Regional restaurant fires rarely make national news. But the blaze that tore through Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse on March 8 was acknowledged around the globe.
Europe's best chefs sent condolences. Former staffers flew in to volunteer. A local girl donated $32 to the restoration efforts from her Meyer lemonade stand.
When the pioneering farm-to-table restaurant finally reopened June 24 after three months of rebuilding, decades-long regulars and curious new diners flocked to see how Alice Waters and her staff had turned a crisis into opportunity. After all, the major fire damage was confined to the front porch dining room, which was rebuilt 10 inches longer and with fireproofed windows.
But Waters also used the time to spiff up the place, reinforcing the building's foundation with a steel beam and redoing its flat roof in a modern, Japanese Shinto style. With a new coat of paint, sanded floors and the addition of a private bussing station, business was back to usual.
Where does that leave the cuisine? In 2013, where does Chez Panisse fit in, up there at the very top of national, if not, world, dining experiences? It has been three years since the destination eatery lost its single Michelin star, and with the 42nd anniversary this month, we thought it was time to tuck into that redesigned dining alcove and taste for ourselves the original California cuisine.
That's the thing about eating at Chez Panisse. It is historic and ceremonial, from the walk through the vine-entwined gate under the bunya-bunya tree to the handsome French maître d' who greets you in the foyer. I've been unfazed during interviews with heads of state and Oscar-winning celebrities, but something about entering that building on Shattuck made my palms sweat.
It also made me wonder if my expectations were too high. For instance, my four-course dinner began with an aperitivo of fennel-infused cava, but for $100 I wanted an amuse bouche, like a tiny scoop of savory sorbetto. Still, the fiery sparkling wine stoked our appetites and paired delightfully with the first two courses.
To me, those two courses and dessert summed up why Chez Panisse has not only stayed in business for 42 years, but manages to remain relevant: because they use the best possible ingredients at the apex of their freshness to make simple, memorable dishes. Are others doing this? Yes. But they aren't credited with being the first.
We started with soft, delicately crunchy fried Monterey Bay squid with green coriander atop a salad of white shell beans, Persian cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes so sweet they would've made my sorbetto dream come true. Reopening in the summer, the best season for fruits and vegetables, certainly worked in the restaurant's favor.
I didn't care that I could've made this dish at home because I'd never think of tackling the second course. It was a beautifully executed wild mushroom crespelle al forno, a thin, Italian-style crepe stuffed with light-as-air sheep's milk ricotta and the meatiest mushrooms. I can close my eyes and still taste it.
I can't say the same for the main course of grilled quail. I certainly appreciated that it was a local Wolfe Ranch bird. And I liked the crushed fennel and fresh oregano seasoning. But the entire course, down to the sliced summer squash saute and mashed potatoes, felt like something plated in a hotel banquet hall. It didn't have a sense of place. It didn't sing.
Dessert did: plum ice cream and plum sherbet scoop-to-scoop and so tangy-fresh you'd think the stone fruits were plucked from the tree that morning. Protecting them was a crunchy ribbon of white meringata with glistening raspberries, sliced Ruby Grand nectarines, and aromatic candied rose petals standing guard. What a delight in every way -- flavor, freshness, and presentation.
The staff was delightful as well. Swift, even. We dined on a Friday night, and I was told over the phone to allow 2½ hours for dinner, but we were through in two. So were our neighbors, a dressed-down couple in their 40s, a table of suits, and a pair of 20-something gal pals celebrating their birthdays.
I'm not sure you can truly judge Chez Panisse, or any restaurant, for that matter, in one visit. But, that night in the dining alcove, the spectrum of people congratulating the staff on the reopening and dropping their Benjamins like pennies on their tables reminded me why we love Chez Panisse:
The restaurant changed the way we eat out. And Americans love firsts, even when seconds and thirds might be better.
WHERE: 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
CONTACT: 510-548-5525; www.chezpanisse.com
HOURS: First seating, 6 to 6:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Second seating, 8:30 to 9:15 p.m.
BEVERAGES: $40 wine pairing
NOISE LEVEL: Low to moderate
PARKING: Street parking
PLUSES: Pioneer of local, organic, seasonable
MINUSES: Entree fell short of expectations
DATE OPENED: 1971
We don't let restaurants know that we are coming in to do a review, and we strive to remain anonymous. If we feel we have been recognized or are given special treatment, we will tell you. We pay for our meal, just as you would.
Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40