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Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California, tasted on December 18, 2004  We've been spending quite a bit of time lately writing about what restaurants should do. It's not that we've ever run a restaurant of our own (or even seriously worked at one), but hopefully the opinion of passionate customers who advocate loyally for their favorite chefs and establishments counts for something. None of the ideas we're espousing here are particularly original. They all come from experiences we've had at some of the best eating establishments on the planet. Some of those restaurants are ones that you've heard of, some fly under the radar, undiscovered. But one that has stood for some of the core values that make restaurants great has been Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. I won't get into the history of the restaurant, but suffice to say that for anyone interested in food, this Berkeley restaurant is said to be a mandatory destination.

And in fact, on that evening Chez Panisse turned out to be an iconic representation of the contrast between memorable and wonderful food and the bulk of uninteresting food you find in American restaurants. However, it wasn't how you might expect.

There were five of us and we ordered most of the items on the menu. Trying everything is important so you can get a sense of the dimensions of the dishes across the menu. Understanding the range of flavors and textures is key to getting a picture of the restaurant.

Two of the dishes we ate that evening were among the best I've ever had. When people ask me what I consider good food these two dishes are always ready examples. They had deep flavor, perfect temperature and texture, and I can remember how they taste to this day. How many dishes can you say that about? Were these some fancy truffle laden, caviar topped, champagne soaked, foie gras infested recipes? No. They were Brodo (chicken broth) and Roast Chicken.

Here's what I wrote down about the Brodo, "deep, rich, exciting, super savory, rich, concentrated chicken flavor". Yes. Exciting chicken soup. On the Roast Chicken I wrote that this was "one of the best bites of chicken I've ever had. Drippingly juicy, crunchy crispy skin. Special. Hyper-savory and concentrated in flavor like the soup. If I had to break it down, these dishes were each: 1) deeply flavorful, 2) served while still fresh/hot - texture just right, 3) memorable. These were dishes that seemed worthy of the reputation that Chez Panisse had garnered.

There were other things that were good. The bread was hearty fresh and rustic, with a slight tangy flavor on the finish. The green olives were excellent. The black ones had a flat bitter flavor and were unappetizing. Gil said that this was how Moroccan black olives were supposed to taste. I told him to consider me more educated. He countered that I was now less ignorant. Either way, they weren't my thing. The parmesan chunks were crystalline, creamy, and yummy. The simple goat cheese salad was way better than most salads you'll ever have at a restaurant. The bottarga we had on one of the pizzas had a simple but interesting and enjoyable flavor and texture. The pork had a nutty and clean favor and the braised lettuce that it sat on had just the right texture.

The salmon and the pot roast however were devoid of flavor and not enjoyable. So of the four main courses we had, one was out of this world (the chicken), one was very good (the pork), and two were a waste of our time. Of our other dishes, the soup was fantastic, the pizza ranged from decent to ok. And the goat cheese and anchovies were unbalanced and forgettable.

What should I conclude from this meal?

On the one hand, the highs were high. On the other hand, the lows were what i could find at any restaurant that's doing a bad impression of what's people think constitutes good food these days. Furthermore, it was some of the simplest dishes that were the best, while the more complicated dishes broke down. Should I say, hey, no big deal, at least there were some standouts?

Frankly, that's not where I end up. I get annoyed. Yes. Annoyed. I understand when a kitchen is not good enough to generate good food and all the food sucks. Maybe they lack creativity, or effort, or teamwork, or experience, or talent. But the soup and the chicken were clear signals that this kitchen lacked none of those things. All the more reason I was so irritated by how lame the pot roast and salmon dishes were. At least on that night the people cooking at Chez Panisse clearly had the ability to make world class food, they were just too lazy to do it consistently. Don't get me wrong, making food at this level, consistently night in and night out is unbelievably hard work (for which I have only the  barest appreciation). At certain levels it can be considered "olympic" level competition. But shouldn't I expect that level of consistency, especially at a restaurant that is happy to rely on its reputation and legacy (not to mention charge a commensurate amount of money for the food)?

And more importantly, shouldn't everyone else?

I understand when the kitchen is trying out something new. Some friends of mine, say, why inflict it on a customer if it's not ready to leave the kitchen. Experiment on yourself. I believe that you need to do some experimentation on real customers as it's the only way to get real feedback. And as a customer I don't mind being the guinea pig as long as it's just one component of an overall accomplished set of dishes. And I tell myself that I can tell the difference between a dish that's in the process of finding it's center and a dish that is either a) as good as it's going to get, or b) a dish that could be better if people in the kitchen had bothered to actually taste the food before it went out to customers. Maybe I'm full of crap and can't tell the difference, but undeniably I walked out of Chez Panisse feeling that the kitchen just didn't care enough to do their best.

Professional restaurant critics make me laugh with their faux disguises and fantasy that restaurants have no idea who they are. I know two things: 1) the kitchen can't make better food than it is capable of no matter who you are, and 2) at the best restaurants the kitchen wants to make the food great no matter who you are. They have pride in their work. And in the best cases, that pride comes through in the food served to you as often as possible.

I'll eat at Chez Panisse again to see if they were having an off night. But I'll confess that I'm not in a huge hurry to go back. Though I do dream about that soup and chicken. Maybe I could get a couple of orders to go.

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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