Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chez Panisse


After all these years of being inspired by Alice Waters and the people who have worked at Chez Panisse to make it a Temple of Gastronomy, I was finally able to sample her food.

I say "her food" even though I didn't see her in the kitchen, which I could do easily if she were there as both kitchens are open. In particular, the downstairs kitchen is beautiful, the cabinetry well worn wood with heavy, mission style handles.

Both floors of the restaurant have a distinctly Frank Loyd Wright/Mission look, very refined, straight lines, almost austere, yet very comfortable with amber and copper accents. It's not fussy at all, indeed the architecture reflects the food: simple, elegant, classic. It also presents a perfect set in which to focus on the food, nothing to distract you from the main event.

I arrived a few minutes late to meet Kurt who was joining me for lunch, which is served in the upstairs dining room.

The place was bustling, but within ten minutes the very charming hostess seated us in the back room on the banquette. All the staff, in fact, were as charming and several of them were insanely attractive to boot (it never hurts - friendly and cute is always a winning combo).

Our waitress was able to balance friendly, knowledgeable and helpful with ease. The food came very quickly and all was pitch perfect and intensely delicious.

Kurt started with housemade mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes, the cheese so incredibly buttery it was like no mozzarella I have ever tasted. The tomatoes were carefully composed and selected to highlight a variety of flavors, colors and sizes. The vinaigrette had a note of pepper and was faintly acid, perfect for letting the tomatoes predominate. The entire thing was topped with a generous sprinkling of fresh chervil.

Spicy, wood oven roasted, baby, local squid on a bed of purslane with pan fried peppers was wonderful, contrasting tender, slightly charred, peppery squid with cool crisp unadorned purslane all sitting in the juices of the squid. Heaven. Its perfect accompaniment was a Willamette Rose. Kurt had a house Zinfandel from Napa.

Kurt was on a tomato binge and who could blame him as they were bursting with sweet, ripe perfection. For his main course he had housemade spaghetti with pesto, Parmesan and fresh tomatoes. I had duck confit on a ragout of corn and zucchini, topped with some crunchy, fresh, wild arugula. The confit had been put on the grill and fell right off the bone.

For dessert we shared a clafouti of figs and raspberry with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream and chocolate mint ice cream - which was made from fresh mint and wasn't artificially heightened green. As a matter of fact it was beige and drizzled in chocolate sauce with two mini, chewy, chocolate cookies thrown in for good measure.

The over all take home message of this meal is in perfect keeping with the philosophy of Ms. Waters: quality ingredients - fresh, local, organic, served simply - will always win the day.

Even though all the food was beautiful I felt like I was eating unfussy food, that I wasn't there to be impressed with the chef's pyrotechnics, I was there to be wooed by nature's bounty and the incredible flavors contained therein.

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