Chez Panisse, Berkeley (March 2009)

Anyone who has asked about my thoughts on Bay Area restaurants knows that I came away from Chez Panisse feeling wholly disenchanted. That was eight months ago, though, so it only seemed fair to revisit Berkeley’s flagship establishment.

The meal began with a canape, which left a pleasant peppery note. From there, alas, the first two courses took a turn down a parlous path to mediocrity. Perhaps I ought to have been more percipient of the sea salt shaker on the table–a tacit concession of persistent under-seasoning.

Chicken liver spread over a cracker
The cloying dressing coated my mouth with oil, leaving me temporarily unable to taste anything. That is not actually as awful as it sounds considering the soggy pancetta.
Mâche salad with black truffles, farm egg, and pancetta
The image below is deceiving. What looks like a creamy soup was in fact unpalatably watery. It seemed like even the bread–made by Acme–refused to absorb the duncical concoction. So as I ate the last mussel, leaving one-third of the soup untouched, an image of an asymptote came to mind as a visual representation of the meal’s first two courses. The salad and soup neared zero, yet mathematical theory militated against such an outcome. Fortunately, the meal improved, and it started with the lamb.
Mussel soup with leeks and chorizo
Since relegating meat to special occasion food, each time I encounter incarnadine flesh is a certified pleasure. It was the entire dish, not just the meat, that melded well. Tender artichokes, fresh peas resistant to the tooth, sweet carrots, and starchy potatoes with the faintest hint of parmesan. As for the lamb, the rack was far more flavorful than the leg. Finally, I could make use of the bread basket, liberally sopping up the jus.
Lamb, peas, potatoes, ragoût
While I have developed a healthy proclivity for finishing my meals with cheese courses, at Chez Panisse, I did not have a say in the menu’s progression. If not cheese, citrus will suffice.
Kumquat soufflé with candied kumquat
Meyer lemon cookie and a dark chocolate with candied ginger
Given the meal’s anfractuosity, I cannot commit to a whole-scale tergiversation on my opinion of Chez Panisse. The answer to the question, why does Chez Panisse consistently make the top fifty restaurants in the world still eludes me.

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