I'm an L.A. Board regular, but I thought I would give you kind folks a visit. I recently went on a trip to San Francisco, Berkeley, and Napa Valley to visit a friend and my sister. While at Berkeley, we dined at Chez Panisse Cafe. Before you flame me for the subject, allow me to describe the meal.
I made reservations exactly a month before dining, because the website recommended it, and an online article of the Cronicle describing restaurants that you need to reserve WEEKS in advance, then pray you can even get a table. Also, on the website it said that you need to leave a $25/person deposit for the restaurant...sheesh. Fortunately, I got the reservations with no hassle.
For our dinner we ordered a bottle of Chinon "Les Granges, Bernard Baudry 99. It was so light, I could only describe it as "grapey". We started with the Green garlic risotto fritters with rocket salad, which looked like a couple of falafels, but inside was a delicious, creamy rice.
For my entree I had the slow cooked pork shoulder with nettles and polenta. Now, I was totally curious what the heck nettles are. Isn't that something you wouldn't want to fall into while hiking? When I got it, I was shocked to find out that it's merely a somewhat bitter greens called "tong hoe" in Cantonese, that my mom sometimes cooks. In fact, it tasted and was cooked like the way that you can easily find in some of the non-haute cuisine Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel region of SoCal. I guess what's exotic to one person is pedestrian to another.
My friend had the Thon aux artichauts a la Marseillaise, which is tuna, artichokes, fennel, topped with an aioli. It was disappointing to see that the thin tuna steak was cooked all the way through. To roughtly quote Emeril Lagasse, "If you're going to eat well done tuna, you might as well get it out of a can". It certanly was dry and flaked much in the same way as the canned stuff.
The most promising dish was my sister's roasted young hen with fava bean and levain bread salad. The hen chicken was tender and juicy, and the bread salad was just fantastic.
We topped the meal off with the apple tart with a lip smakingly sour Meyer lemon ice cream and also the Bittersweet chocolate-espresso custard. Fortunately, the custard was not a heavy ganache chocolate mess that I sometimes find in a chocolate dessert.
I felt the waiter was a bit snooty while serving us and while taking our orders. If you've seen some of my posts on the L.A. board, I think I'm starting to think poor attitude service is the norm. He also charged us for several items that we did not order, mostly drinks. I pointed it out, he first asked me, "you didn't have that?", but corrected it when I told him that I didn't even know what the items were.
So you may be wondering what is the meaning of the subject line, my thoughts on Chez Panisse didn't seem very bad... It wasn't bad, but it was in fact, quite mediocre. The food wasn't fantastic, some things like the tuna was below average. I've read in somewhere, that Chez Panisse is considered one of the Bay Area's "best restaurants", I'm sure even most of you will debate that. But I didn't think it came even close enough to begin boasting that fact. So why is it that I hear so much good things about it? Why are Bay Area people lining up a month early just to hand them over $25 per person to get reservations? Recently, Los Angeles Times food critic came back gushing how great the restaurant is (but then again, I think she's on the take). The Dean and Deluca Cookbook and French Laundry Cookbook even has flattering things to say about Chez Panisse. I'd like to know why Chez Panisse is such a highly regarded restaurant.
I admit, I love to see a restaurant with a daily changing menu of creative dishes with creative ingredients. I know how Alice Waters supports local small farmers, serves ecologically sound food, gives a lot back to disadvantaged groups and all that good stuff. But has its reputation as a restaurant grown only because it satisfies people's morals rather than their palates?
Yes I did eat at the more casual cafe. Is the restaurant is *significantly* better? I hope so, because $75 a person is a lot for a mediocre prix fixe meal, not to mention the hefty deposit. If so, I'll literally eat my words, and will have to give Chez Panisse Restaurant a chance. If the cafe and restaurant share the same kitchen and same line staff, then I think Chez Panisse is overhyped.