Chez Panisse. Photo: ulterior epicure/Creative Commons

Michelle Vaughan and Felix Salmon are Berkeleyside friends who live in New York City. Michelle is an artist and Felix is a finance blogger for Reuters. They’re passionate about their food so when we heard they were coming to Chez Panisse for the first time, we asked them to record their thoughts. Here’s their tale:

Michelle: Coming to San Francisco this time for me was for one occasion, and one occasion only: my husband’s birthday. He needed to be in SF for work the day before, and instead of him spending it alone, I volunteered to fly out. With one proviso:  that he get an amazing reservation for a decadent meal.

So Felix set his alarm inside his computer calendar to alert him exactly one month before so he could book through Open Table. He came back to me, “I booked us a reservation.” And I said, “Oh really, where?” And then he showed me the computer screen: Chez Panisse, 2 people, 9:15pm.

Felix: The alarm thing in the computer didn’t work very well, but when Michelle and I were in a restaurant in Orange County last month, I remembered the Chez Panisse idea and got a resy using the Open Table app on my iPhone. I love Open Table, but I think that it sometimes works less well with old-fashioned restaurants.

Michelle: We have dreamed about going to this restaurant for years and years. It’s never happened. So you can imagine my excitement and I booked an air ticket right away.

Felix: Which of course was my cunning plan: I got to spend my birthday in San Francisco with my wife, which was great.

Michelle: Fast forward to F’s birthday: we’re on the BART traveling from San Francisco to Berkeley all dressed up and anticipating a fabulous night.

Felix: Berkeley’s big! And Chez Panisse is not very close to the BART. I was expecting something a bit more Jane Jacobs and downtown, rather than a restaurant-you-really-need-to-drive-to. Michelle was wearing heels, turning the walk from the BART into a bit of a schlep.

Michelle: We arrive at Chez Panisse bang on time.

Felix: We thought we had time to explore Berkeley or grab a drink beforehand, not so much. It basically took us an hour from getting on the BART in SF.

Once we got to the restaurant, I was immediately struck by the architecture: it’s a beautiful and unique restaurant, architecturally, and I adore the way it looks and feels. You feel immediately at home, with all the warm wood; it’s informal yet high-end at the same time. But it can get a bit crowded.

Michelle: It’s asparagus season so there is a big pile in a basket near the entrance. I love that, stating: this is in season, and this is what you’re going to eat.

Felix: The greeting was a bit chaotic, there was a lot of milling around in a crowded corridor before the hostess finally appeared, and she had to deal with a couple of other people first. She needed my last name to find my reservation — no California informality here — and said the table would be ready in 5-10 minutes, they were running a little late. I looked around the corridor, and had to ask if there was a bar. Oh yes, she said distractedly, it’s upstairs. She’d come and fetch us when the table was ready.

The bar was nice, if also crowded; we ordered a couple of cocktails and looked around. Five minutes passed, then ten…

Michelle: Our reservation was for 9:15, so I’m already pretty hungry, as is Felix. We wait and wait.

It was a long wait. Drinks were finished. I mention to Felix it was poor expectations management to have us up here so long, and not check in to see how we are or give us an update on when we’ll be seated. But we are patient.

She finally comes up and we walk down to the dining room. We sit down and soak up the room. No art, just very attractive woodwork somewhere between Mission and Art Nouveau, I was having a hard time deciphering which. It was elegant but not snobby.

We receive our beautiful paper menus (green onions illustrated on the cover), which stated a fixed tasting. Fine, makes things easy — four courses: asparagus salad, Maine lobster and scallop risotto, braised and grilled pork shoulder with gnocchi, peas and fava beans. Neapolitan ice cream for desert. Great, we are ready.

The waiter comes to discuss the wine menu, which Felix is trying to choose from. He narrows down to a few — asks for a Pinot Noir that is earthy, light and has lots of character. We like a barnyard kick. The waiter wavers a little, unsure if they had something to match his request. So Felix asks about an Italian choice, and the waiter says, “Ah yes. That is fantastic and should be what you’re looking for.” (Or something to that effect.) We’re happy, he walks away and then returns with the bottle. He says, “Well actually it’s not from Italy, but from Slovenia. You will enjoy it.” Slovenia? Really??? The fact of the matter is, the wine was good. Slovenia: who knew? But it was listed as Italian and the waiter who seemed to know something about it, didn’t interject in the beginning to let us know it was in fact misprinted and from somewhere else, which annoyed Felix. I was still thinking about Mission furniture and how trendy it was for yuppies in the mid-nineties.

Felix: Our waiter seemed friendly, if slightly aggressive. Certainly chatty. He told us that the Chez Panisse conception of locavorism extends to flying in lobster from Maine, which I wasn’t very excited about, since I don’t think Maine lobster travels very well and much prefer it in situ. Eventually he came to take our wine order; he said that an interesting-looking red Trousseau from Jura was going to be quite heavy, so I asked about a 2004 Pinot Nero from Friuli in Italy. He started waxing rhapsodic about it, and told us that it was aged in clay, which sounded so weird and funky that I had to order it.

When he came back with the wine, he didn’t present to us so much as announce its arrival. Here you go, he said, a Pinot Nero from the Italian-Slovenian border. Then he looked at the back label, and said oh look, actually it’s from Slovenia. (It was called Movia, if you want to look it up.)

I’ll try any kind of weird and wonderful wine, so the fact that the wine was from Slovenia didn’t bother me too much, in fact it was quite exciting. And the wine was good. But it is very odd that it was listed on the wine list as being from Friuli in Italy. And it’s also odd that the waiter who knew so much about the wine didn’t know what country it was from.

Michelle: Then the first course comes. The asparagus was delicious. We finish.

Felix: The asparagus, we both agreed, was perfectly cooked, and tasted better than just about any asparagus either of has ever had. In the annals of asparagus, this was undoubtedly first-rate asparagus. And it lived up to the Chez Panisse reputation of cooking first-rate local food simply, and just letting the natural flavors come out.

I did feel that a bit of effort with respect to the plating would not have gone amiss: just because it’s been cooked simply, doesn’t mean it can just be slapped down on the plate. If anything, when the food is cooked so simply, the rest of it becomes more important, including the way the food is presented, both on the plate and by the waiter. It’s the only way for the restaurant to show respect for the food and for its customers.

Michelle: We wait. The second course comes… our waiter had said earlier that this dish was really divine, but actually: meh. It was OK. Neither of us were bending over backwards.

Felix: The second course was nominally a risotto, but it came out more like a random pile of undercooked rice mixed up with light-brown liquid and the occasional lump of something seafoody. This was no unitary risotto: it had disassembled itself into its constituent parts, none of which seemed to have enjoyed the experience. The lobster and scallops were perfectly good, but hardly revelatory, and actually, for a restaurant which prides itself on letting the food’s flavors shine out, they were kinda buried in the rice. That wonderful light, spring-fresh flavor that one gets in great risottos was missing; instead, the dish was stodgy, and I certainly got no hint of the sheer joy I get from eating Maine lobsters in Maine. My lobster rule stays.

Michelle: And then for the third course. Except we didn’t get it. We waited and waited. Our plates had been removed and we just sat there. Our waiter was MIA. I wish I had been more attentive to my watch so I could tell you the exact amount of time which went by during each course — but what I can say is that all of it was too long. I finally had to find another waiter and tell him, “Listen, we haven’t seen our waiter in a really long time. We don’t have our mains, what’s going on?” and with that, he rushed back. Our food came out immediately after, our waiter apologized and gave us a glass of wine on the house. That was nice. But it doesn’t make up for our time lost, and that cohesive fine dining experience one should expect from Chez Panisse… we ate our pork and fava beans: they were OK. Nothing spectacular. And nothing wrong either. Everything tasted good, but it didn’t taste GREAT. It wasn’t that creative. I won’t even describe the Neapolitan ice cream because I think you get it. So what, right?

Felix: The wait between the second and third courses really was a joke. And we did seem to lose our waiter somewhere along the way, dealing with various different servers and even the hostess at various points. They did give us an extra glass of wine when Michelle ran out, and no one was ever unfriendly. They were just a bit absent. All of which is pretty unforgivable given that this is a restaurant which in theory knows weeks in advance exactly how many dishes it’s going to be serving that night, and exactly when each one is going to be served. If it wanted to, it could, like Alinea, time everything down to the minute. Instead, it seemed to be collapsing under some kind of unexpected strain. Maybe the chef got sick and couldn’t come in, something like that? I have no idea. But that was the impression.

The main meat course was two cuts of pork, cooked two ways: shoulder and loin, I think, braised and grilled. Something like that. If anything a bit high-concept for the down-to-earth Chez Panisse, and certainly so much cooking was done to the pork that I can’t tell you whether the pork itself was particularly good. The loin was better than the thin and dry slices of shoulder, which sat there forlornly looking as though their highest ambition in life was to be a filling in a sandwich.

The dessert course was a big disappointment for me: while I ate the strawberry ice cream, I left the vanilla and the chocolate — they just weren’t interesting. Mine did come with a candle, and a piece of paper saying happy birthday.

And finally came the coffee: bitter, far too strong, with none of the natural sweetness in a well-drawn espresso. We asked a couple of people if they could call us a cab, and eventually somebody did.

The room was full of a wide variety of interesting-looking Berkeleyans, but  I didn’t get the vibe that most of them were there for the food. (One table was clearly there for the wine, another seemed to be putting together a PowerPoint presentation.) Maybe it’s a pleasant place to have a nice meeting or meal out, catch up with colleagues or friends. And that’s a very important part of what a restaurant should be. But some restaurants aim higher than that.

The bill, when it came, included a 17% service charge; I can’t remember whether that was mentioned on the menu. But in the end we spent over $340 on dinner at Chez Panisse. I can certainly think of places where it’s possible to spend that kind of money on worse food, but I can also think of a lot of places where you get much more joy, professionalism and creativity.

Michelle: We walked out that night completely let down. We both love what Alice Waters has done for food and farmers, and I can only assume when she’s in the kitchen cooking it’s a fabulous experience. But the restaurant is another story — just putting together local, fresh food is not enough these days to get me excited. I can do that in my own kitchen, and if we want disorganized service, believe me, we can serve that up just fine at home. What we were expecting was to be dazzled, like we were the following day for lunch at the Slanted Door. That was spectacular (pineapple-anchovies anyone?).

Sure we’re spoiled in New York, with local chefs from downtown to Brooklyn experimenting, competing and getting weird. Corton and Eleven Madison (for very special nights out), Spotted Pig/Breslin (when Fergus Henderson visits, it’s the bomb) and Momofuku Ssam Bar are tried and true NYC favorites… I’d rather be pounded by rock music while some pierced hipster slaps down creative bowls of deliciousness at Momofuku, than deal with a disorganized fancy restaurant any day.

Felix: The legacy of Alice Waters is everywhere: in thousands of restaurants and farmer’s markets around the country the Alice Waters gospel is preached to the converted. It has been built on with fervor and imagination, and millions of Americans eat tastier, healthier food as a result. But I think that Chez Panisse is no particular exemplar of what Alice Waters really stands for. It’s not accessible; the food is not all that spectacular; and the overriding impression is of a past-its-prime institution trading on its name.

Michelle: Alice Waters is very important as a food activist, and we totally support the Edible Schoolyard. One is being built in East New York, Brooklyn, it’s going to be great. I am helping support a regional outdoor market which will hopefully open permanently in downtown. It will be different from a green market. She’s incredibly active, and I think influenced Michelle Obama’s decision to plant a vegetable garden at the White House.

We very much support all these efforts, which is part of the reason we were so damn excited to visit the restaurant! So we crashed hard when they just kind of threw it out there and then disappeared.

What do you think, Berkeleysiders? Did Michelle and Felix have bad luck? Was there somewhere else in Berkeley they should have gone for a celebratory meal worth flying across the country for?

Photo of Chez Panisse by Empty Highway on Flickr

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