When I was planning my culinary adventures for the Bay Area, there was one restaurant I had to try no matter what. The restaurant is Chez Panisse out in Berkeley. Normally, their set menu for the restaurant downstairs ranges in price between $75 - $100 per person. Cheap it is not. Luckily for me, the night I planned to visit Chez Panisee was their $60 Monday special. However, that still ain't cheap eats. Thankfully, my cousin Cable Car Guy and his wife AZee are such good sports because they agreed to join me. Even better, they paid for it! I love my cousins! Being a Michelin 1-Star establishment, we had really high expectations. One problem... The main dish for the night was lamb. Hey, I love lamb; but CCG and AZee aren't particularly fond of it. Ah zut! Talk about bad luck. Well, I guess they would have to try the lamb no matter what!
CCG and I arrived in Berkeley first and planned to meet up with AZee at the BART station. Prior to that, we had the crazy notion of grabbing a Top Dog first. Hey, we're men, we always want to eat! Common sense prevailed and we decided to just wait for AZee, despite being quite famished. We made it over to Chez Panisse on time and were ushered to a table for 2 converted to fit 3. Not only did I feel like a 3rd wheel, there was not much room on the table for our food. Whatever the case, our server was friendly and unpretentious. We felt very comfortable despite the cramped seating.
As mentioned, we did not have any options other than the set menu for the night. If this is not your thing, the cafe upstairs has a regular menu. To start off the meal, we were presented with Porcini Mushrooms and bread. Our appetizer, Grilled Squid and Scallions with roasted peppers and aioli arrived shortly after. I gotta say that the squid was cooked perfectly. Exhibiting a buttery smooth texture, it practically melted in my mouth. Normally, squid is quite difficult to cook since it can go tough easily. The roasted peppers were ever-so-sweet that I ate them all. The significance of this? I don't normally eat peppers... With great anticipation, the Braised James Ranch Lamb Shoulder with basil and garlic sauce, and last-of-the-summer vegetable ragout arrived. Fortunately for CCG and AZee, the lamb was not too gamy, so they actually ate all of it. For me, I love lamb and I thought it was quite tender and well-seasoned. The perfectly executed ragout was fragrant exhibiting vibrant colours while maintaining a firm texture. Overall, this was a pleasant dish; if not a bit boring.
For dessert, we each had a slice of the Gateau Basque with poached quince. Despite not appearing to be, the cake was quite light and not overly sweet. Once again, it was a pleasant dessert; but not exhibiting any outstanding qualities. As a last bite, we got some burnt caramels and honey meringues. A sweet way to end the meal. In terms of the service, it was highly attentive; but not at all pretentious. We felt comfortable in the surprisingly casual environment. We never felt rushed and all of our requests were attended to promptly. Heck, I was even allowed to take a few pictures of the kitchen! The meal itself was quite good. It was evident that a lot of technique and precision went into the cooking. I'm not sure if our expectations were too high to begin with; but the whole experience didn't blow us out of the water. With that being said, it still was a delightful meal in a nice dining room with professional service.
- Not stuffy or pretentious
- Relatively relaxed atmosphere
- Food prepared with precision and care
- Seating is not exactly spacious
- May not meet lofty expectations