We have heard so much about this talked about restaurant here in the Bay Area – Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. This restaurant is so popular that you have to plan at least a month in advance just to make a reservation, and cross your fingers and hope that you can get a reservation. On top of that, there are guidelines for when one can call to make that reservation; one has to wait for the exact day to the month when you want to go for dinner. This is what I did; I patiently waited to the exact day one month before Hitesh’s birthday to make dinner reservations for his special birthday celebration with the family. I was fortunate enough to get reservations for the day that I requested! This is how we ended up going to Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
Was it worth the hype and the wait? YES, YES, YES.
How do I describe this amazing dining adventure? Inviting, beautiful, warm, friendly, and outstanding cuisine that made us see the beauty in the food that we eat. The combination of exquisitely prepared dinner in a welcoming setting, with the company of family celebrating a special milestone birthday, made for a perfect evening that we will remember for a very long time.
First let me just get this out of the way – for a vegetarian like myself – French restaurant food is the least vegetarian friendly cuisine of all. But when I made reservations, Chez Panisse assured me that they had a vegetarian menu option for guests, which was music to my ears. Now I could look forward to dinner at this talked about French California cuisine restaurant.
I don’t know what I was expecting from Chez Panisse – a grand entrance of sorts? Fancy waiters who are a little snobbish? Soft music playing in the background, subtly forcing guests to whisper while dining? Grand foyer and opulent decor? What I saw took me totally by surprise.
This world-renowned restaurant was like a home – a cozy home at that; I mean, if we weren’t paying attention we would have walked right past the entrance to the restaurant. Unassuming, but totally welcoming, and cozily appointed, Chez Panisse was a delightful surprise from the moment we stepped into the restaurant.
The vibe in the restaurant was festive, happy, with lots of laughter, and loud talking. Meaning, at this fancy French restaurant, dinner guests could just be themselves. We saw couples for a special intimate dinner, friends who came as a group for a dinner out, and from what we overheard a few regulars as well from the neighborhood. The place had a healthy mix of clientele from all parts of the Bay Area, and all having a great time.
Our head waitress was extremely friendly and indulged us while we asked her about the history of Chez Panisse, she even shared a few stories with Hitesh and the girls. For example, there was a hostess mingling among the guests and our waitress informed us that she has been working side by side with Alice Waters for over 30 years, since the early days of the restaurant. When we asked where Ms. Alice Waters was on this evening – our waitress informed us that she was on a food tour in India.
Dinner was a two and a half hour four-course meal. The idea is to relax and enjoy each course slowly and appreciate what is on the plate for its beauty just as much for it’s pleasing palate. We were given an option of a vegetarian menu, which Rani and I opted for, while Hitesh, Sri and Anjali chose the restaurant’s regular menu.
Interspersed within this four-course meal was an aperitif at the start of the meal, a palate cleanser after the main course, and coffee after dessert.
A very cool feature at Chez Panisse is their open-style kitchen not far from the main dining room where diners can see the kitchen staff preparing all the food for the evening.
In fact, our waitress encouraged us to wander into the kitchen so we could see for ourselves how the food was being prepared and plated. It turns out all dinner guests are encouraged to walk into the kitchen, take photos and see how their food gets prepared.
The kids were thrilled that they could actually walk into a restaurant kitchen and see the action. The twins must have walked into Chez Paniss’s kitchen at least 5-6 times. They were in awe of all the colorful produce, legumes, breads, meats, and desserts all beautifully displayed and being cooked right in front of them as they watched.
Surprisingly the kitchen looked like any home kitchen, just larger. It could have been a kitchen at any French country cottage.
Our waitress was very proud of the fact that their kitchen was very approachable and not ostentatious as many diners expected. With long rustic tables placed in the center of a galley style narrow kitchen space, this was as charming as it could be.
While I was exploring their kitchen I saw a couple of pastry chefs busy at their rustic island table. One chef was cutting candied orange peel, while the other chef was rolling out pastry dough to make an apple galette.
While watching the pastry chef who was cutting the orange peels I asked her if they were made in-house, to which she informed me that Chez Panisse makes everything in-house.
I got to chat with her about how hard it is to make candied orange peel. I actually tried making some myself and it was as bitter as it could be and I had to throw them away. To which the pastry chef gave me a little tutorial on candied orange peel. She said at the restaurant they blanch orange peel up to seven times! Boil orange peel in water and drain the water, and do that again and again – boil and drain the water not once, not twice, but seven times to remove all the bitterness from the orange peel! All this before they even consider adding sugar. No wonder my orange peels tasted so bitter, I only blanched them once.
After watching the pastry chef cut all that gorgeous candied orange peel I was hoping they were going to be part of our dessert. And it was! When our dessert arrived, it was a terrine of three flavors of ice cream of which two of them had the candied orange peel whipped right in. It was delicious!! We even got a plate of nugget and candied orange peel as an after dessert treat.
As for the other pastry chef who was making the apple galette, I asked her what she was spreading on the pastry dough, to which she informed me that she was spreading an in-house made lemon-peel spread. As I watched, she then filled the pastry dough with sliced apples and brushed the apples with an apricot glaze. This dessert was being made for the Cafe Upstairs, which is Chez Panisse’s more casual neighborhood diner, right above Chez Panisse.
The vegetarian meal we were served on this evening was outstanding. Here is a look at what was on the menu.
First Course: Chioggia beet and celery salad with curly endive, River Dog Farm egg, and black truffle vinaigrette.
Second Course: Chanterelle mushroom tortellini with pea shoots.
Main Course: Kabocha squash and goat cheese pudding -soufflé, with wilted spinach, little white turnips, pommes dauphine (little potato puff pastry), and first-of-the-season asparagus.
Palate Cleanser. Lightly sweetened herbal tea of lemon verbena, mint, and lemon balm.
Dessert: Hazelnut, candied tangerine, and chocolate ice-cream bombe.
Candied Orange Peel, nugget and coffee to end our dinner.
Dinner at Chez Panisse was an outstanding dining experience, one that I know Hitesh and I will be going back for another special occasion. As for the kids, they loved the experience but the cuisine was something they had a luke-warm reaction to. I understand, kids like Italian, Mexican, Indian, Thai – you get the idea – lots of color and lots of spices. As for Hitesh and I, once in a while we like a subtler flavor profile like the kind you find in French cuisine.
If you look at cuisines of the world as a color palette – Asian, Italian, Indian, and Mexican food are in the warm color palette, while French cuisine is more of a pastel color palette. Both color palettes are beautiful, but on opposite sides of the spectrum.
For those of you interested, here is a little history on Alice Waters and her world-famous Chez Panisse restaurant. Alice Waters is what you would call a restaurant food pioneer. Even before farm to table, organic foods, sustainably sourced, all these food buzz words became fashionable, Alice Waters was promoting this over 40 years ago as part of her food and restaurant philosophy at Chez Panisse. She came on the map when she started a nationwide campaign for sustainable and locally sourced foods for school lunch programs, and started giving talks on her food philosophy.
Waters wrote in 1980: “Chez Panisse began with our doing the very best we could do with French recipes and California ingredients, and has evolved into what I like to think of as a celebration of the very finest of our regional food products. … My one unbreakable rule has always been to use only the freshest and finest ingredients available.
At Chez Panisse we are convinced that the best-tasting food is organically and locally grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. The quest for such ingredients has always determined the restaurant’s cuisine.
Since 1971, Chez Panisse has invited diners to partake of the immediacy and excitement of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. In doing so, Chez Panisse has established a network of nearby suppliers who, like the restaurant, are striving for both environmental harmony and delicious flavor.
The restaurant has always served a set menu that changes daily and reflects the season’s bounty. Monday nights at the restaurant generally feature more rustic or regional dishes, such as a lamb tagine or fisherman’s stew, in addition to a first course and dessert. Tuesday through Thursday, the restaurant serves a 4-course set dinner menu, including dessert. On Friday and Saturday evenings, a more elaborate 4-course meal is served. The restaurant is closed on Sundays.”
From Chez Panisse’s webs site: “Originally, Chez Panisse was designed to cultivate the atmosphere of an intimate dinner party, with hosts who paid attention to even the smallest details of the dining experience and guests who enjoyed the same meal around the table. As a participant in the Free Speech Movement that swept UC Berkeley’s campus in the 1960s, Waters learned to love cooking for others while she hosted gatherings to discuss politics with her peers.
The culinary influences for Chez Panisse were largely French, inspired by the 1920s cookbook of French cuisine bourgeoise, La bonne cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange. This book has been translated into English by Paul Aratow, who was also the first chef de cuisine at Chez Panisse. Although Waters never preferred the fancy and predictable restaurants of Paris, she became enamored with the small, country restaurants of France that cooked whatever was fresh that day and created menus based on what the market had to offer.
Alice first traveled to France as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, where she majored in French Cultural Studies, and immediately was drawn to the food and market culture around her. In particular, Waters found inspiration from Lulu and Lucien Peyraud, owners of the Domaine Tempier vineyard in Bandol, in the south of France. Their enjoyment of food and wine and their simple preparations of the fresh, local produce had strong influence on the food and atmosphere of Chez Panisse.
Aratow had lived for years in Italy and France, exploring the language, cuisine and culture of both countries, and had a talent for hands-on culinary craftsmanship. He also designed and supervised the transition of an ordinary two story apartment house into the restaurant structure, working with the carpenters on a limited budget.
In addition to Waters’ travels in France, the writings of Richard Olney, an American cook who spent most of his life in France, and of Elizabeth David, a British cook and food writer, served as inspirations for the restaurant’s menu.
She has been a champion of local sustainable agriculture for over four decades. In 1995 she founded the Edible Schoolyard Project, which advocates for a free school lunch for all children and a sustainable food curriculum in every public school.
She has been Vice President of Slow Food International since 2002. She conceived and helped create the Yale Sustainable Food Project in 2003, and the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the American Academy in Rome in 2007.
Her honors include election as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007; the Harvard Medical School’s Global Environmental Citizen Award, which she shared with Kofi Annan in 2008; and her induction into the French Legion of Honor in 2010. In 2015 she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama, proving that eating is a political act, and that the table is a powerful means to social justice and positive change.
Alice is the author of fifteen books, including New York Times bestsellers The Art of Simple Food I & II and The Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea.”
For a more extensive background and history of Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California check out this link. Chez Panisse History and Background.
Chez Panisse is a wonderful place for a special celebration. The wait staff are warm and welcoming, the decor is like going over to a dear friends home for an intimate dinner, and the food extremely fresh and delicious; the perfect dinner out for any occasion.
Here is a link to the restaurant’s web site Chez Panisse Restaurant and Cafe in Berkeley, California.