Sometimes it’s hard to justify why we spend the kind of money that we do on food. Even in the best financial climes I understand why it raises eyebrows. I understand the criticisms; it’s so fleeting- a couple of hours in a nice space, some poorly focused photos and a slightly hazy recollection is all you get for your dosh- though the focused photos and recollections probably have more to do with how much wine we wash the food down with, more than anything.

But then there are the places you go to which are about more than just food. They’re a moment in history, a monument to something, and help mould memories that we’ll carry for a long time- hopefully until we’re old and start to think tinned pears taste good.

Chez Panisse was always going to be one of those special places for me. The love affair wasn’t going to be just about the fact that Alice Waters loves pink wine as much as I do- but I think it’s as good a start to build a relationship on as any.

Alice’s restaurant in bohemian Berkeley is a museum to a movement. Starting in 1971 by Alice and a ragged collection of idealistic friends Chez Panisse was crafted to be a place where people could come, mingle and meet- eat great food, drink some reasonably priced wine and rejoice.

There are things that haven’t really changed to this day. The food at Chez Panisse has always been a fixed-price menu, of three to four courses. There’s no point worrying – you have to place your trust in her team- knowing that the menu changes every night to take advantage of the season’s bounty.

From there an underlying ethos of local, organic and sustainable food blossomed.
Chez Panisse believe that

the best-tasting food is organically grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound, by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. Chez Panisse has tried for years to make diners partake of the immediacy and excitement of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. In doing so, Chez Panisse has stitched together a patchwork of over sixty nearby suppliers, whose concerns, like the restaurant’s, are environmental harmony and optimal flavor.

Alice Waters has found herself at the vanguard of a movement that has wandered across the world. Every place I adore so much in Sydney; including my beloved Sopra, Glebe Point Diner, and when we’re feeling flush – Sean’s Panaroma- traces its roots back to Alice.

We wanted to celebrate New Years Eve, and the start of all that is new somewhere special. So the 9.30pm sitting at Chez Panisse it was.

Chez Panisse is a sweet terrace on a safe feeling street; something we are anxious to find after some colourful experiences in San Francisco. When we’re welcomed inside the warm hued dining room, we instantly feel like guests at a very special party. Alice Waters is drifting around in her signature look of a 1920’s cloche hat, smiling with benevolence at the mix of families, locals and overseas interlopers who have come to spend the holidays at her ‘house’.

An aperetif of sparkling wine with pear and myer lemon is faintly sweet and softly boozy. It’s a theme that continues through most of the meal. There are still trickles left when our first course of toast points with mallard terrine, gelee and greens arrive.

Eating this, it’s like sitting in Paris, but being comfortable conversing with the waiter. The mallard is duckish but a semitone or two lighter. The savoury gelee disintegrates, almost shyly under pressure and there’s a smattering of mache leaves. It’s simply lovely.

We quickly agree that while not advertised on the menu, wines by the glass would be splendid. No problem whatsoever. The genial floor staff-who are as much a part of the ethos of Panisse as the free floating flower arrangement in the foyer- confide that they’ve opened a few bottles to match. Would we like to try? Take heed French Laundry. Surely it can be this easy.

A glass of Alice’s favourite varietal; Bandol Rose comes to play with the tail end of the terrine and the opening moments of the winter vegetable tempura. Here squash, Jerusalem artichoke and artisan onions are swaddled in a flirty coat of batter. There’s a drizzle of lemon that counters the oil from frying and a flutter of salad leaves completes the picture. The Bandol Rose is a splutter of spring- a sun shiney song against the winter weight of the underground vegetables. For New Years Eve, in the northern hemisphere, the combination feels optimistic and right.

Next comes a bowl of clear broth, punctuated with threads of dungeness crab with kombu, shallots and the generous gift of small sprays of caviar beads; providing little blasts of salt that make the sweetness of the crab even more pronounced. It reminds us of the light broths of Mugaritz. This is considerate cuisine- not too heavy, not too light. If I was feeling poorly and someone brought me a carbon copy of this soup, I’d instantly feel restored.

There’s another glass of pink wine split between the two of us before the final savoury course. A squab breast, seared but still petal pink is sliced and the sweet bird’s petulant legs are splayed kinkily. Bedding it all down are twigs of roasted turnip, parsnip and gifts of chicory greens with an echo of bitterness. Sitting to the side like precious findings from the forrest are little toasts, generously smeared with squab livers. As a dish there’s the crunch of the toast, the density of the liver, the sweetness of the meat and earnest plodding of the vegetables. With a glass of pinot noir to me, it’s almost perfection. But it’s incredibly feminine food, which may be why The Hungry One is appreciative – but somewhere deep in his heart he’s looking sideways for a steak.

To help us mark our time and make it to midnight they bring a simple bowl of clementines (mandarins to me(!))and medjool dates. The duet of nursery textures; squishy with fuzzy and the basic notes of sweet and citrus are simplicity defined. In other places the dates may have been pureed, frozen, aerated and reconfigured to resemble what they are. I see a place for such wizardry and admire it more than some would say is sensible. But I must say it was lovely to sit with my still-new husband in the closing minutes of 2008- and be silent; just shelling fruit and spinning pips.

Dessert came as individual domes of Italian meringue; igloos protecting icy centres of myer lemon ice cream, mandarin sorbet and citrus segments.

There was more champagne as 2009 ticked closer, petit fours of candied chestnut, cocoa covered hazelnuts and quivering cubes of quince jelly. The new year ticked over with toasts, blasts from toy horns and home made hats, sitting askew. We were sent home with pannetones which we shredded and dipped in bad lattes in the morning.

Since simplicity is a virtue; it’s a wonder Alice hasn’t been sainted. In a year marked by excess and extremes, celebrating the local, in a place so far away from home, seemed just about right.

Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94709-1598, United States
(510) 548-5525

*****

Just in case you think we strayed too far from some of our projects of late, in 2008 Chez Panisse came in at 37th best restaurant in the world. Tick another one off….