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?