A mid-January visit to one of our very favorite restaurants in the world...
But first, some thoughts on Chez Panisse by Jack: Chez Panisse is, to me, all about getting great, fresh, perfect, local ingredients and getting them to show their stuff. So, you're not getting food that is super inventive, extremely costly from far away, or excessively time-consuming to prepare (not that they don't do what's necessary). Nor do the prices reflect this. It's easily one of the ten most famous restaurants in the country and yet is the most inexpensive of these ten. Also, the wine list is excellent and very affordable.
In the Café upstairs you are given menu choices. In the main restaurant it is a fixed menu which is posted a week in advance - you will likely book a table considerably more than a week in advance to secure it. So choice may not be an issue. This is a good thing.
I believe the trick to getting the most out of Chez Panisse is not to go for the dish(es) that you think you would most like, but rather for dishes/courses that feature an ingredient that you're, well, puzzled about. Puzzled as in, what's great about this item/ingredient - what's the fuss?
Until I had the perfect nectarine at Chez Panisse I just thought it was an okay fruit. I never liked figs until I had one at Chez Panisse - I still don't love them, but they're okay to good, now. For a few years I wondered what's up with Dungeness Crab - it's good but not great - until I had it at Chez Panisse. Get me? I'm not saying to try something you dislike, but try something you're curious about. The menu below I was excited about because of the black truffles, an ingredient that has not done much for me in the past...
Downstairs (now $85)
Aperitif: Citrus Cordial - Prosecco (Adami) with a touch of Vodka and essence of Meyer lemon and Valencia orange - Good a nice subtle start.
Assorted Olives - None of these caught our fancy.
Grilled Cannard Farms Leeks with egg and black truffles
Wow. The leeks have charred marks and are perfectly cooked - soft but not losing their shape with great flavor. The plate included two small bunches of perfect mâche and a sprinkle of divine large style seasoned breadcrumbs (olive oil & flake salt). The egg was small granules and the truffles small shavings. This dish was in perfect balance and made us scrape the plate with bread to get every tiny morsel. That says quite a lot since neither Jack nor I even like truffles. (Oh and they use “farm” eggs - we were told by the waiter.)
Bronze turkey and chanterelle mushroom ravioli in brodo
Turkey/mushroom filling has hints of garlic and salt. The ravioli has little balls of filling and are perfectly cooked. Makes Jack like ravioli. Comfort food-esque dish that we both very much enjoyed.
Line-caught striped bass, sea scallops and steelhead trout in red wine sauce with glazed onions. Black flat cabbage and Yellow Finn Potatoes.
This dish was very appealing. Although the red wine sauce was more of a brown color - the wine was really well integrated into the sauce. The scallops were the star of the dish - they were sliced in half horizontally and slightly caramelized on top. The sauce was delicious on its own - we wiped the last bits away into our mouths with some bread. Jack thought the steelhead was slightly overcooked, making it a bit ordinary.
Baba au Rhum with Valencia Oranges
We skipped this and asked for a cheese course which they substituted with no hassle at all.
Cheese plate: St. Nectaire, Blue D’Auvergne and Herbiette (from Jean d’Alos) with walnut bread. Quite enjoyable!
If we had chosen coffee our choice would have been Blue Bottle’s Timor Peaberry.
2004 Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo
Nutmeg and heirloom (but not sweet) melon with lemons on the finish. Delicious. With the turkey ravioli the Greco di Tufo brings out hints of fresh pumpkin - wondering if this would be a fun Thanksgiving wine?
1995 Meo-Cazumet Nuits-Saint-Georges
Sweet pink grapefruit on first notes. A lot of acids and bright fresh red cherries in center. A baby.
2003 Bighorn Cellars Napa McFadden Vyd Cabernet Sauvignon
Berries on nose lots of vanilla (oak). Slightly bitter finish. A bit sweet. Drinkable now. Good. (Sampled from an adjacent table.)