Monday, December 3, 2012

So much to say, yet I'm speechless

Yes, the rumors are true – I had dinner at Chez Panisse last Wednesday! Yes, the Chez Panisse. And wow, was it something special. My darling brother and I went to celebrate my birthday a bit early. Consider this a life goal checked off the list. And I just have to say, it was everything I wanted it to be and so much more. I had high expectations for this dinner, and they were far and away exceeded.
Alex made our reservations a few weeks ago, knowing how much I wanted to go here to celebrate the big 2-6. We’d originally been hoping to go closer to my actual birthday tomorrow, but Wednesday was the closest we could get, and I have to say, it couldn’t have worked out better – but I’ll get to that shortly.

We got there just a few minutes before our 8:45 reservation and just hung out upstairs in the bar for a bit. Before too long, though, we were taken to our table – and it was a primo spot. We were seated in a cozy corner booth that looked diagonally into the open kitchen. From my seat I could see lamb roasting on the open grill, baskets of bread and fresh vegetables, and chefs hard at work. Also, I have to say a word about the atmosphere. Even though it was busy and a relatively small space, it still seemed quite and intimate. The whole room has a soft glow thanks to copper panels that reflect the light. In a word, magical. But enough about all of that. Let's get to the real matter here -- the food.

The perfect meal.

If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you know that I’ve eaten on a lot of great restaurants over the years, and even though I may not be formally trained, I like to believe that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to food. And boy do I usually have a lot to say. But this meal almost (almost) rendered me speechless. It was that good. I’m not even talking about layers of decadence or being so full it hurts – quite the opposite, in fact. This was just so, so thoughtful, down to every last ingredient. The chefs were able to create flavors that I didn’t know existed and that I don’t have a name for. Let’s start at the beginning.

After we were seated, we were brought a little plate of almonds dressed with lime and red pepper – just a little nibbly bit to get us started. Next came the first course, a Dungeness crab salad with celeriac and a sesame-scallion dressing. They were generous with the crab (and you know how I feel about crab…), but the real star was the dressing. It was bright and sharp with a citrusy accent that I can’t quite put my finger on. What a fantastic way to start the meal.

Next came the watercress soup, thickened with potatoes and leeks and topped with “yogurt culture” (which I honestly think must be the same thing as sour cream). Despite the buttermilk and potato, it was a relatively light and delicate soup, and the watercress gave it a nice bite. I especially loved it when I had some soup and some yogurt in the same bite – they balanced each other out really well.

Of course, the entrée was next. As you may know, menus at Chez Panisse are set – you are served what is on the menu each day and that’s your only option (fun fact – in the 40 years it has been in existence, they’ve never had exactly the same menu twice). What this means is that when you make a reservation, you don’t know what you’re signing up for. I was dreading that we’d end up there on lamb day, and with my luck, we totally did. And I don’t regret it even a little bit. I’ve written about this before – my aversion to lamb and veal, that is – and I do still stand by those principals in general. BUT (and this is a big but), the lamb at Chez Panisse was absolutely delicious. And at least when dining at a restaurant like this, I know that the lamb was raised sustainably and humanely, and that provides a certain amount of comfort. Will I start eating it every week? No. Will I be more open when I see it on a menu when I know where its sourced from? Yes. So moving on. This lamb was served pretty rare (maybe medium-rare?) – a nice crust on the outside but pretty pink in the middle. The coriander crust was phenomenal, it gave the dish so much flavor. And the lamb itself was nice and tender. It was served with lightly fried cauliflower (which I though was reminiscent of an eggroll, but in a good way) and a vinegary radicchio dish. Again, everything just worked together so well.

And then. Oh yes, and then. Finally, it was time for dessert. The menu described a ginger “tortina” and I wasn’t sure what that was – but it ended up being like a mini gingerbread Bundt cake, sitting in a pool of delicious, smooth crème anglaise, topped with candied ginger, coupled with poached pears, persimmons, and pomegranate seeds. I couldn’t even make this stuff up. It was one of the best things I have ever eaten. Ever. Seriously, I could eat this dessert and only this dessert every day for the rest of my life and be totally fine with that. It had everything I love in a dessert – heavy on the fruit, with the creamy sauce and a bit of hearty cake. I’m drooling now as I type this.

Finally we were brought our check (I won’t even mention what the total was) along with a few little candies – a peanut brittle-type thing and some really dark chocolate truffles.

We were also served a delicious bread basket and butter at the beginning of the meal. This just helped fill the spaces between the courses. Finally, I had a glass of white wine that pretty much lasted me through the first two courses, which was perfect, and then a cappuccino with dessert. Chez Panisse is partly known for their extensive wine list, but since I was dining with someone who is not a big wine drinker, I decided to just go for the one glass, and that was really all I needed.

Even after all these courses, I wasn’t painfully full. It was just completely, pleasantly satiated. And really, it was all relatively healthy – lots of veggies, lean seafood, not a lot of carbs or refined anything. And even though dessert was, it was also heavy on the fruit.

In total, we were there for just over two hours. The service was impeccable, the atmosphere was just spectacular, and the food was transcendent. I haven’t even told you all the best part yet, but I am going to keep you in suspense before this post gets completely out of control. So, more to come soon.

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