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Restaurants & Bars 4

Chez Panisse, 5/17/02

Rod Williams | May 25, 200206:03 PM

Our friend K. stopped off in Oakland last week on his annual migration from LA to the Pacific Northwest for the Seattle International Film Festival, so we rounded up another Oakland friend, E., and headed off to Chez Panisse, downstairs, for a bite to eat.

And a delightful bite it was. As Chowhounds probably know, Chez Panisse posts its menus for the week on the preceding Friday, so we knew what we'd be dining on. Prescient K. raided his cellar and transported northward a precious bottle of Jaboulet's Hermitage, 1989, on the back seat of the Lexus.

First, we were served an aperitif -- a liqueur glass of prosecco (dry Italian sparkling wine) with elderflower syrup -- a lovely herbally-flowery combination that danced on the palate. A small bowl of mixed, marinated olives came along with that.

Then came a thin slice of swordfish, seared, drizzled with a tangy extra-virgin olive oil and a scattering of fragrant oregano, with a small tangle of peppery baby greens on the side. Delicious! We ordered up a bottle of Ponzi's Arneis, 2001 to accompany the swordfish. Arneis is an earthy white grape varietal from Northern Italy, and this was the first American version we'd tasted. It was perfect with the fish.

Next up was a bowl of vibrant green soup -- fava beans and green garlic, with olive oil and little globs of chevre. K. was a little underwhelmed, but the rest of us just loved it. The fava beans were almost pureed, but there was still a slight crunch to them that gave it all a lovely texture. From our table we could see into the kitchen, and there was a large tray, dramatically lit, piled high with magnificent fava beans just inside the entrance that we could hardly take our eyes off all evening.

Then came some succulent slices and one dainty chop of grilled lamb from some organic No. Cal. ranch where especially lucky sheep must live out their brief lives in a state of bliss, because such tender, flavorful meat never before crossed my lips. It was bathed in a luscious jus, and partnered with two tiny wild fennel cakes, a little mound of stir-fried tatsoi, and a couple of slices of tempura-ed meyer lemon. A really wonderful dish, rendered sublime by K's extraordinary Hermitage -- a symphony of thrilling flavors and textures in the mouth that we will not soon forget.

Dessert was described as a grappa semifreddo with strawberries. I don't have a highly evolved sweet tooth at the best of times, and this dish didn't do much for me. It was actually a slice of cake -- a genoise, I'd say, with two layers of semifreddo -- a pale creamy ice, with a little alcoholic kick, but not much else to say for itself. The quartered, marinated strawberries on the side were the best part, I think.

Then some coffees, decaf and otherwise, and we hit the road. We all, I think, had had some bad Panisse experiences in the past, for one reason or another, which we giggled over at the table. This meal certainly exorcised those particular demons, for which we were most grateful.


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