The background: Mr. Misadventures and I (a Frenchman and a francophile) have never eaten at a French restaurant in San Francisco (or any where in the San Francisco Bay Area). This is due to the fact that Mr. Misadventures fears that he will be deeply disappointed having had some bad experiences when he first moved to the U.S. ( a LONG time ago).
scheme plan: She said, “honey, since you are such a big supporter of my blog, what do you think about helping me with a series about French food.” He said, “of course, I’d love to help.” She says, “great! Oh by the way, the plan is to eat at some of San Francisco’s top French restaurants….” He said: “sigh…”
The concept: She gets to pick a new French restaurant to dine in every month. He gets to critique the restaurant as much as he wants. She writes it up.
In reality this series was cooked up so that I could try out French restaurants in San Francisco, but there is one restaurant they we have feverishly debated since we moved to Berkeley in 2007….the famous and infamous Chez Panisse. Mr. Misadventures doesn’t eat at a restaurant simply because everyone else in the world says it is good and you should. Especially not one that is so hard to get into (you have to call at 9:00 a.m. 30 days in advance to get a reservation).
Thus it took me a good 18 months to convince him to go there in the first place. I explained to him who Alice Waters is and her role in the organic food movement and her place in Berkeley and U.S. restaurant history. But then there were some bad reviews and then they lost their Michelin star. It did not look like it was ever going to happen.
In the end, I finally did talk him into it, but we decided to try out the cafe. There are two parts to Chez Panisse, the main restaurant downstairs, which is tiny by the way – looks like it holds 20 tables – where they serve a set menu. You can look up what you will be served the week before (Saturday to Saturday).
And then there is the cafe which occupies the upstairs portion of the property. It is more casual, the menu consists of a selection of items you can order from with several options. It looks like it holds about 20 tables as well. You still have to plan way in advance for a reservation there as well.
And that’s where we ate last July. The food was very good, but not exceptional, I felt that I could have the same meal in any number of restaurants. I was disappointed and chose not to write about my dinner except for a small comment about the ice cream in my first J’adore post.
But then Mr. Misadventures had a birthday. A big one. And I decided it was about time to bite the bullet and try the restaurant. It took awhile to get in, a month had passed since my husband’s birthday, but it didn’t matter, the key thing was that we were going!
So without further ado, I bring you the first edition of He said, She said: Chez Panisse!
I feel at home! This is the best meal I have had in all the years I have lived in the U.S. Food is art, it is passion, it is love. It is to be generous and loving with the ingredients, to respect them and not to try to over-manipulate them. All the ingredients in this meal were happy. It was a happy duck that I ate tonight. There was care and respect in the cooking. It takes time and commitment to seek out and source others who love their product and want to share that with you.
Then the talent of the chef comes in the amplification of the already happy, good food, again not manipulating, but respecting, drawing out with love. I compare this to our meal at Joel Robuchon. That was manufactured this was pure passion. Passionate producers producing good food provided to passionate chefs who loved it into a meal.
This meal transports me “hors du temps” (out of time/suspended in time). It is luxurious in that this was my childhood. This is what food was like on my grandparents farm.
I don’t care about the calories, it made me happy! There is a sense of conviviality here and I feel great.
This was truly one of the most amazing meals of my life. But here is the thing, it is hard to describe why. It was incredibly simple, yet complex in that it had to be cooked in a way that every flavor could be tasted naturally without effort, and that is not just cooking, that is art, no…magic.
I have had magret de canard many times in Paris and other places in France (please note that I have NOT had it in Gers – the region in France for duck) and I love it, but it has never tasted as good as this dish did. I even ate the fat…I NEVER eat the fat.
The ragoût is practically indescribable, it tasted like spring, that is not a flavor but an experience. Sitting there tasting every single vegetable individually and together in that course was reminiscent of the scene in Ratatouille where the horrible food critic tastes the ratatouille and it evokes the wonderful memories of his childhood. The ragoût evoked spring.
Every single detail is considered. The service is like having five people attend to you like at Le Grand Vefour (or any other 4 star restaurant) the difference here is that it is very causal, understated, like a discreet member of your family is taking very good care of you. It was not intrusive or uncomfortable, in fact, it was comforting. So much so that we started a conversation with Maud, the chef de rang, who turned out to be French.
She also turned out to be the daughter of the chef, Jean-Pierre Moullé . We happily discussed how wonderful the food was for a few minutes. A little earlier in the evening the table next to us had some visitors who crammed themselves into their table which really crowded me (I was sitting on the bank/bench), Maud saw the issue and moved our table down a little bit so that we would not be disturbed. It was an unfortunate incident that was resolved efficiently.
I was happy enough with the act of professionalism, but when we got our bill in the end she had removed the bottle of wine from our tab as an acknowledgment of what had occurred. It was a $100 bottle of wine so it was not insignificant. We had not asked, we had not complained (although I can tell you Mr. Misadventures was quite annoyed), it had just been done.
We got invited to tour the kitchen! I am sure plenty of people get invited into to see the kitchen (but not all at once, it was tiny!) but I have never been invited into any kitchen and I was thrilled. Mr. Misadventures was in love.
As the kitchen is a very small space in which a lot of people are passing through and a lot happening in, we didn’t stay long. We were introduced to the chef. I didn’t take his photo, but here is what he looks like, very oh la la…but don’t tell Mr. Misadventures ;-).
We also chatted with the pastry chef. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but it was Mary Jo Thoresen who had worked at Chez Panisse for several years and then had opened a French restaurant in Oakland called Jojo’s which she ran for nine years until 2008. I am not sure if she was just filling in for one of the regular pastry chefs or if she is there permanently, but I let her know it was one of the best fondants I have ever had, and as a francophile and a chocoholic, I have had my fair share.
We discussed with her how amazing the dessert was, especially the fondant which was not too sweet, not over-sugared to hide the flavors of the ingredients letting the natural chocolate taste come through. Yum. The two dessert wines we had with the dish, one to heighten the chocolate, one to heighten the caramel and pecans was divine. And it was her preparation of the ingredients that allowed that to happen.
I don’t think that every He said, She said post is going to be as harmonious as this, in fact; I fully expect that they won’t! But there is little doubt that when it comes to Chez Panisse we are in complete agreement that it is one of the best meals we have ever had.
That is going to be hard to top. You’ll have to tune in to see! (Also, I promise that not all these posts will be this long, there was just a lot of back story on this one.)