Monday, January 21, 2008

A Meal at the Chez Panisse Cafe

First came the oysters.

My principal taste of the famed Chez Panisse could not have been less impressive. I was shocked at how cold and flavorless these were. While immaculate in their presentation, I couldn't get over how much better the oysters are that I buy in a parking lot behind a post office at a Somerville Farmer's Market. Elise thought they might have been sweet and subtle, but try as I might, I simply couldn't taste them.

Next came a cauliflower puree with black truffle oil.

Musky, savory, and smooth, it was everything the oysters weren't. We experiment with cauliflower puree quite often, but it had never occurred to me to add a flavor as radical as truffles. The vegetal taste of that famously pale brassica was perfectly matched by the dank funk of the oil.

Our third appetizer was a Dungeness crab salad over shaved fennel and blood orange and grapefruit slices.

The fruit reminded me of the high quality backyard citrus I took for granted growing up in South Florida. The shreds of meat was expertly mixed: some sweet, some gamy, implying that the chef had thought to include different "cuts" of crab.

Waiting for the main course, we had time to savor the excellent Acme "Upstairs" sourdough, and the house wine, Green & Red Zinfandel, prepared specially for C.P. by the Chiles Mill Vineyard of Napa.

For the main course, I had a local rock cod blasted in the wood fire oven along with new potatoes, leek, and beets, served with an aioli. I was told by a friend and former C.P. reservationist to get anything cooked in the oven, and was glad that I did.

The fish had a nicely roasted brown top and the vegetables were delicate and simple, especially the tiny potatoes. These contrasted well with the leek, which had become a savory, tubular mush in the intensity of the hearth. Somehow, the aioli was even better than aioli normally is.

I was even impressed by the shape of the fillet, which was not the clean, symmetrical block that every other restaurant is too afraid not to offer. I received that customary piece as well as a scraggly, barely attached secondary hunk. It seemed a metaphor for the restaurant itself. Just because the ingredients are local, it doesn't mean that you're going to miss out on anything. In fact, you'll get more than you're used to. Chez Panisse: it's not just a block - it's a block plus a hunk.

Elise ordered the duck with homemade pasta and mushrooms. I was surprised when her plate came out without a showy, handsome leg. Instead, the three main ingredients came in equal proportions, as though the duck was no more important than the humble pasta. They rested in a shallow pool of rich broth which we were all too happy to sop up when nothing solid remained.

For dessert, Elise ordered the chocolate pave with hazelnut flecked whipped cream. I mean it as a compliment when I say it was the finest brownie you can imagine, topped with an extremely delicate yet crunchy crust.

I had the huckleberry and pear crisp.

My only prior experience with crisps had been when someone who doesn't know how to make a pie wants to put too much sugar on fruit. This dish maintained the rustic personality of the crisp without succumbing to any of its pitfalls: overly sweet, poor quality fruit, homogeneous texture, and limp crumb. The topping actually was crisp, the pear not at all too sweet and with its grainy texture intact, and the huckleberry was almost masculine, spreading its strong flavor and color throughout the filling.

The meal had come a long way since the oysters. I was deeply satisfied, even though I had never spent as much money on any one meal. Nor had I sat at table for two and half hours, eager and alert for every minute of it.

Thanks to Chez Panisse's commitment to local cuisine, we bought more than food with our money. We also made a contribution to the highly visible cornerstone of a culinary movement. One with farmers, communities, and the preservation of food culture and the environment in mind. We also probably bought a little more duck fat than we realized.

We were very happy with our choice of the cafe over the restaurant. Unbound by the prix fixe, we got everything we wanted and experienced twice as many dishes. Next time I'll go for the full dining experience of the downstairs restaurant, and you'll certainly read about it when I do.

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Carol said...

Lovely! So sad about the oysters, though. We're going to Napa in a couple weeks - did y'all spend any time around there? Would love recommendations if so...

Aaron Kagan said...

Yes, we did! The only vineyard we went to was called Benessere and was great. If I had more time I would have found a list of vineyards with free tastings and done a bunch of those. The St. Helena Olive Oil Co. (post forthcoming) is a good place to taste a lot of oil, the Culinary Institute of America is worth checking out, and the Jack London Historic area and State Park was great, especially if you're a fan. But I think it would be hard to not have a good time there.

Dave said...

Oh man. Geez. Whoop. Wow.

Jay said...

judging by the picture of the Dungeness crab (love eating stuff with the word dung in it), Elise was very excited that you took a picture of every course.

by the way, I made the mistake of perusing this blog while in the midst of a sympathy fast for queen esther. Not a good idea.