Chez Panisse (Berkeley) – Losing the Magic
My 2 previous experiences at Chez Panisse were 2 of my best dining experiences. I would always rank it higher than those Bay Area favorites of others – French Laundry, Masa’s (Ron Siegel’s old restaurant), Gary Danko, and La Folie. Eating at Chez Panisse for the first time is a revelation – how could food so simple taste so good? It’s an awakening – why must chefs fuss around with ingredients when the ingredients themselves can express themselves so much better? A revelation for the typical American taste bud.
When i read the online menu for my reservation, I was conflicted – an all fish menu. I was excited to try fish the Chez Panisse way – fresh, no frills, cooked to perfection. But fish has been getting the royal treatment lately from all restaurants – could Chez Panisse stack up? Would the freshness match a Sawa or Masa? Would the simple preparation seem dull after recently eating a fish-focused meal at the ever inventive Manresa? And could Chez Panisse, with its ingredients-first philosophy, approach the subtle perfection of Le Bernardin’s technique?
House Cured Gravlax w/ cucumbers & herb salad
Began with this light & refreshing dish. The salmon, with its dill seasoning, was bright & refreshing, complemented nicely by the cucumbers and salad. I hate cucumbers, but once again, CP shows that fresh ingredients can change your opinion of food. A great start!
Salt Cod Raviolo w/ yellow tomatoes
Plump ravioli stuffed with a generous serving of salt cod; however, i thought the cod was a tad dry. The pasta was not as delicate as i’d prefer, but this is nothing more than a nitpick. A solid dish, but not stunning.
Grilled Big-Eye Tuna Au Poivre w/ onion rings
This was the dish that scared me and, unfortunately, my fears were realized. This was simply unremarkable. The tuna was not of the highest quality; not offensive, but not world class. It was also overcooked – a cardinal sin. I’ve become much too much of a fish snob and i fear it might make dining out very hard in the future.
Royal Apricot Souffle
This was fantastic – as good of souffle as i’ve had anywhere. A wonderful finish to a mediocre (relative to my expectations) dinner.
The End Result?
After this dinner, CP will be knocked down a few notches. This wasn’t a dinner that could be considered in the same class as French Laundry or Manresa. In fact, this ‘downstairs’ dinner was comparable to an ‘upstairs’ dinner – solid but nothing remarkable. Were my expectations too high? Might CP be finally resting on their laurels? Should i just avoid all-fish menus unless they take place at Sawa, Manresa, or Le Bernardin? Whatever the answers, CP won’t get the recommendation it was once got from me.