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
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.
Brodo (chicken broth) and
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.
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
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
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.