Ah… Where do I begin. I guess it all started freshman year when Katherine, Amy, and I were talking about this little gem. It’s relatively expensive pricing does not cater to the students of the area but it never fails to attract the locals. We made a pact to save up enough money to go downstairs and eat at this world-famous restaurant before we graduate. Well… I broke my promise with Katherine and reserved a table for two a couple of weeks back. For the upstairs cafe, or restaurant downstairs, it is almost necessary to book a reservation at least a week in advance. Their menus for the coming week are posted online the weekend before so we didn’t even know what to expect.
Their downstairs restaurant has a fixed-price menu that varies in price, with Monday being the cheapest and Friday/Saturday with the more elaborate (and pricier) menu. There is no strict dress-code but one Yelper describes it as “Berkeley-chic”, whatever that means. We went on Thursday so our meal consisted of:
- Salmon carpaccio with mustard and capers
- Pasta e fagioli with fresh shell beans and pancetta
- Grilled Sonoma Liberty duck breast with wild huckleberries and fried polenta
- Cardamom Pavlova with Middleton Gardens raspberry ice cream
First things first. Amy and I went up to the bar while waiting to be seated and looked at their drinks menu. The black cherry Italian soda caught our eye. The bartender complimented us on our fine choice and mixed a dark purple syrup with soda water. That first sip just cemented our high expectations for the night. It wasn’t too sweet and was the perfect aperitif to start off our experience.
The first course consisted of thinly sliced raw salmon, or a carpaccio, with mustard, capers, and tomatoes. The highlight of this dish were these sweet cherry tomatoes. I never believed that tomatoes were fruits before then but these things were so sweet that it is the sole reason I am converted.
The next dish was pasta e faglioli, or pasta with beans. It was Amy’s favorite dish of the night. The noodles were perfectly cooked and had a light tomato sauce. Some fresh basil and crispy pancetta rounded out the dish nicely.
The star of the night. See that duck breast swimming in its juices? Now that’s a happy dish. It was accompanied by a handful of fresh huckleberries, sauteed chanterelle mushrooms, and fried polenta. The duck was succulent and perfectly cooked. It is an example of how good food should taste, simple and unadulterated. It also embodies Alice Water’s cooking style; California cuisine made from fresh, local ingredients.
Alas, we come to the end of the meal. The cardamom pavlova was light and surprisingly crunchy, like a cookie. Think of it like a cloud that you turned into some baked edibles. Ok, maybe not. It’s just a meringe, fluffed egg whites for you cooking noobs, that was baked long and slow in an oven. Light like a meringe, crunchy like a cookie. It was topped with some fresh raspberries, peaches, and, of course, the raspberry ice cream.
After the meal, Amy was such in a good mood that she decided to tell our server a little tidbit about us. So basically, she told him that we have never gone out to a nice dinner and how Chez Panisse was our first. I couldn’t do anything in rebuttal because, sadly, it’s true. Anyway, long story short, we were able to go in back to the kitchen and see how it was run. They have such cool stoves and cooking supplies (man I’m such a food nerd) and he even showed us the produce fridge. I was so jealous for Saturday’s guests… it was rack, loin, leg of lamb :-(.
And to put the finishing touches on our dinner, we come back to our table and there is a pair of candied orange peels dipped in dark chocolate with our check. Maybe they wanted to make us feel better after seeing the price tag? From start to finish, our experience with Chez Panisse was unforgettable. I recommend you all to just skimp on a couple of dinners at Asian Ghetto and make your way there.