CHEZ PANISSE: BEST RESTAURANT IN AMERICA?
A friend who has a discerning palate and who is a serious wine critique once said
that the Chez Panisse philosophy is akin to the best producers of
It is true that the hallmark of Chez Panisse cooking is to
spotlight the ingredients and not the chef. This is the gist of Alice Waters’
philosophy who is inarguably the most influential person shaping the course of the
farm to table movement in
There is nothing like success that breeds its discontents. There are basically three criticisms leveled
There may be some fragments of truth in all of these claims. However, I disagree with all three.
Let me start with the third.
It is true that Chez Panisse does not follow the culinary trends. Just like a Romanee Conti which is not
interested in reverse osmosis or overextraction because it is “trendy” in some
I agree that, in the last 20 years or so, and especially in
the 2000s, restaurants in
Secondly, I would also add that one finds in Chez Panisse ingredients of
exceptional quality. Nowadays, only
This said, I should say that I have some sympathy with those who claim that Chez Panisse’s cooking is too simple and safe. But this argument has to be qualified.
The analogy with terroir driven wine can again serve us. La Tache, for instance, is a great wine, but in some years one can see that because the winemaker did not try to manipulate the wine, it is not hiding some flaws due to the weather conditions that year.
Likewise Chez Panisse is committed to cooking almost exclusively (truffles being an exception) with local ingredients and letting them speak, instead of spotlighting the chef.
This strategy is like walking a very tight rope. Only a single set menu is offered at Chez Panisse, and the menu typically consists of three dishes and a dessert. On some of the days they can err in the direction of playing it too safe. They still highlight ingredients, but, if there are not sufficient great ingredients to be had, one can leave the meal dissatisfied. This can be especially the case if the chef that day does not work hard to calibrate tastes to bring about overall harmony and purity.
This last remark brings me to the central importance of the chef at Chez Panisse. It is probably Alice Waters’ intention to relegate the chef to the background, and I sympathize with this. However, over the years I have noticed that “who is in the kitchen” is making as much of a difference as what day of the week you hit the lottery of dining there. I will only name the chef I find to be turning out consistently great dishes: JEAN PIERRE. He is unquestionably a world class chef who can compete easily with all of the Michelin three star chefs. When he cooks he is achieving what is hardest to achieve, that is he makes things look “simple,” but this simplicity is misleading as it hides the overall perfectionism. The perfectionism lies in the ways maximum taste is extracted from the ingredients given very precise cooking and in the way the tastes are calibrated to achieve overall greatness.
Consider my last meal there on New Year’s Eve. It consisted of three dishes, dessert and fruit.
SMOKED BOLINAS COD SALAD WITH SALMON CAVIAR AND CHICORY LETTUCES.
This was an excellent appetizer. Lightly smoked cod and bitter chicory interact beautifully, and the steelhead salmon caviar imparts a subtle sweet taste and textural contrast.
DUNGENESS CRAB CONSOMME WITH WILD MUSHROOMS AND GARLIC
This dish was absolute perfection. The consommé is akin to a great dashi
prepared by a world class Kaiseki chef. One thinks that they have used a
perfect water with minimum solids to achieve this level of clarity. The name of the dish is also misleading
because, apart from the local crab, there are excellent bay scallops and herring
combined with sweet, non-briny sea urchin.
The combination of sea urchin and herring works, and it reminds me of
ROULADE OF PAINE FARM SQUAB BREAST WITH BLACK TRUFFLES,
POMME ANNA AND GRILLED
This was almost perfect. It would have been perfect had they used a little more of the firm, aromatic, mature melanosporum (black truffle) from Vaucluse. There is also just the right amount of duck mousse (probably local and not fattened duck, so one can not call it foie gras) which is not written on the menu. IMHO the quality of Paine Farm squab is akin to the best of the squab dishes I have had, like the squab at Louis XV. I have seen other restaurants, such as Oliveto and Quince, getting squab from the same farm, but it is possible that the youngest birds go to Alice Waters, and Jean Pierre is expert in the optimum ageing before serving. Both the potatos and Chino Ranch vegetables (turnips, carrots, mache lettuce) are equally impressive. This is the best meat main course I have had in the States in 2009.
CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE ROTHSCHILD, SWEETS AND FRUIT.
This is an excellent soufflé. It is very light, airy, and non-eggy. It came with nice home made sweets and very good marzipan. We were also served remarkably good tatsuma mandarins which may be the perfect ending to such a meal.
I should add that the service at Chez Panisse is very warm,
accommodating and no nonsense. The style
of serving and the warmth exuded by the likes of Noel and Robert and others
perfectly blend with the style and the unique place of this restaurant in the
On the gastromondiale scale I have ranked this restaurant on the basis of the two meals there last December when Jean Pierre was cooking.