Saturday, May 28, 2011

On the Road Eats: Chez Panisse

When I travel to a new place, my first thought turns to food and what new places I might be able to try. As soon as I found out I would be headed to Berkeley, California, for an intense weeklong workshop, I sought a reservation at Chez Panisse, the esteemed restaurant of Alice Waters, a leading advocate of local and sustainable food and the slow food movement.

I was able to get a late reservation at the upstairs cafe, the more casual side of the restaurant. I was warmly greeted by the host and taken to a corner table. The menu I received said that it was inspired by Colman Andrews, one of the founders of Saveur magazine. As it happens, the following week would be Chez Panisse's 40th anniversary. So, for each of the 40 weeks leading up to it, the menu would recognize the inspiration of 40 different chefs.

My server favored the dish of spring vegetables with sheep's milk ricotta and prosciutto, so I went with it. The salad was a delightfully green mixture of peas and pea shoots and radishes. The cheese, with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt, was a nice complement to the earthiness of the peas. And the prosciutto helped to round out the dish.

My main course was the Riverdog Farm chicken alla Milanese with rocket salad, artichokes, mint and lemon. The chicken was tender and moist, though the breading was slightly salty. The capers likely contributed to that. The artichokes were nicely done, brightened by the bits of mint tossed in.

My experience of Chez Panisse, though good, was underwhelming. The service was slow, and though I have heard many say that dining alone can often garner you more attention, I did not have an experience even close to that. That said, I don't doubt the many who have had wonderful experiences at Chez Panisse, in the dining room or the cafe. And I'd be willing to return to try the other half of the restaurant on my next visit to Berkeley.

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