Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chez Panisse – San Francisco

Founded by Alice Waters, Chez Panisse has been around since 1971. The idea behind the restaurant was to make it as though you were dining at a friend’s place, with special care given to every dish. Each plate always created with top-notch quality, organic and seasonal ingredients. The push to eat well using local products goes far beyond her restaurant. Alice Waters works with youth in schools to promote healthy eating and how to grow and prepare the meals at home. She is the first of her kind and has inspired many chefs and people around the world to improve the way they cook and eat. A truly amazing woman to say the least.

Chez Panisse came highly recommended not only by our favourite little black book, but also a trusted source and friend. Perhaps I expected too much, but the food did not meet my expectations at all.

We decided to make a reservation before leaving Ottawa to ensure we were able to get in. They were booked solid the entire time we were in San Francisco, every night except our last. What a wonderful way to spend your last night in a city, dining at a renowned restaurant. We hopped on the BART and made our way out to Berkley.

The menu is a set one, prix fixe at $75 per person for a 4-course meal (prices change depending on the evening). Luckily they allow you to bring your own wine, so we did, our delicious Ceja Cab Sauvignon that we picked up the day before. Corking fee is $25.

The first course arrived, green asparagus and blood orange salad with olives and hazelnuts. This was a nice, fresh dish. The toasted hazelnuts and olives added flavour, but overall, lacked heavily in the wow-department.

Roasted Maine scallops with watercress soup and olio nuovo came next. I commented on how nicely the scallops were cooked as I desperately tried to find something exciting about this dish. That was it.

The last of the savoury was grilled rack, loin, and leg of James Ranch lamb with chanterelle mushrooms, sweet pea, fava bean, fava bean shoot, and escarole ragout. The lamb was cooked the way we enjoy it, red and juicy, but again, nothing exceptional. I’ve had much tastier lamb in my own kitchen at home.

Maybe the dessert will blow us away, we hoped. The Meyer lemon soufflé was ok.

I hate to be negative about such a highly-regarded restaurant but the food was just plain ordinary. My husband’s exact words were, “It’s a restaurant you’d bring your grandmother to”. Even the staff are so efficient and do their job so perfectly they’re almost robot-like. Everything was nicely cooked, but the plates lacked personality, flavour and excitement. For some, this is perfect. For me, I’d prefer to spend the money on a more impressive and unique medley of . ingredients.

Besides our overall disappointment, we had a great time. Our wine was amazing, and well, I got challenged to write this review.

Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon


Marysol said...

Rachelle, it is nice that you are honest. You know that you have an amazing cook at home... It is hard to feel amazed when you go out when you have someone so passionate about recreating and surpassing what delights you in restaurants.

I felt the same when when I came back from New York. Ottawa is pretty darn good.

Rachelle said...

thanks so much for saying that! I hate to be negative in any way but I'm also not going to lie.

Betsy Schuurman said...

I had a bit of a different experience at Chez Panisse. We ate upstairs which is less formal and I had the most amazing halibut.

I think Chez Panisse maybe suffers from its success. Alice Waters was one of the major drivers of the movement towards local fresh ingredients. 30 years ago Chez Panisse would probably have been qualitatively different from most restaurants in other cities, but now that kind of cooking is almost standard.

I felt the same way when I ate at Domus- it was delicious but it didn't blow me away. But I can imagine what it was probably like when Domus was new and doing something completely different from other Ottawa restaurants. So I sort of appreciated it more from a historical perspective than a culinary one!

Rachelle said...

that's a really good way of looking at it and I totally know what you mean about Domus. I did read a lot of good things about the halibut at Chez Panisse. It's great to get your perspective. thanks!

Spider Miller said...

So Rachelle, maybe you really did have different expectations than what Chez intended or delivered.

Cause, it seems like the place did give you what you said they were about, i.e., ". . . to make it as though you were dining at a friend’s place, with special care given to every dish. Each plate always created with top-notch quality, organic and seasonal ingredients."

They really aren't, and never were, about blowing you away. And, as a 'one-time' opportunity, now that the revolution that has allowed much of North America to regularly experience fresh and cared for food, Chez Panisse is not as mind-blowing as it was for its first 10 or 20 years. Now, we are in a context where hundreds, maybe thousands, of restaurants use the magic of local food treated with respect, knowledge and love. And for many people, there is an eating place that no one from out-of-town would ever review, that touches them like this. Sounds like Domus might be such a place, for you.

So, yeah, maybe Chez Panisse is best thought of in an historical context, if you are visiting for the first time. But, having eaten there for special and spur-of-the-moment occasions over the past 35 years, I hungered for the food you pictured. And, I'm really glad you had a really good time, 'cause I think that's the point.

Bon appetite.

Rachelle said...

Those are all really great points. And it's really nice to get this perspective. I can understand now that I built up the restaurant to be something other than it was. And you are right, they met all the expectations of who they are, I just added some more in based on assumption. Thanks again!

pinkghost said...

thanks for this post rachelle, i was thinking of going to the cafe but since our time there is so limited i'm going to skip it and go with some of your other recommendations!