CHEZ PANISSE: YOU CAN’T GET ANYTHING YOU WANT AT ALICE’S RESTAURANT
There are probably two restaurants here in Northern California that are on the gastro tourists “must do” list.
One is Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and the other is Alice Water’s Chez Panisse.
Well, I have tried Mr Keller’s cooking a few years ago at Per Se and think I summed it up as “perfectly OK, some brilliance, lousy cheese” So, when it came time to choose a last meal for my latest leg of the EAT MY GLOBE trip, it seemed only right that I would choose the other option, that most iconic of Californian restaurants,Chez Panisse. Thanks to the efforts of my chum, Alexandra, I was able to get a reservation a month in advance.
First though, a spot of breakfast in another outlet in the CP empire, Café Fanny which, despite being named after a woman’s front bottom is a hugely popular place for breakfast in these here parts.
I am afraid it was a sign of things to come as, despite the fact they looked the part, the hot chocolate was neither hot, nor particularly chocolatey and the muffin was bullet hard and suffering from a paucity of fruit.
Mind you, given my naturally optimistic personality (no sniggering at the back) I still held out high hopes for my supper, particularly following a quick tour around the kitchens of CP at lunchtime in the generous company of pastry chef, Sam which included a quick viewing of the lamb which was on the set menu for the evening.
I was actually due to have two suppers that night. My chum, Alex had invited me to her house where her relatives had brought a cooler full of Dungeness crabs from Northern California for us to try.
So, ever the brave little soldier, I girded my ample loins and sat down to a plate of exemplary seafood and the merest sliver of cake before heading down to Chez Panisse to meet my new chums Tamar and Carolyn for supper number two.
I wish now that I had stayed for some more crab action. Not because of the company which was exemplary, but because of the food which would be placed firmly under the word “mediocre” in the dictionary if I was being kind and which, I suggest, would barely pass muster in a London gastro pub if I was not.
It is a set menu schtick at Chez Panisse . You get what you are given and it is predicated on the very best ingredients prepared simply to display their natural flavours.
Such things depend on two things. Great provenance and great execution. Unfortunately, on this showing we got neither.
First up a plate of grilled leeks with beets, house cured pancetta and vinaigrette that would not have been out of place at “ Abigail’s Party” and was as insipid a dish as I can recall paying money for in as long as I can remember.
Next up, Lamb. Now, don’t get me started on American lamb. I have yet to find one good example in all my time eating in restaurants in the US. It is invariably flavourless and the chefs have not clue number one how to cook it. I am sorry to say that here, at this most famous of restaurants, was no different. If the meat had any flavour to begin with then it was smothered in a sauce so salty they should have served it with statins on the side to save me getting my blood pressure checked when I get home.
A herb soufflé was perfectly fine, but the “vichy-style” carrots were cooked to the point of school dinner mushiness.
As bad a dish as I have experienced on the whole of this part of the trip.
Quite why we chose to go for a supplementary cheese course, I don’t know. I always think that America is where good cheese goes to die. But, choose it we did. What we were presented with was three small slices of non descript domestic cheeses, two from California and one from Wisconsin. All I can say is that they should all hang their heads in shame. The “cheesemakers” for producing and the restaurant for serving.
Finally, the pudding. A poached pear tart with a Muscat sabayon. I am not sure if it is just a matter of US tastes but, again, the pears turned to mush in the mouth, the pastry tasted burnt and the sabayon would need some sort of scientific instrument to detect the Muscat.
It is rare for me to leave any food on my plate. I am after all a good northern boy. But, I let much of this meal remain untouched, which speaks volumes.
Despite the charming company, I kept wishing I was back eating more of that spectacular crab simply dressed with Meyer lemon rather than this meal which merely served as a means to extract $110 from each of us without ever delivering at any level on food or service which was perfunctory and without charm. A bottle and a half of Spanish wine were not overpriced but equally insipid. As much my fault for choosing as theirs for offering.
I would cross oceans to eat more of that crab. I would not cross the street to eat at Chez Panisse again.