Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chez Panisse

Today I travelled across to Berkeley so that Jonathan could show me 'his' town ( funny I always think of him as in SFO, but of course Berkeley is its own city as well as being home to a VERY large university). UC Berkeley is a beautiful campus, with much character and the sorts of beautiful buildings that lots of money and generous alumni can buy. As Jon pointed out, every second building is named after a generous benefactor. We took a stroll through the frat district and were offered a brief tour through the magnificent Arts and Crafts building which houses the Sigma Phi fraternity.

I was very impressed not only with the young man who proudly offered us the tour when he saw us admiring the building from the outside, but with the fact that the young men in this fraternity do all cleaning and maintenance on this historic building themselves, and it is in beautiful condition. We also walked past the frat house where Jonathan is staying - sadly (Or perhaps thankfully) I was not offered a tour inside, so cannot report on the state of his room!! We then headed down to North Berkeley - a very chi-chi neighbourhood - for the highlight of the day, lunch at the cafe at Chez Panisse. Now I apologise that I am no John Lethlean, so my description can't do it justice.

To start with, the building that houses Chez Panisse is gorgeous - an Arts and Craft style former house, set back from the road, with a Wisteria covered verandah out front. The restaurant proper is located downstairs, and when we passed by on our way to the cafe upstairs, it was a lovely sight, lots of people working together to prepare the evening's masterpieces.

The cafe is beautiful, quiet and calm, lots of wood panelling, and beaten copper lights. The open kitchen runs through the centre of a long room, and is very low-tech, no rattling order machine here, a computer is hidden away beneath the servery. The wood-fired oven was fired up and producing pizza and pizzetta. The service was perfect - attentive but not over the top, the servers friendly and helpful. Chez Panisse has broken away from the pack to include a 17% surcharge in the bill and paying their staff a proper wage, but like many people probably do I chose to top this up becasue I was so impressed with them ( Jonathan says I am defeating the purpose but never mind).

So to the food: Jonathan had the prix fixe menu, a simple garden lettuce salad with a magnificent dressing: apparently sesame oil, red wine vinegar, and lime, orange & lemon juice. This was followed by an eggs cocotte dish in a flavoursome stew of white beans & capsicum & a platter of biscuits. Like everything we had today everything was so fresh and perfectly cooked. Chez Panisse sources as much of its produce as possible locally so the time between farm and plate is very short and you really can tell the difference this makes.

I also started with the garden lettuce salad, followed by duck leg confit served with braised cabbage and crispy potatoes (probably also cooked in duck fat - well there goes the diet). I followed up with a creme fraiche pannacotta with pomegranate - this lovely fruit is too under-utilised in Australia.

So all in all a wonderful lunch, well worth the $100 bill not only for the perfect food, but for the whole experience. The only lowlight was the two 'valley girls' sharing a pizza at the next table for the first half hour we were there. It wasn't their strident voices or lack of consideration for other diners that floored me though - it was the Starbucks iced tea that one of them had with her. To their credit, the wait staff treated them with exactly the same courtesy and deference as they did everyone else- despite the fact that the girls basically ignored them.

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