Worshipping at the shrine of Californian cuisine

Mon, Dec 10, 2012, 00:00

I had always imagined that Chez Panisse was situated on some sun-drenched Californian hillside, housed perhaps in an Italianate villa, with just the merry clatter of goat bells in the distance. Sort of MasterChef crossed with The Sound of Music.

Because Chez Panisse is a restaurant, perhaps the best restaurant in the world.

It is very sad for a person to have fantasies, no matter how wholesome, about a restaurant. No wonder I’ve put on so much weight.

And it turns out that Chez Panisse is situated at 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, right in the middle of what is called the Gourmet Ghetto. Shattuck Avenue is not a very attractive street, and I should know because I trudged three-quarters of it.

Chez Panisse has definite issues with signage; it is discreet to the point of invisibility. It is housed in what appeared to be a Japanese-style building set back from the pavement – there are rumours that there’s only on-street parking – but in fact the building is what is called an arts and crafts house, with a lot of wood inside.

When you’ve walked more than a mile from the Bart station these things tend to be a bit of a blur. But an Italianate villa it was not.

If Chez Panisse is not the best restaurant in the world it is certainly the most influential. It is thanks to Chez Panisse that those exorbitantly expensive bags of fresh herbs are in our supermarkets, for example; although its founders, of whom the more famous is Alice Waters, would hate to think that. Chez Panisse was interested in, and boasted of, the provenance of its ingredients long before it was profitable – the restaurant had a lot of financially shaky years – or even very popular.

Back in the 1970s it created what came to be called Californian cuisine, a loose term for food that looks relaxed but is pretty tricky to pull off. It seems to have started as French food with Californian ingredients, but it soon snowballed into the whole organic-fresh ingredients – let’s-not-get-dressed-up kind of food that is so dominant now.

Without Chez Panisse your gourmet pizza and even perhaps your goat’s cheese salad would not exist. The Ballymaloe empire would be very, very different; and we’d never have seen sprouts on stalks (come on, who knew?) For me to visit Chez Panisse is like a soccer fan visiting the home ground of whichever the best soccer team is these days – it’s not still Brazil, is it? It is hallowed ground.

Late booking

My companion on this excursion was the only other woman who was in California that weekend who is still prepared to eat desserts. Yeah, she is Irish too – what about it?

We were going to the Chez Panisse cafe, which is upstairs and cheaper than the restaurant. Also you don’t have to wait a year for a table: I rang that morning, which was a Saturday, and got a late booking. The man on the phone was so pleasant that I nearly cried. Even though we took the latest available table there was no vulgar suggestion of having to vacate the premises by a certain time.

We were greeted by a very cool-looking woman in her 60s – good jacket, no make-up, great haircut – who whisked us upstairs.

The best word for the Chez Panisse cafe on a Saturday at lunchtime is crowded. My friend felt that we were a little too near a couple and their two adorable young children, who I thought were happily occupied with Chez Panisse crayons, but my friend later said had been kicking her under the table.

There was a circular table in the middle of floor at which a French man was hosting a lunch for six or eight people – which I thought was a Good Sign, even though it looked as if it was on expenses. (Our lunch was not on expenses, in case any of you internet trolls were worried.) In general clothes were low-key – very low-key in our case – although I think I saw a good necklace at the French table.

To start my friend had goat’s cheese salad in which the goat’s cheese was so light, so unchalky and so sweet that it was a complete shock. We didn’t know whether they’d marinated it or whether they’d made it so recently that it just seemed as if it had been marinated.

This was the best dish of a terrific meal. I had green salad with persimmons, which was excellent.

For mains my friend had a pizza with pecorino cheese and nettles – a bit of trepidation here. I had halibut with fennel. I think it was halibut, and I can’t check at the moment, I’m afraid.

For pudding my friend had panna cotta with a red fruit coulis. I had caramel ice cream – to die for. Then I had coffee which came in an amazing brown pottery cup. And I had a beer.

We were terribly happy. It cost more than $100 – the gratuity was included, under some strange system, but my friend didn’t realise that and left a huge tip. We thought it was good value – at least I did, and her husband, a thousand miles away, thought the same. How amazing it must be to be Alice Waters, and to have changed the way people eat. I’m more of a fan than ever.

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