I have been to Chez Panisse downstairs two or three times in the past and always enjoyed the meal (not dazzled, but definitely enjoyed).
Last night...I reluctantly must admit...was probably my last visit. It wasn't bad, it was just merely fine. And for the price...fine is just not justifiable to me.
The menu looked good: a shellfish terrine, a winter vegetable feuilleté with black truffles, lamb with a potato/sorrel gratin, and a citrus soup with ginger sorbet.
The shellfish terrine was terrific and the highlight of the meal. The remaining courses were good, but certainly not memorable. Perhaps it's because in this day and age, I shop at farmer's markets, buy fine and humanely produced meat and fish, and enjoy cooking simply with the quality ingredients...so, Chez Panisse just doesn't seem that special.
But beyond the non-memorable food was the most incredibly slow and mediocre service I have ever experienced. It was perplexing!
First, the slowness: The meal took more than three hours. Now, I'm all for slow food. But, all the tables around my party of four were seated later and departed earlier. I wondered if we had inadvertently sent a secret signal that we wanted to be left alone and have slower than everyone else service.
The time would have likely been fine had the service been there to fill in the gaps. Nearly fifteen minutes went by from when we were seated until someone came to our table to take our drink order. We poured our own wine most of the evening. Our water glasses stayed empty between refills. And we requested dessert twice after waiting about 25 minutes after we finished our last course. Huh?
And yet...the service at every table around us was terribly attentive. We just couldn't figure out what was going on.
The four of us drank two bottles of $80 pinot, bringing the total bill to about $670. A pretty high price for a merely fine meal with bad service.
As much as I believe in the slow food movement, the locally produced produce and other products, and the graceful style of food that Chez Panisse has brought to the world...I just can't go back.