Sunday, October 3, 2010

Chez Panisse For Lunch

Well what an interesting lunch it was.  From the start I have to admit my bias:  I have been greatly influenced by Alice Waters.  I use her cookbooks regularly and admire what she has done and what she stands for greatly (sustainable, local, organic, simple food...).  So I was a bit shocked this trip to hear several people really dissing the food at Chez Panisse.  Two of them were sitting next to me.

At first I got some sense that something was awry when they were chatting with the waiter.  Everything seemed like a problem:

"There's cream in it?"

"We'll split the soup"  People split a main course at lunch at Chez Panisse?

These two women are what I would refer to as "ladies who lunch".  They exist all over the world and so it's no surprise that here they were....sitting in a prime corner table being discontent.
I busied myself with taking pictures and trying to make a decision about what I should order.  I was a little disappointed that the lunch prix fix wasn't offered on Friday, just Monday through Thursday.  Obviously this lunch was not going to qualify for my San Francisco theme of cheap good eats.  Still, a 20-some dollar prix fix is a pretty good deal at a restaurant like this.

I ordered simple:  Frisee Salad, with Lardon and Orecchiette with lamb ragout and a glass of Italian red wine.  

The salad was perfect, made with the most delicious olive oil with just a hint of lemon. The egg was cooked to perfection (or under cooked to perfection as the case may be).
The ladies at the table next to me had gotten their clam corn pancetta "soup" and I hear the older woman ask the younger one:

"On a scale from 1-10  what would you give this?"


Trouble in paradise indeed.

I took a picture and the younger woman joked with me:

"You aren't taking our pictures are you?"

I assured her that she wasn't in my frame and that their anonymity was guaranteed.
We had a nice chat about New York and the Lower East Side and what it was like to live in San Francisco.  The older woman who was wearing a wide brim hat and vaguely reminded me of the famous restaurant critic Gael Greene leaned in conspiratorially and asked me what I had ordered.

When I told her she looked shocked and huffed:

"We sent it back! It was inedible!  We'd send this back too if we could " pointing to the clams and corn dish they had been picking through.

My lamb dish was delicious, I gobbled it up and soaked up the sauce with my bread.  The pasta was home made and the lamb so tender and flavorful.  Salt and fresh ground black pepper are on the table so you can adjust the seasoning as you see fit.  It always bothers me when you have to ask for salt and pepper.

In my many conversations with people on this trip about Chez Panisse I hear things like:  It's too simple for the price point, my serving was too big - it was vulgar.  They have a new chef you know...

All of which makes me wonder what price is simplicity and quality worth?  For me it's the simple things like the olive oil in the salad the amazing flavor and moistness of the bread.  The room which I find to be at once cozy yet special.  My salad cost 9 and my pasta 19 the wine was 10 (more or less I have misplaced the receipt but this is pretty close).  A 17% service charge is automatically added to the bill.
I didn't order dessert but as I was leaving I saw my ladies were happily digging in to theirs.  I smiled at them and said how nice it was to chat with them, then I added:

"I hope dessert is restorative."

Earlier I had overheard one of them say:

"Next time we should just come for dessert."

And I thought 2 things:  first that we are all addicted to sugar and it's amazing the joy simple sweet treats bring us (look at a cupcake!) and secondly how the organization of a dinner is like a good musical:  if you leave everyone with a great last, showstopping number they forget the rest of the play and leave the theater happy and singing.


Anonymous said...

A very nice post, Urban, thanks for it. Coincidentally I addressed some of these problems on the same day as your post, at Eating Every Day.

Kurt Brown said...

I'm commenting outside of my expertise here, but I've found in my years in SF and the Bay Area, that there is a certain discrimination toward places that don't change fast enough. Life here is about change and experimentation. It's celebrated, and rightly so. It's the reason California often leads the country, because we embrace change, often recklessly, it might seem to others.

But of course, there's always another side to the coin, and one of those is that if a place seems to remain the same too long, even tho at one point, it was at the vanguard of change, it's almost a requirement to "tut tut" that place as a "has been" or "not what it used to be" etc.

Chez Panisse is almost the reference point for this phenomenon. Waters was at the very leading edge of revolution in food at Chez Panisse, nearly 40 years ago now, and it was amazing.

IMHO, it still IS amazing. Waters and Chez Panisse established a philosophy, as you wrote, of simple, local, sustainable, and letting the food "speak for itself." It was a breath of fresh air. And they've stuck to that philosophy. Certainly the world has changed in 40 years, but I've always thought that the cleavage between people who love Chez Panisse and those who "tut tut" it (like your Ladies Who Lunch), is how one feels about the relative benefits of change versus tradition. It's ironic in many ways, but after 40 years, Chez Panisse now represents tradition, not change. Waters' revolution has (nearly) won.

I, for one, don't feel the need to ask "now what, Alice?" when I'm lunching at Chez Panisse, but only to revel in the preservation of that 40 year old revolution in every dish set in front of me. As I suspect you do too, Mark :)

Anonymous said...

Actually, Kurt, i would have to differ with you on this. Maybe in San Francisco "Chez Panisse now represents tradition, not change", but for the vast majority of eaters in the U.S., including in SF, it is not tradition: McD's etc is tradition, overwhelmingly, and the idea of "simple, local, seasonal" remains something new (even though it represents all of human history up until refrigeration and canned foods in the...20's? 30's?)

Back to the future, indeed. But the present still is overwhelmingly governed by Monsanto, McDonalds, and their many many imitators.

Kurt Brown said...


I agree. In fact, when I hit the publish button, I thought to myself "oy, I'm speaking for the Bay Area foodie types, not for the vast majority of eaters in this country."

I'm from the Midwest, so I know the thrill that a night out at a corporate chain restaurant by the mall can engender. I mean, look at those portion sizes -- it's such a "good value!" :)

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