I was a little worried to be taking an out of town friend to Chez Panisse Cafe. We'd been talking about going to Chez Panisse for at least 10 years, and Saturday seemed like a high-pressure time. Also when I last ate there a year ago, my uncle complained about the lack of spices and was somewhat underwhelmed by the experience.
We were seated 10 minutes after our reservation after enjoying a glass of wine at the bar.
We ordered an heirloom tomato salad with homemade mozzerella and marjoram pesto and a pizza with squid and anise (hyssop?). We had also discussed the chanterelle toast, which the server brought accidentally instead of the tomatoes. When we mentioned the mixup, we brought the tomatoes immediately and didn't charge us for the chanterelle toast.
All three dishes were impeccable. The pizza was the kind I dream about--so much for NY pizza. When you want perfect crust with just enough sauce and a trace of cheese, go to Chez cafe. Arizmendi is close (we had a slice with spinach, red onion, and cheese this morning for breakfast) but no cigar.
My friend adored the chanterelle toast; the mushrooms were lightly sauteed in sage butter. The fresh mozzarella and tomatoes provided a splash of color--red, yellow, and the green of the pesto, but the texture of the cheese is what made this work.
By this time we were completely full, and awaiting two enormous entrees, the smoked quail with bacon and beans and a Niman Ranch short ribs served over polenta with sauteed onions and peppers. I had only a bite of the quail, which was tasty and a generous serving but nothing I'd order again.
The short ribs were a different story. Well, really it was the polenta, creamy, a hint of cheese with bits of corn in it. If there's better polenta in California, I'd like to know where. I didn't even want to mix the polenta with the other flavors, it was so luscious. The short ribs were braised and fatty, falling off the bone. I'm looking forward to finishing them for leftovers tonight (and if you know me, you know I HATE leftovers).
Despite there being "no room at the inn" we ordered two desserts, a pear sherbet with gingersnaps and the espresso caramel with biscotti and whipped cream. The pear sherbet was a disappointment--like a mealy pear. Nothing like the pear sorbet at Mitchell's or the spectacular campari grapefruit sorbet from Incanto last week. The gingersnaps were delicious but I would not call them gingersnaps; they were hard and crispy rather than chewy.
The espresso caramel was delectable. The whipped cream alone was worth the price--Chez Panisse offers Strauss milk on the menu, so perhaps it was made from their cream. I would have liked a thicker custard, but in terms of flavor, the combination was truly divine.
Total came to $145 for two including 4 glasses of wine, 2 appetizers, 2 pricey entrees, and 2 desserts and tax and tip. We would have been happy with 1 less entree. Service was friendly, leisurely, and included several very good recommendations for food and wine choices.
The cafe apparently serves until 11:30 on Saturday nights. Despite my early fears about them being busy or the food being too subtle, this was the best meal I've enjoyed at the cafe, and I look forward to having another special occasion on which to return.