Monday, February 28, 2011

Chez Panisse

Chez Panisse
The Cafe, upstairs
Berkeley, CA
September 28, 2010

Welcome to Chez Panisse. Believe it or not, you can afford this fine-dining experience; enjoy the meal upstairs for the same food, a sophisticated and comfortable ambience, and less the cost. Also, make reservations. I look forward to coming back. It seems like the menu changes more than just seasonally. It changes every night. I can describe this place and Alice's palette as dynamic, diverse, unpredictable, inventive, and surprisingly delicious. You don't want to go back to "normal" food. You are encouraged upon walking out these doors to go into your own kitchen and toss things into the pan, just to see if they'll work. Alice's work here is inspiring and so are the dishes.

My word of advice, go with the plates that are "recommended" and seasonal. You won't be disappointed there. You want these inventive dishes, for sure.

Bread, fresh rustic bread and a white (sweet bread) that is not sweet. The rustic had a sour tinge to it, though it was not sourdough. These were fresh breads. I didn't crave more, which says this is not the place for appetizer bread. It's all about the main meals here. Don't stuff yourself with the bread. I suppose this is their way of keeping me from bread-temptation.

Handley Chardonnay 2006/7 : Very nice, oaked, easy to drink though full-bodied. Nice.

Green Salad
Simple and fresh.

Spinach Ravioli filled with Spinach, Ricotta
served with sauteed chanterelle mushrooms and parmesan

The shock of this all was: What a light fare. I would have never imagined that ravioli could be so delicate and light. We at this and did not feel we gained a gram. The pasta sheets of ravioli were sheet-thin, and the sauce was a thin broth infused with flavors of olive oil and a dash of salt, perhaps some white wine. The chanterelles were one of my favorite parts. I believe they were sauteed with a brush of butter, making each one taste like a delicacy that leaves you craving more. Delicious. This dish was delicious. As a non-pasta eater, usually because of the heaviness, I found this superb and completely satisfying to make up for all the pasta I don't eat. I'd definitely order this again. Our Chardonnay paired excellently with this as well.

Halibut with tapenade,
escarole, grilled eggplant, infused with tomato.

The eggplant was amazing. It was a smaller, more tender and rich veggie without that heavy taste that eggplant usually does have. Delicious. The halibut was only OK. It was dry - overcooked. Oh dear. The tapenade was a good consistency but too salty, which I didn't care for. I liked the spinach ricotta dish far more.

Pluot Frangipane Tart with Cardamom Ice Cream
With soft, tender layers of frangipane, this was my dream dessert. It is reminiscent of a galette de rois. Thin frangipane tarts are my ultimate comfort food; they are so rich and usually topped with a sort of fruit. The pluot is an apricot - plum hybrid. The flavors of which are a sort of bitter-sweet. I loved it! The ice cream was dynamic. We wanted to say it was a vanilla, but not. It has that cardamom kick of excitement. The texture was lovely, retaining its shell until you dipped into it. Eat the tart and ice cream together; it's best that way. Perfectly portioned for two people to share. So satisfying!

Fruit sorbet, with some raspberries
This came as a complimentary dessert to our meal. The flavor was quite tart. The frangipane tart was all too easy to devour; thus, this sorbet was muted to our liking, though it tasted fresh and, well, fruity. It would have been easier to comment on this if there were nothing else brilliant to compare it to.

If you're looking to experience Chez Panisse and you're worried about the cost, this cafe upstairs is the way to go. It is essentially the restaurant, but without the frill. It is a perfectly fine sophisticated atmosphere in the back room. Mature audience. The room is lined with a wooden, dark wainscot and mirrors above the banquette back line. There is a beautiful arts and crafts effect in the center of the room, at the ceiling. The entire room is lit just enough to see around okay and to feel cozy. It is soothing. The service is very friendly and informative. You will not feel like an inferior up here. They take care of you very well and I would say the upper cafe is just as fine-dining as the downstairs, only the prices are more affordable.

The meals are around $20-29 for the dinner plates. Not bad for such an upscale culinary hole-in-the-wall. Cheers to Alice Walker.

Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

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