oven did wonderful things to the crust, too — light, crispy, chewy. And the cheese, studded with some sauteed red onion, brought it all together for a great flavor. I can only wonder if the Pizzetta with Tomato Sauce, Anchovy, Olives, Capers, and Egg was just as amazing.

Panisse Goat

Chad’s Baked Sonoma Goat Cheese with Garden Lettuces was a perfect rendition of this classic salad, with every bite of the goat cheese filling your mouth with a luscious creaminess.

Panisse Chicken

I had mixed feelings about my Hoffman Farm Chicken Al Mattone with Wild Rocket and Morel Mushrooms. I’d ordered it with visions of whole morels dancing in my head, but the morels turned out to be badly chopped up and with so many stem bits that I had to ask whether they were all morels (they were). “Al mattone” is an Italian term for a method of cooking the chicken with a brick on top of it (or in this case, a skillet). It fosters a crispy skin and a juicy meat. The skin was mostly crispy — and nice where it was — and the meat was juicy to the point of the juices being a bit too viscuous for me.

Panisse Lamb

Chad’s Grilled Dal Porto Ranch Lamb Shoulder with Fava Beans, Rosemary, and Sage was disappointing because the lamb was stringy and dry, with a blah flavor. The sauce, however, was amazing, and a slice of toasted bread that sat in it was the treasure of the plate.

Panisse Rhubarb

After my devotion to recipes in Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Remolif Shere and David Lebovitz‘s cookbooks, I was a little apprehensive about dessert going wrong after our shaky main courses, but I figured that even at the worst, I could say that I’ve had their desserts better at home. I needn’t have worried — they were wonderful. My Rhubarb and Pecan Crisp with Meyer Lemon Ice Cream was perky and refreshing, and an especially nice flavor combination. Chopped walnuts in it worked well, too.

Panisse Pave

Chad got the Bittersweet Chocolate Pave with Earl Grey Ice Cream… or rather, Earl Grey Whipped Cream (either the menu writer or a pastry cook slipped up). The pave was a great little cake that, as far as I can tell, was flourless. It went more towards a slightly dense dry souffle (in a good way) than a very dense flourless choc cake. It was a satisfying chocolate dessert that didn’t feel too overpoweringly rich.

Panisse Grape

I also liked their bar menu, which included an eclectic “Juice & Milk” section. It was not only fun to order “A Biodynamic Grape Juice, please,” it tasted good, too. It was a Mosta d’Uva Biodynamic Grape Juice, Guerzoni, Modena, Italy, which had a robust, almost musty taste that made me forget all about wine. I would also have been curious to try the 2005 Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer Grape Juice. I think it’s great to have an interesting selection of drinks that lets relatively little drivers like me enjoy a complex beverage without getting tipsy.

Overall Note about Plating: I’ve become less and less interested in painstakingly arranged plates, so Chez Panisse Cafe was a welcome change in a way, but some dishes looked a little bit too thrown on the plate (the crisp) and the one that was more arranged looked kind of weird (the pave); plus, our main courses looked almost identical at a glance. Somewhere, I’ll find a happy plating medium.

By the way, Chez Panisse Cafe is upstairs from Chez Panisse, and has an a la carte menu that is pretty reasonably priced. I called about a 1.5 weeks in advance for a Friday night reservation for Chez Panisse, but it was full so to the Cafe we went.

2 Responses to “Chez Panisse Cafe – Berkeley”

  1. lizelle Says:

    i’ve been wanting to go here for a VERY LONG TIME ( : glad to hear your 2 cents!

  2. Nina Says:

    Thanks 🙂 You should check it out — I think it’s worth it, especially if you get a pizzetta or dessert. 🙂

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