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Monday Night at Chez Panisse

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Monday Night at Chez Panisse

Melanie Wong | Apr 21, 2003 07:06 PM

The roving birthday party moved onto Chez Panisse after a round of drinks at Cesar. Our party of six had a 6:15pm reservation and was seated just outside the kitchen, giving us an unobstructed view of the busy cooks and wood-burning oven. The picture below shows Tom Meg in the kitchen, in front of the display of fava beans and Acme bread.

We nibbled on tiny Chase Ranch almonds roasted with rosemary and sea salt while we reviewed the day’s menu – Monday night three-courses for $45 - and looked at the wine list. While some don’t like the idea of a single fixed menu, I found not needing to make food decisions more relaxing than I’d ever imagined. It felt great to sit back, breath in the hospitality, and just wait for the meal to begin.

To wet our whistles and to enjoy with the first course, we ordered the 2000 Didier Dagueneau Pouilly Fume, En Chailloux which is the unoaked cuvée. The bright acidity, cool minerality, and grassy herbal notes were refreshing and stood up with the artichokes that usually kill wine. Ruth took one whiff of the wine and correctly identified the grape variety as Sauvignon Blanc.

The Tagiolini with artichokes, house-cured pancetta and mint were roughly handcut thin noodles with a bouncy, almost rubbery toothsomeness. A light minty perfume scented each mouthful adding a fresh lift to the slices of buttery artichoke hearts.

I’d brought my own wines to accompany our main course. I asked Oliver which of the two Italians he would prefer. Jennifer looked on in amazement, blurting out that she’d never seen me defer to anyone else’s wine judgment. Oliver was amused as I explained that he was an Italian wine specialist and that I’d be foolish to not rely on his opinion. He opted for the bottle of 1995 Bricco Manzoni from traditional varieties by producer, Rocche dei Manzoni, over what he described as a “new world pretender”. This and the 1993 Domaine Dujac Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru “Aux Combottes” were decanted by our server and served side by side.

Both were slow to open in the glass, even after decanting. The Bricco, an 80/20 blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera from Monforte d’Alba, was a brackish red, but still more saturated and darker in color than we expected from Nebbiolo. The riper and more forward of the two with some evidence of new French oak aging, this was evolved and ready to drink with good balance of mellow fruit and cellar complexity, but a little too much vanilla oak influence for my taste. To others, the denser fruit and oak shadings made it more familiar and attractive. The Dujac presented initially with a barnyard and chalky mineral nose that was then overtaken by leathery black fruit and autumnal notes. More elegant and complex, this hit its stride in combination with the lamb. With a taut line of tannin and surprisingly youthful acidity, the Dujac was fresher than the Bricco, and we felt it could continue to improve for another two to five years with good cellaring.

Fricassea di agnello di primavera: Dal Porto Ranch spring lamb shoulder braised in white wine with Parmesan sauce, asparagus and fava beans was finished in the wood-burning oven to add a crisp golden brown crust to the rough-hewn chunks of meat. The taste of true spring lamb, I loved the gelatinous threads cooked to gooey tenderness marbling this shoulder in contrast with the well-braised but still firm flesh. The light sauce, more along the lines of enriched natural pan juices, moistened the plate to pull together the flavors of the strewn asparagus tips and tiny fava beans.

With our dessert, our server suggested the Ch. Pajzos Tokaji Aszu 5 puttonyos from the wine list. I’m not sure of the vintage, most likely 1995 or perhaps 1993. This was made in the modern, fresh fruit-driven style with little nuttiness from oxidation. The bright acidity cleansed the palate between bites of dessert and the green apple and citrus tones wrapped around the flavors.

Panna cotta with Valencia oranges and candied kumquats had a rich taste of cream rather than the milky blandness so often encountered. Also, it was soft and quivering and not rubbery with too much gelatin. The kumquats added a bitter flavor punch and intensity to the slightly sweetened orange sections and juices. The accompanying ginger snaps were terrific, as are nearly all the cookies from this kitchen. Sometimes CP’s desserts are the weakest part of the menu, but not tonight. I thought this was stellar with clean lines and stark simplicity.

Chef Kelsey Kerr came out to chat with Oliver and we had a chance to thank her for our evening. Graciously she acknowledged the service staff and the warmth of the Arts and Crafts setting, not just the kitchen alone, for making this a very special occasion. And, she was absolutely right.

As a footnote: to respond to the recent inquiry about how long a meal here might last, our dessert plates were cleared at 8:45pm, two and a half hours after we were first seated. Then we lingered over our dessert wine for a while more before asking for the bill and departing about a half hour later. Also, while there’s not a dress code here, I’d say at least half the gentlemen wore jackets (few ties though).

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