Go ahead. Alert Torquemada. I am about to commit heresy. As wise and omnipresent and probably kindly as she may be, Alice Waters is not God.
T and I had lunch at the Chez Panisse Café over the Christmas break and I have to say, it wasn’t great. It was okay, but it wasn’t great. Right off the bat the bread they served us while we considered the menu was crap – baked in a too-hot oven so the crust was burnt and then, apparently, refrigerated. And of course, it was sourdough so the interior flattened into a cold, slightly damp spongy bread-wad under the weight of the butter knife. The butter, at least, was good – sweet and fresh.
I’d had a bottle of the Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale earlier in the week and loved it. And so when I saw that Chez Panisse had it on tap I didn’t even bother to consider anything else. It’s good beer. GOOD beer. Hoppy, sharp and clean with a gorgeous red-amber color and light sweet finish. T ordered a glass of the Chez Panisse Zinfandel (2005) which was surprisingly good. We toasted to each other, to Alice Waters, to California, to our dog Beau, and to a happy, prosperous and healthy and did we mention prosperous? New Year.
T started with a salad of local arugula, radishes and sardine toasts which was good enough. I optimistically opened with a chanterelle pizzetta. It sounded like just the thing for a bright but chilly California winter afternoon. Have you ever bought that grizzly looking inflated bag of pizza/bread dough from the supermarket because you were too lazy to make your own? One bite and the crust magically transforms into a soft, slightly too-sweet mass in your mouth? That’s what this was like. The chanterelles were okay, though less than perfectly fresh. And the seasoning was weak.
Our entrees were much better. In an uncharacteristically carnivorous turn, T ordered spaghetti with veal meatballs. They were delicious – perfectly cooked and seasoned in a light and thin tomato and mint sauce that managed to be both an effective accompaniment to the meatballs and lubricant for the pasta without upstaging either. I had a buttermilk-fried fillet of sole with roasted potatoes and pickled vegetables. The fish was sweet and tender and very fresh and the batter was light and lightly crunchy. The pickled carrots and turnips were crunchy and delicious – a brightly colored taste and textural contrast to the fish and potatoes.
Dessert was a mixed bag. I had a nice duo of passion fruit and mandarin orange sorbet and ice cream with a pistachio langues du chat. I have to admit I based my order entirely on the langues du chat. The sorbet and ice cream were refreshingly tart and light but the langues du chat was just okay – a bit over-baked and lighter on the pistachio than I was hoping. But that’s just me. T ordered a crisp made with local apples and sour cherries, a la mode. It was an unimaginative choice and an equally unimaginative dish. It was okay. But I’ve had better apple crisp at pot luck dinners.
All-in-all, our meal was a disappointment. The service was phoned in and wholly impersonal, from the hostess right on down the line leaving us both feeling as though our presence was simply tolerated out of an expiring sense of obligation. I was hoping for and expecting much better. In fact, as we parked the car and walked around the block several times because we’d arrived a bit earlier than our reservation, I was actually SHAKING with nervous excitement. Walking out of Chez Panisse we felt a cool blast of winter wind off the Bay and all the satisfaction of having just paid a hefty tithe to a church in need of a Reformation.