On the way home after a 3-day trip to the Sonoma Coast, my husband & I lunched at Chez Panisse Café with another couple and their 1-year old. This report probably doesnt say anything new but being my first time at this mothership, I felt I had to post.
First the food: it was our first time ever and our friends' first time upstairs (theyve been downstairs once and was a little disappointed, but it mightve been due to the menu that night). We like to share bits of our dishes with each other every time we eat out, so I got to taste 4 appetizers, 3 entrees and 2 desserts. Too busy chatting, I dont remember all the details, so heres what I do remember:
I like the green tea iced tea. Chanterelles appetizer was heavenly earthy. Goat cheese in the goat cheese salad had a perfect greaseless breadcrumb coating. Garden lettuce salad was sparingly dressed but not under-dressed (Im one of those who likes lots of dressing but here, I didnt miss it).
Wide-cut fresh noodles were really thin and looked soft but surprisingly toothsome. The tomato sauce was simple, nothing exciting but nothing harsh. Halibut had a crispy crust but moist flesh. Pizzettas crust was good though not outstanding but the brandade topping was. Oh and the chicken breast! They warned us they were out of quail so the quail & chicken breast dish was sans quail. My friend still ordered it anyway and I thought chicken breast? Who goes to an upscale resto and orders chicken breast?? Well, I discovered if its Chez Panisse, youre crazy if you dont order chicken breast. My friend cut me a piece from the narrow end yup, the driest part of the breast. I almost didnt notice the skin (it was pale golden) but when it crackled as I cut a slice my eyes widened. Not only was it crisp, the meat was tender, moist, non-mealy and tasted chickeny. Yes, its probably more due to the breeder/farmer than the work of the kitchen, but credit goes to the kitchen for knowing where to find such chicken.
Now about the service and dining with a baby: We planned it to be a late lunch (2:30 PM) on a weekday. This baby is normally easy going and weve dined with them at nice-ish (not upscale) places before and he usually just sits in his chair munching quietly on bits of food. I was a little concerned anyway so when I made the reservation, I asked if bringing a 1-year old was okay and they were really nice like its nothing to worry about. When we arrived they sat us in the airy enclosed balcony section, which I think is the prettiest part of the Café and the most isolated (only 1 other party of 3 was in that section).
So after the long tiring weekend, our friends baby was a little difficult and my friends had to keep him on their lap or take him for a little walk to prevent him from fussing. He never cried, but he wouldnt sit in his chair and wasnt hungry. When our entrees arrived, a young woman who may be the maitre d came and offered to take him for a little bit. My friends were hesitant and didnt want to trouble her. She then said shes taken lots of babies before and is pretty good with babies, so they agreed. The place was mostly empty by now and she just held him and walked around a bit while we ate (he was quiet the whole time he was with her). When we finished our entrees, she returned him to us all calm & quiet. Needless to say, the service here is more than what you ask for! The rest of the service is professional but relaxed in a good way.
Oh as for dessert, the cookies that were part of the lunch prix fixe were just okay. The chocolate dessert is truly amazing for dark chocolate lovers. Its not a molten cake, but seemed like it; I cant remember what it was called exactly, which is a shame. And the pool of simple melted chocolate looks as plain as a dark Hersheys syrup but is out of this world chocolatey.
All in all it was what I expected, a place that takes the best ingredients and showcases them simply but expertly. Id like to return and do the downstairs someday, but I think my husband would prefer the upstairs rather than paying more for the downstairs and risking a menu we might not like.
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