San Francisco Bay area restaurants vie for world recognition in part because two of them have made it: French Laundry and Chez Panisse. It takes months to land a reservation at either, and Chez Panisse requires a $25 deposit per person to secure it--fail to cancel within 48 hours and you lose your deposit if you don't show up. I doubt many default. Alice Waters all but invented California Cuisine here, pioneering the use of ingredients, methods, plating and portion that today no self-respecting operation can afford to ignore. Chez Panisse is the California gourmet's Mecca, and tonight we visited for our first--and last--meal.
We won't be returning to Chez Panisse for dinner. The sentence thunders in my ears, rings with heresy, pains me as I write it, but it's true. How is it possible? Were our expectations too high or misplaced? So great is its reputation, so universal the praise from layman and critic alike, that we doubted ourselves all through the meal and even after. There were no mistakes made--no foul dishes, no bowls of hot soup in our laps. Service was professional, aside from a couple of errors I'll discuss later. How were we let down, and why? It's not possible to explore this question without occasional comparison to French Laundry and Guy Savoy, the two greatest meals of our lives. Chez Panisse plays in this league, so we feel the comparison is fair.
Burke and I prepare for great meals. We want an experience, and we're excited to do our part. We spent two weeks scaling down our meals, conserving money and appetite, getting our clothes pressed, scheduling the day. I got a haircut. Burke brought out his nice shoes. We did this for French Laundry, we did it for Guy Savoy, it's a mark of our respect and a reminder to ourselves that a great meal requires teamwork: sit passively, contribute nothing, merely judge, and you're setting yourself up for failure. We go with hands outstretched and eyes bright. Money is no object, so we're not about to handicap ourselves with a poor attitude.
We'd been by Chez Panisse before, shopping around Berkeley, and we had no trouble finding it. The glorious mission-style decor fulfilled our high hopes. Deep square timbers of wood frame doors and windows, light fixtures angular with with copper and wood, right angles and pierced shades, of the Arts and Crafts movement--they echo Frank Lloyd Wright and his prairie style. We walked in the front door, through the second doors, and waited. And waited. There was no host. Two other couples milled about beside us, uncertain. Five minutes isn't a long time, if you've been greeted and asked politely to wait, but without seeing a soul it's an eternity. Still, it's Saturday night, perhaps they're shorthanded or we caught them precisely at the wrong moment. It wasn't time to judge.
When the host appeared we were seated quickly at a cramped, awkward table. Burke and I understand an operation like Chez Panisse needs every table it can spare, that it sacrifices large, multiple dining rooms to conserve its atmosphere, but this table did not belong. It was small. Had we been seated opposite each other this wouldn't have been so bad, but at right angles our silverware crowded each other, our legs tangled beneath the linen, Burke was flush against an outside wall while I was sitting in the middle of service traffic. We're a couple of big guys, I know, but I don't see how anyone reasonable was supposed to feel comfortable at that table. We passed other tables of the same size but configured opposite--our host should have taken one look at us and realized plans needed to be changed.
We were still excited, our eyes darting everywhere to take in details of the room, other diners, their plates, the table settings, but after the long wait and now this cramped table, it was getting more difficult to continue our initial enthusiasm. Again, it's not the table itself--nothing wrong with having a table like this, I suppose, but we hadn't been read as customers. Guy Savoy in Paris brimmed over with hospitality--they couldn't wait to watch us, to examine us and see what kind of experience we wanted. There was instant interaction, the great game of service was engaged. Here at Chez Panisse, the warmth, the invitation, the urge to satisfy and make comfortable was missing. All that thought had gone into the decor, but once it was set, we were merely invited to enjoy it. The passive nature of our meal had begun, and it was to get worse.
When I made the reservations a month before, I was told the menu would be fixed: no choices, no variation, no special orders (though I'm sure they have some vegetarian option, and had we required a sudden shift I'm certain they could have accommodated us). We were handed each a card with the meal and presented with the wine list. Aperitif, salad (with prosciutto), a shellfish broth, duck, and a frozen hazelnut mousse--we searched the wine list and decided to ask for a recommendation. Here was our chance to engage, to erase the petty first impressions that threatened to cloud our experience. But our server seemed lost, brushed by the possibilities we mentioned from the list, and told us that two wines had been selected and were served by the glass, designed to compliment the meal. Oh. Well, fine, that sounds good, thank you.
Now it was Burke's turn to raise a point. As we waited for water, he expressed disappointment that there were no choices whatsoever. I countered, "Oh no, this is a specific style, I was told about this on the phone." Still, there was a mechanical, assembly-line quality that was haunting him. "It's the same as our usual request in great restaurants for the chef to bring us what s/he thinks is best today," I tried. No, there's a difference between that and having a totally fixed menu, Burke maintained. I wasn't sure, but suddenly we were having not only a fixed menu, but fixed wine. The passive attitude was rearing its head once more. As much as we love to engage in choices on menus and wine lists, we both understand and even relish the chance to put ourselves in the hands of the chef, as we did at Guy Savoy and French Laundry. And yet tonight the quality in the air was different. We'd been in Chez Panisse twenty minutes, and our continued efforts to share in the experience, to be partners in the moment, was not only failing, but we started to feel awkward even for trying. Had we not properly conveyed the kind of dinner we wanted, or were we simply not being read at all?
The amuse bouche was fine--a roasted garlic spread on toast, a selection of olives. They provided a small cup for the olive pits, very dainty. The salad came in good time, and was excellent. Chicory greens, fresh and pleasantly bitter, with watercress and sweeter greens in a very light vinaigrette, a soft wedge of ricotta cheese, prosciutto and seasoned walnuts, all drizzled with balsamic vinegar. This is the kind of salad Chez Panisse built its fame upon. Thirty years ago this would have been avant-garde, shocking, daring. It's de rigeur now, of course, but that's testament to Alice Waters and her influence. Bread followed, and the one food failure of the evening--the butter was so hard that my knife slipped on it and cut my thumb. It didn't draw blood, but I was surprised they would serve butter nearly frozen solid. The bread itself, hearty, country sweet and a very good light sourdough, were delicious.
We sat at our table after the salad. The air had become thick between us. It turns out our energy was slipping as we independently began to lose faith in the meal. Finally, Burke said to me, "Something's wrong." I was so relieved! "I feel it too." We had plenty of time to discuss in low voices why this wasn't living up to Guy Savoy, French Laundry, or in fact dozens, perhaps scores of meals we've had. Our soup did not arrive until twenty minutes had passed. Twenty minutes! Two tables around us had arrived when we did, and they had moved onto the duck before we got our soup. This is a bobble, a service mistake. We don't demand perfection, not even from a top-end operation like Chez Panisse, but it was the wrong time to drop the ball--we were getting anxious, uncomfortable.
When the soup arrived it was quite good: shellfish brodo (Italian for broth) with handmade herb pasta that was perfectly al dente and flavorful. The soup didn't wow Burke, but again, there was no failure here. Of course, our soup was gone not two minutes when our duck arrived--clearly the kitchen was off synch. The duck was flawless, inventive, a star dish that we'll both remember for some time. "Duck Two Ways" had a leg cooked in confit and a sauteed breast that was so clean, so meaty it could have been high quality beef. There were onions sauteed in butter and five spice, several deep-fried onion rings, and quartered turnips still connected to their long greens, lightly cooked in butter. I spotted the pun: duck two ways, yes, but also onions two ways (sauteed and fried) and turnips two ways (tuber and greens). Just delightful.
Dessert was billed as a hazelnut bombe with brandy, but it was more a terrine: genoise soaked with brandy beneath a frozen hazelnut mousse, suffused with candied orange peel, served over brandied caramel sauce and a light chocolate sauce. It was very, very good, the orange and hazelnut flavors complimenting each other, the chocolate sauce especially thrilled Burke. The red (a pinot) had so complimented the duck we didn't bother saving any for dessert, which is good because it wouldn't have matched. The sauvignon blanc that started the meal was light and minerally, with a grassy note, also an acceptable choice.
By now our courses were coming fast. We were suddenly ahead of all the tables in our area. I believe the staff caught our mood and realized we'd been somehow disappointed and wanted to leave. For I did want to leave, and Burke as well. We could hardly believe we were eager to go--this is so far from our experiences at French Laundry and Guy Savoy and many lesser meals that we were baffled. Gratuity was included and fixed at 18%, so no thought was required here.
We signed the bill, had our morsels of candied grapefruit peel and chocolate, downed the last of our truly excellent cappuccino and were out in the cool, damp East Bay air. We'd had the Chez Panisse experience, and that's what it was: a Chez Panisse experience, untailored, unaltered, unaffected in any way by we mere participants. Aside from some frozen butter and some difficulty timing the courses, the service was fine, but cold. The plates were conventional only because this very restaurant had set the convention, it wouldn't be fair to expect any radical departures. And yet, somehow, all these elements together left us cold. We realize for the $248 we spent we could have had dinner at Sawa Sushi right in our home town, which always leaves us dancing on air. We could have tried any of San Francisco's staples, Aqua or perhaps 1 Market. These are not the thoughts one carries from a satisfying meal.
In the car, we discussed if it was fair to compare Chez Panisse with Guy Savoy, our ultimate standard. How could we expect the kind of service we got in Paris, where there's a completely different attitude towards waiting tables? But we recalled our French Laundry experience, which had its own warmth and graciousness, attentiveness of service and hospitality, right here in Northern California. Is it fair to criticize a meal for being "merely excellent"? Well, if a place wants to be in the upper echelon--and charge accordingly--then yes, excellence is expected, it's the platform from which we expect to find the artist taking wing.
We made it home, looking into each others' eyes, and knew that experience itself cannot lie. This was not a restaurant having an "off night," this was an operation that, at least now, in its thirtieth year, had become something that we didn't enjoy the way we'd hoped, the way we expect. Perhaps the energy lives in the Chez Panisse Cafe upstairs, with its more varied menu and more relaxed environment--we'll almost certainly give that a try. But for dinner, we shall remember what we learned from Chez Panisse, and move on.
Shattuck Ave. at Cedar
A Burke and Wells Review