Chefs going local might seem like a new trend, but its roots lie in 1971 when a little restaurant in Berkeley California called Chez Panisse opened. Alice Waters, the founder and executive chef at Chez Panisse, is the mother of the local food movement. Her menus and cookbooks follow the philosophy of simple cooking using great ingredients. A holiday trip to the bay area afforded me the opportunity to visit Chez Panisse Cafe. I was eager to see, taste and experience first-hand where the local food movement began and how Waters’ philosophy stood the test of time.
True to her philosophy, lunch was magnificent. Its elegant simplicity highlighted the ingredients. Freshness played a starring role. Perhaps just as significantly as the food, the experience was punctuated by the flawless service and comfortable dining room.
Reservations are not only recommended, they are required. Tables may be reserved one calendar month ahead of time. Since I was making my flight arrangements less than a month before my holiday trip to California, I was not too hopeful. But, with some flexibility and patience, I scored a late afternoon lunch for two the day before my departure. Judging by full dining room and the number of hopefuls turned away by the host, it was obvious there was no time of day that was too late for lunch at Chez Panisse.
Being an overly punctual type, we were naturally early, which, of course, meant a pre-lunch libation. The wine list was perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the experience. No, it was not a bad list. It was an expert selection of interesting wines and my Grüner Veltliner was delightfully crisp and tart. However, there was only a single California wine. As my first introduction to the Cafe, offerings of French, German and Italian wines seemed in direct opposition to Waters commitment to local ingredients.
Despite the non-local wine selection, the lunch menu outlined array of local vegetable and meats. Looking for a light lunch after an over-indulgent holiday, I opted for a chicory salad first course and pappardelle with wild mushroom ragù main while my husband went with a pork tenderloin, sausage and greens main. For dessert, we decided to share an apple galette with house made ice cream and a chocolate souffle.
The chicory was the star of the salad. It was crisp. It was fresh. It was lightly dressed in a green goddess dressing that balanced the chicory’s bitterness. The handmade pappardelle was perfectly al dente and dressed with wild mushroom ragu. The mushrooms were so earthy it seemed like they might have been foraged that morning. While the sausage was slightly dry, the pork tenderloin was moist and perfectly cooked – that is to say, it was just slightly pink and juicy. And the greens were still crisp and not over-stewed.
The desserts were the perfect end to the meal. They were not too sweet. Not too heavy. Not too large. The galette crust was unbelievably thin and topped with thinly sliced apples with a lightly sweetened apple jelly-like filling. The ice cream was fluffy, yet rich. Bitter sweet chocolate was punctuated by a light and creamy sauce. This is how dessert is done.
While the food itself was magnificent, it would be negligent not to mention the atmosphere. The dining room was cozy, but not overly crowded. There was room to breathe. The service was exquisite. Attentive, but not intrusive. Friendly, but not artificial. Responsive, but not hurried. The pause between courses gave enough time to reflect, but not so much to linger into awkwardness. Too often a great meal is shadowed by dining room antics. Instead, Chez Panisse’s front of the house was the perfect pair to a great meal.
Dining at Chez Panisse was somewhat of a pilgrimage for me. I wanted to see the place where a group of activist cooks came together to start a food movement around supporting local producers and sustainability principles. It was certainly more elegant than its history suggests which, perhaps, reinforces the notion that local, sustainable, organic food is a luxury afforded to those that can afford it. Of course, Chez Panisse makes no promise to dispel that notion, but rather its promises a delicious meal of great ingredients, prepared simply. And that, it did live up to.