Monday, February 22, 2010

Chez Panisse

I have one of the weirdest birthdays of the calendar year: New Year's Eve. It's in that holiday dead zone between Christmas and New Year's when people are traveling, sleeping, eating, and watching football. Still, I always look forward to this day not because I'm another year older or there are so many festivities and parties, but because it's one day of the year that I get to choose a nice restaurant for a gastronomic feast with my husband. It doesn't matter if it's expensive, trendy, prix fixe, has tiny portions, needs a month-in-advance reservation, or requires driving over an hour. It's my birthday, and we'll dine there if I want to.

For my birthday in 2009 to close out the decade, I made reservations at a renowned Bay Area restaurant we'd never been to before, Chez Panisse. All you foodies out there know about Alice Waters and her pioneering quest to combine environmental harmony and delicious flavor. Would the restaurant live up to the hype and the legend? We drove out to Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto to find out for ourselves.

Knowing we ran a risk entering Bear territory with my Stanford Alumni license plate holder (at least we weren't wearing red), we obeyed all traffic laws and paid the parking meter like good citizens. Only we soon discovered that this wasn't really the Berkeley way. We noticed several people sitting on the grassy median eating their pizza slices from the Cheeseboard restaurant right next to big signs stating 'Keep Off Median'.  Apparently civil disobedience is the name of the game in Berkeley territory, and we Cardinals had some lessons to learn.

We showed up on time for our lunch reservation, and eagerly walked up the steps to the restaurant entrance. We had reservations at the more casual, a la cart Cafe upstairs, which I knew would suit us better than the fancier and more expensive prix fixe dinners offered in the restaurant on the ground floor.  We had a nice carafe of still filtered tap water and some fresh bread with rich yummy butter to eat while we waited for our food.

I ordered and thoroughly enjoyed the following dishes:

- Salad of beets and cauliflower with a ginger and preserved lemon dressing. I'm a big beet lover although I never make them myself. The vibrant purple beet nuggets felt firm to the tongue with a fabulous sweet/spicy/sour taste when combined with the ginger and lemon. The cauliflower florets were like no other I'd ever had, small and tender, white and green, probably grown nearby and a beautiful example of fractal shapes found in edible nature.

- Homemade orecchiette pasta with mushrooms, sage, and pecorino cheese. I love any kind of homemade pasta. I love any kind of mushrooms. I love sage and cheese combined with mushrooms and pasta. While the flavors of this dish weren't as revelatory to me as the salad's, I savored every bite. The pasta was so tender yet had enough al dente to each bite. I love, love, love mushrooms, so earthy and savory, tender and bursting with juicy umami goodness. The sage and pecorino cheese perfectly highlighted and brightened the other two ingredients. I ate every morsel happily, with a smile on my lips.

- Apple and sour cherry tart a la mode. This was one of those to-die-for fruit desserts made all that much better by the perfect blend of tart apple, sour cherry, and buttery pastry flavors. Of course vanilla ice cream provided the perfect harmonious complement to the fruit tart, not only for its creamy melting texture but also for its rich, milky flavor and icy coldness. To me, this was dessert perfected.

- Blue Bottle coffee. One of the best coffees ever, and locally roasted to boot (see previous post called Yin-Yang Refreshment for more about Blue Bottle).

Brad ordered the cannellini bean soup, and a whole haddock with potatoes and coleslaw. He ate everything quickly and without speaking, a sure sign of his gastronomic enjoyment. His other telling signs included nodding up and down while chewing, tilting the soup bowl to get the last drop, and protesting when I moved the tart plate closer to me so that I could reach our shared dessert more easily. (Hey, it was my birthday, after all!)

So did Chez Panisse meet my high birthday expectations and culinary anticipation? Yes, it did. Every bite tasted divine. Each dish made its main ingredient the star, was simple and fresh, beautiful and natural, made with tender loving care. I'll remember it as a wonderfully satisfying and lovely meal, and a delightful place to try for the first time on my birthday. I wonder where we'll go next year?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sublime Suraj Indian Cuisine


More than any other ethnic cuisine, Indian food transports me to a faraway place and time with its intoxicating blend of spices, textures, and sauces. My husband and youngest daughter don't like Indian food much, but one night when they were both gone I took our other two children out to Suraj Restaurant in Redwood City. Suraj was recommended to me by good friend and neighbor Kiki Kapany, whose parents originally lived in India before making their way to the U.S. and raising their family in Woodside. For her, Suraj is the go-to place when she wants some Indian comfort food. That says a lot.  Her dad Narinder Kapany is widely known as the father of fiber optics, and he too enjoys Suraj. 

On the outside the restaurant doesn't look like much, and its location on busy El Camino Real across from Target is a far cry from a more hip or sophisticated area. But the food tells the story, and we were not disappointed. We started out with vegetable samosas, a good standard Indian appetizer to whet the appetite and tantalize the taste buds. Then the main courses arrived all at once like presents on Christmas morning, and we enthusiastically dove in. The aloo gobi vegetarian dish, with its tender cauliflower and potatoes melded with a hypnotic spicy sauce, elevates ordinary vegetables to a state of sublime. Cauliflower never tasted so good. My thirteen-year-old daughter Valerie said that was her favorite dish, along with the fragrant garlic naan, a chewy accompaniment to our meal, perfect for sopping up all the sauce left on our plates (bad breath be damned).

My favorite Indian dish has always been the mutter paneer, peas and soft homemade cheese cubes swimming in a heavenly, silky sauce.  Not only does it light fireworks in my mouth, it also tingles going down, leaving a warm glow in my stomach and tears in my eyes. It wouldn't be hard to Google the ingredients, but somehow I like leaving its secret blend a mystery so I can experience it in an instinctual right-brain way instead of analyzing it with left-brain precision. We also enjoyed the curry chicken, with its mild sauce and oh-so tender, fall-apart pieces of meat. The kids ordered sweet and cooling mango lassi drinks, a nice way to offset the hot spices of the food but too sweet for my taste (and I do have serious a sweet tooth).

Eating this meal made it hard not to moan with pleasure at every bite, and I know I would have if we'd been eating privately at home. It's worth trying if you're a fan of Indian food, or even if you consider yourself a novice. Try something new and bring some companions to share the experience. Eat sparingly during that day before your meal so that you can savor and enjoy the flavors as much as possible. For me this brings out the brilliant combination of flavors, creating a more memorable and satisfying meal. The day-long anticipation heightens the satisfaction experienced when eating it (this has been proven through fMRI research done by a professor at the Stanford Business School!).

The restaurant's website lists the menu and addresses of its two locations in Redwood City and Milpitas.  But you'll have to go inside to read the back of the menu to discover the various benefits of different spices used there. Did you know coriander not only boasts fantastic flavor but also can be used as an aphrodisiac? Maybe those hidden qualities, along with the evident talent of the cooks, infuse the secret sauce that makes eating at Suraj so memorably mouthwatering.