Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gourmandising: Omnivore & Chez Panisse

Really I shouldn't be allowed out on my own. TWICE today I have got on public transport going in the complete opposite direction from where I should have been going. Neither occasion managed to put a dampener on what was a great foodie/book day.

On impulse early this morning I decided to see if I could get a booking for the Chez Panisse Monday night dinner. I was in luck for the early sitting of 5.45. This really meant I shouldn't spoil my appetite with any other restaurant visits, so instead I set out to visit for the first time Omnivore Books on Food in Noe Valley. On the way I popped in to Bay Books - the Friends of SF Library's book shop in the main library. Some nice books there, but with luggage weight limits in mind, I confined myself to a couple of paperbacks.

I also took the opportunity to visit San Francisco's spectacularly grand and OTT city hall. With acres of marble and a dome which wouldn't be out of place in a Florentine cathedral, it really is worth a visit.

So off then to the storybook-pretty neighbourhood of Noe Valley. Omnivore Books is somewhat appropriately located in a former butcher shop, with the original pulley system and red cedar-lined coolroom still intact. Shop manager Samantha was a charming host, who managed to share her love of food and cookbooks despite a bad case of laryngitis. Omnivore's offering is small but perfectly formed and selected. Its choice scattering of out-of-print and scarce books on a range of subjects reflect owner Celia's previous occupation as a rare book specialist with a local auction house. The shop has a great range of subjects and quite a good selection of Australian authors.

Celia has recently had the good fortune to become the cookbook expert for Williams-Sonoma, the kitchenware giant. Each month WS has an "Omnivore recommends..." section and it must be great for business. I had a very pleasant, and quite inspiring, hour in the store, and came up with a couple of ideas for my own business ( although I don't think I can persuade Housei or Minimax to have a Vintage Cookbooks recommends... selection).

After a quick stop at Mission Dolores Park for some amazing views of the city:
I headed back to my hotel to get my gladrags on. d lots of time to get across the bay to Berkeley because I got on a BART train going in the opposite direction. After getting off at the end of the line I finally caught the right train and arrived at Chez Panisse right on time. I had loved the more casual, a-la-carte upstairs cafe when I visited Jonathan at Berkeley in 2008, so was eager to try the famous set menu dinner in the more formal restaurant. It's a beautiful room, warm, woodlined and accented with arts and craft copper light fittings. The staff were lovely and my server suggested that I was on my own she would match half-glasses of wine with the three course meal. First course was two delicate whole Monterey Bay squid stuffed with a breadcrumb stuffing flavoured with currants and mint. Main course (sorry 'Entree') was grilled, locally grown pork served with a mash of butternut squash, chard and two delicate crispy onion rings. The dessert was not a great conclusion to the meal - the grapefruit sorbet with prosecco gelee was too bitter for my palate and I didn't feel it suited the preceding courses.

My conclusion? Probably because I was on my own, I think I preferred the experience of the upstairs cafe. The atmosphere in the restaurant was really geared towards couples and groups. There were lots of regulars in attendance who got lots of special attention, and honestly I was glad when the meal was over and I could leave. As I left I took a  walk through the gorgeous open  kitchen, where everyone was very welcoming despite working hard at prepping for the next sitting (including Alice Waters herself who was working at a table in the kitchen.) Perhaps that's the thing - I'm much more confortable behind the scenes where the food gets cooked!

As I walked back to the station I managed to find two bookshops and a couple more books to bring home.

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