Ah, Chez Panisse... what happened?
Meeting new friends T and S for dinner this evening, the general camaraderie and lusty, culinary conversation could not belie the fact that our California Icon is becoming a pale reflection of itself. I would like to believe that I am simply so jaded in being able to receive the finest of California's abundant produce and ingredients, that knowing I am walking into a temple of what should be arguably the finest ingredients available, would entitle me to one of the finest meals available. Sadly, this simply was not to be. However, starting our first heavily-vegetable course, we ordered a half-bottle of Spanish Albarino do Ferreiro which was perfectly light and clean; almost Sauvignon Blanc-like without the astringency.
After a bowl of Lucques Olives and Acme Bread, we were served our first course of grilled leeks with mustard vinaigrette, beets, and house-cured pancetta. Not listed in the ingredients but obviously an integral part which was included was hard-boiled egg. I am an intense leek aficionado but was initially concerned that the sultry leek flavor that I love so much was masked by the montage of other flavors which were far from cohesive. It was not that any one component was over-powering the rest, but the lifeless, limp leeks, in their stringy and chew state, did nothing to elevate the smallish chunks of yellow beet and occasional crouton. The bastion of fresh ingredients was beginning to falter.
For our next course, we ordered a full bottle of Vina Caneiro, Ribeira Sacra which was adequate, but far too young to show any depth or integration.
The main course of the evening was described as Daube d'agneau aux herbes; Cattail creek lamb shoulder with herb-scented soufflé, fall greens, and carrots Vichy-style. Being the showcase protein, the first bite I took was of the lamb. While tender, I was immediately overwhelmed with the saltiness of the sauce. After that, I was underwhelmed with the overall flavor of the lamb; it simply did not provide that unctuous lamb flavor one grows to expect from the Panisse experience. The herb soufflé proved to be the highlight of the evening but was far from groundbreaking. It was quite simply a very well-prepared, miniature herb soufflé; light, accessible, and with a perfectly-portioned amount of herbs where too many could have been its detriment. The "fall greens" as far as I could tell were simple braised Swiss chard (which I enjoyed) but the "Vichy-style" carrots were limp and mushy to a point just shy of that which one would find in a can. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate the freshness of an ingredient, and instead it was overcooked to become a lifeless, flaccid member.
We were given the option of a cheese course before our dessert. From St. Helena, Haiku, a goat's milk cheese, from Wisconsin came Marissa, a sheep's milk cheese, and another locally produced icon, Red Hawk from Cow Girl Creamery. The cheese was served with an accompanying bowl of chopped persimmons and three dates as well as a platter of thinly sliced nut bread. I still never bother with any flavored breads as a vehicle for cheeses, the dates themselves were the highlight of this course. The cheeses themselves, while not overtly bad in any regard, were simply too similar in their lack of depth as to distinguish themselves.
The formal dessert course was listed as a poached pear tart with muscat sabayon. I only needed two or three bites of this to know there could be no salvation for the evening's catastrophe. The pears -- like the carrots -- were so far beyond their state of freshness as to invoke concepts of can-dom. To inspire and imply a fruit or vegetable is fresh, I believe a level of "toothiness" is required, akin to a great pasta being al dente. These pears exhibited the same insincere mushiness as our carrots. The crust was soggy and flavorless, and the muscat sabayon lacked any tang or sweetness as to even suggest any other ingredient than dairy. It was all so desperately sad.
We discussed and debated our meal during its transgression. The service -- far from being warm and inviting, was perfunctory and cold. Where was the spark that was missing? I had dined at Chez Panisse several times before and thought that perhaps my palate is simply becoming jaded, however my dining companions seemed as unimpressed as I; has this simply become a destination restaurant for the occasional diner and the tourist, the way travelers to Paris feel they must visit the Louvre? Like those who feel compelled to worship at any other venerated cathedral without the introspection of the implied worship, I believe the religion that is Chez Panisse has lived beyond its time and is a mythological anthem that no longer exists except in the reverence and adoration of its devotees. It is a religion of yesteryear.