He said, She Said: Chez Panisse

He-Said-She-Said-on-Misadventures-with-AndiThe 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).

The 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.

Ready?

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!

The Menu:

An apéritif was served, prosecco with grapefruit and coriander along with a mini-charcuterie plate of coppa, prosciutto and cornichons. The rest of the meal:

Smoked salmon and black cod salad with steelhead caviar
Smoked salmon and black cod salad with steelhead caviar

Spring vegetable ragoût with coriander from Chez Panisse

Grilled Sonoma Liberty duck breast with kumquat, pommes dauphines, and young spinach
Grilled Sonoma Liberty duck breast with kumquat, pommes dauphines, and young spinach

Bittersweet chocolate fondant with caramel ice cream and candied pecans

He said:
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.

She said:
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.

Bonus:
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 ;-).

Bittersweet chocolate fondant with caramel ice cream and candied pecans
The Chez Panisse piano

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.

Making-desserts-at-chez-panisse
Making desserts in the Chez Panisse kitchen

The conclusion:
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.)

18 Comments

  1. Marsi
    April 4, 2011

    I’ve had the same experience at Chez Panisse: one was spectacular and featured some of the best things my husband and I have ever had, and one was just all right and nothing that we didn’t feel we could’ve executed ourselves at home.

    But the place is an institution. If you care about food even a little, then you absolutely must go there at least once in your life.

    Top of my must-do list is The French Laundry.

    Reply
    1. Andi
      April 4, 2011

      @Marsi, oh interesting to know that. My husband wants to go back and I will have to temper that with the fact that each and every time might be above-the-top. Yes! French Laundry is a total dream, still try to talk the hubby into that one!

      Reply
  2. Sonia
    April 4, 2011

    Loved the post!
    btw, it’s “Il dit”, not “lui dit”. Or you can say “il lui a dit” ( he told her)
    Confusing, I know..

    Reply
    1. Andi
      April 4, 2011

      @Sonia, ack! Thanks so much and it is corrected now!

      Reply
  3. Walker
    April 4, 2011

    Wonderful. I’m lusting after the ragout and the dessert. I don’t normally read your French posts, not a big Francophile, but I love this and will be reading eagerly all the he said, she said! And, yes.. the Chef is yummy.

    Fondant: something I know as a covering for cake, so I’m not completely clear on whether it is the chocolate ‘cake’ itself you refer to? Wow.. I wish I were there…

    Reply
    1. Andi
      April 4, 2011

      @Walker, choclate fondant is the same as the molten chocolate cake or also molleaux chocolate all the same name for something yummy!

      Reply
  4. Clarabela
    April 4, 2011

    What a wonderful idea for a series. I look forward to your future French food ‘misadventures’.

    Reply
    1. Andi
      April 4, 2011

      @Clara, thanks and can’ wait to hear about your film festival adventures as well!

      Reply
  5. Sofia - As We Travel
    April 4, 2011

    Seems like a great restaurant, although a damn hassle getting a reservation!

    Reply
    1. Andi
      April 5, 2011

      @Sofia, I know pesky, but I seem to be having the same experience in a lot of restos these days – supply and demand 😉

      Reply
  6. Lindsey
    April 5, 2011

    I LOVED your husband’s reaction! I had a feeling he’d realize what he’s been missing all these years! David Lebovitz also used to be a pastry chef at Chez Panisse – oh to be a fly on the wall in that kitchen!

    Reply
    1. Andi
      April 5, 2011

      @Lindsey, yeah he is a keeper, as passionate about food as I am…and now he is sort of into the project, just hope he isn’t disappointed by future choices. So many great chefs have been in and out there. Funny I saw a David look-a-like while eating dimsum on Sunday, could have sworn it was him!

      Reply
  7. Linda
    April 5, 2011

    I ate there a few years ago and loved it. Everything was just so fresh. I was upstairs though. It was a fun experience and I love the area.

    Reply
    1. Andi
      April 5, 2011

      @Linda, try the downstairs if you ever get a chance!

      Reply
  8. Ms Michelle
    April 6, 2011

    I wish my kitchen looked like that.

    Sorry to hear it wasn’t over the top amazing, but you still have MAJOR bragging rights. Service Question: Did someone escort you to the bathroom when you got up? I’ve never been a huge fan of the bathroom escort. It makes me feel pressured since I know they are waiting outside.

    Reply
    1. Andi
      April 6, 2011

      @Michelle, nope no restroom visits, so I don’t know…

      Reply
  9. Lady Jennie
    April 7, 2011

    The picture of the duck didn’t do it justice because it didn’t look as good as the rest. I’m glad Mr. M was happy though. I remember one time my husband coming to the US for a business trip and he ate in a “French restaurant” where they served frozen crèpes that had been microwaved – the kind you get at Auchan! He was appalled.

    Reply
    1. Andi
      April 7, 2011

      @Jennie, I know..Mr. Misadventures used a flash, then I took several that were too dark or out of focus, I did not get one single photo of the duck that was decent!

      Reply

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