Chez Panisse

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Chez Panisse is a Berkeley, California restaurant known for using local, organic foods and credited as the inspiration for the style of cooking known as California cuisine. Well-known restauranteur, author, and food activist Alice Waters co-founded Chez Panisse in 1971. From the beginning, Waters advocated a style of cooking that uses the freshest, most delicious local food available, often prepared and presented simply and/or traditionally. The restaurant prides itself on relationships with producers, and buys through its established network of local farmers, ranchers, and dairies. [wiki]

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It is not often my foodie buddy Erik makes a special trip to sunny California.  We start his first day with Chez Panisse, a famous restaurant he has wanted to visit for so long.  For our visit, we were greeted with this 4 course prix fixe menu at $100/person:

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An aperitif – served with a light wine.

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Local Dungeness crab cakes with radicchio, fennel and Meyer lemon salad and paprika mayonnaise
The crab cakes were light and crispy.  The paprika mayonnaise supported the dish with a dash of spiciness.

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Gold turnip and celery soups with black truffle butter
A unique soup with complementing flavors.  The soup lacked depth though in texture and flavor.

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Wolfe Ranch quail grilled with green garlic and marjoram with spinach and winter squash caponata
The quail was quite good — quite possibly the only dish that was salted enough to bring out the flavors.  The spinach/cauliflower were fresh and crisp, however oddly contrasted by the winter squash’s soft and mushy texture.

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Noyau ice cream profiteroles with clementines and kumquats
Noyau is a French liqueur using pits of apricots, but having an almond/hazelnut flavor.  This was surprisingly good with the profiterole and citrus flavors.

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The rest of the restaurant:

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The kitchen is right next to the dining room:

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The meat fridge has full bone-in meats for making broth.

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Pastry chef:

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Hungry Cactus’ Verdict: B

To appreciate Chez Panisse, one needs to have the right expectations going in.  First, the food may seem bland.  I think this is Alice Waters’s intentional style.  I will contrast this with Thomas Keller’s style — while both use the freshest ingredients, he brings out the flavors in a bolder way (I’m guessing with salt and fats where appropriate without overdoing it), which I prefer.  Second, the price runs $100 (or $140 with wine paring) per person, which compared to other restaurants in Yountville (~ double that of Ad Hoc), does not seem to bring enough to the table, literally.

Having said that, there were a few things that stood out to me: the turnip and celery combo soup flavor — I found those flavors complementing each other, and hope to use that in some future dish.  The other was the Noyau liqueur flavor — it’s a great dessert flavor!

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