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January 25, 2010

CHEZ PANISSE: BEST RESTAURANT IN AMERICA?

Ranking: 18/20.

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 Bourgogne.  That is, some legendary wine makers try to do the least possible to influence the wine and instead let the wine make itself as much as possible.

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 America.

There is nothing like success that breeds its discontents.   There are basically three criticisms leveled against this Berkeley CA institution.  Some people allege that the cooking is “too simple too safe”.  Others contend that albeit Chez Panisse led the “quality of the product first” revolution,  there are now so many restaurants throughout the United States which have adapted the same motto and one can find equally good products elsewhere.  Finally there are those who claim that the restaurant is now “démodé”, that is, it is no longer a harbinger of culinary trends.

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 Napa wineries or Bordeaux chateaux.  Those who are seeking purity and harmony will always appreciate Chez Panisse and concur that the restaurant has never abandoned the search to reach these goals.  On the other hand, those who are after “flash” and “molecular gastronomy” will never be satisfied by a meal at Chez Panisse.

I agree that, in the last 20 years or so, and especially in the 2000s,  restaurants in America have progressed a great deal in upgrading the quality of the products that they serve, i.e.  fresher fish, hormone-free meat, and seasonal fruit and vegetables.  However, having been in virtually all great American restaurants at least once, and usually many times,  I will contend that there is still a considerable gap between Chez Panisse and others on two counts.  First is the consistency.  Throughout a meal in a leading restaurant, say, the French Laundry or Alinea, one can find some very good ingredients, but also others which leave a lot to be desired.  This is not the case with Chez Panisse.   For somebody who has dined at Chez Panisse downstairs at least 200 times since 1982 (when I was a student at Berkeley), I would contend that there is not a single restaurant which can boast the same record for overall consistency in terms of ingredient quality. 

Secondly, I would also add that one finds in Chez Panisse ingredients of exceptional quality.  Nowadays, only Manresa and Quince, both in California, sometimes offer ingredients on a quality on par with Chez Panisse. In my experience, nothing in New York, since the demise of Ducasse at the Essex house, comes close.

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.

P1030931(1)

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 Manresa’s abalone sea urchin combination (different, based on a Japanese idea and also great).  The first green garlic of the season and the very fresh hedgehogs and chanterelles complement the overall harmony.  Certainly this is one of the top ten best of 2009 and the best consommé in recent memory.

P1030932(1)

ROULADE OF PAINE FARM SQUAB BREAST WITH BLACK TRUFFLES, POMME ANNA AND GRILLED CHINO RANCH VEGETABLES.

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.

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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.

P1030914(1)

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 US.

On the gastromondiale scale I have ranked this restaurant on the basis of the two meals there last December when Jean Pierre was cooking.

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I wholeheartedly agree with you and your rebuke to the criticism. As a fellow Cal alum (both undergrad and grad school), I have also been to Chez Panisse 100+ times and the quality of ingredients shine every time. Also a fellow foodie lucky enough to try some of the best table around the world, I have yet found a place having better produces than Chez Panisse (Yes, I am comparing to L'arpege, Akelare, Robuchon, Kitcho, and other great restaurants in Asia and Europe.)

However, Chez Panisse does have its weakness and they are the fish and dessert courses. For the fish course, not that they are bad, it is just that they are not up to the standard of the quality of product and other meat they can get. For dessert, it is clearly that it is not their forte.

I would compare Chez Panisse to Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux (for a more humble pedigree best all other grand cru for its purity and setting the standard for others to follow) :)

Looks gorgeous. Thanks for sharing..
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