"It's not much but it's ours"

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


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.

Ho hum

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Anonymous Carolyn Tillie said...

You perfectly described our overwhelmingly inadequate dinner at Chez Panisse. I would be very sad and regret the money spent, except that the company and conversation more than made up for the insipid food!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 9:43:00 am  
Anonymous SamanthaF said...

Simon you are so spot on about US lamb - BTW, those carcasses look way big for lamb. I had good lamb once at Union Square Cafe, and told my server so, he whispered to me "It's from New Zealand"!

US Cheese too - they should just give up.

The crab sounds delicious, but I though they were off menu at the moment because of the west coast oil spills?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 1:39:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...


That is very much my thoughts on American Cheese.

The crabs came from way up north which had remained unaffected by the spills


Tuesday, November 27, 2007 4:01:00 pm  
Anonymous Steve Sando said...

So good to meet you the other night. This all goes back to my soapbox stance of why Americans keep trying to replicate European traditions instead of working on our own or creating new ones. Lamb, at this point, is just not part of our culture. This doesn't mean we shouldn't eat it but it also doesn't mean we should be paying $110 for a lousy dish of it, especially at CP.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 4:35:00 pm  
Blogger Andy said...

Your experience was very similar to mine a while back. I am simply bewildered as to why this place retains its allure other than for historical reasons. The meal we ate was ordinary in the extreme; as you say, about the level of a London gastropub. Yet for reasons I cannot grasp this place still seems to have iconic status amongst Americans, so much so that I began to wonder if I had missed something. I am pleased to hear that I did not.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 5:03:00 pm  
Blogger Tana Butler said...

Santa Cruz wins!

: D

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 5:22:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me pile in and say that my experience at CP was exactly as yours. The only place to eat well there is upstairs, in the less formal cafe.

Looking forward to welcoming you home.

Jay Rayner

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 6:57:00 pm  
Blogger Alexandra said...

I'm more disappointed than angry, reading about your second dinner. ;)

Our family friend Clifford, a sportsman not a commercial fisherman, pulled the crab from waters just north of Humboldt Bay, roughly 250 miles north of the spill.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 10:26:00 pm  
Anonymous calliope said...

I've been an accidental tourise on your world-win (oops, whirlwind!) tour of cuisine and have enjoyed every minute of it. I first found you when you told of your Kansas City adventures, and now I find you in old haunts again -- Northern California.

Okay. US lamb. Too bad that you haven't tried Colorado lamb from a small producer. It's fantastic, and different than NZ. Perhaps not as gamey, but definitely flavorful. Also, some small producers, such as Greendirt Farms near Kansas City, have great product.

Cheese. With our pasteurization laws for cheese, one can't expect american cheese to be as compelling as cheese from other places. But it's not all velveeta, either. What we know first is often what we prefer, so it's likely you prefer european cheese and most americans (not me) prefer the smoother, less strong-flavors of domestic cheese.

But what I REALLY want to know is -- what was your favorite north american city to eat in? Were you pleasantly surprised by an american city? restaurant? what was your favorite meal/s here in the states? what was your most over-rated meal? chez panisse? Did you have find yourself trying something you'd never had before? What was your favorite unexpected experience?

Did you try Gunther Seeger's rest in Atlanta? To me, he's the best chef in the states right now. Did you eat in NY?

I really like your blog. Thanks!

Friday, November 30, 2007 5:37:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

Hi Calliope

Thanks for posting. I remember you put some interesting observations when I was in KCM

I had an incredible trip around the US ( KCM, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Austin, Nola, Philly, NYC, SF, Santa Cruz, Berkeley - with Mexico, Argentina and Brasil inbetween)

Hands down, I would say that NOLA was my favourite food city for its spirit and for the po'boy at Parkway bakery. I obviously enjoyed NYC, but I have been there many times. Mind you, the meal at The Kebab Cafe in Queens was a highlight too.

Favourite unexpected experience was being whisked across Philly for a cheesesteak by two locals I met at the bar of Smith & Wollensky while eating a T bone. There is a post about it if you search

Most disappointing, definitely Chez Panisse.

Keep reading ( EAT MY GLOBE too if you want to see more about the trip around the world) I am off to SE Asia & India next and then Africa


Saturday, December 01, 2007 7:54:00 am  
Anonymous Caliope said...

We've lived and eaten all across the globe, which is why I've enjoyed your blog so much. We've had sheep head -- eyeballs and all -- in a yurt on the steppes of Kazakhstan, fugu and natto in Japan, mustard oil-soaked food in Nepal, and sous-vide in France, for just a smack of the highs and lows. Oops, can't forget cumus -- fermented camel's milk (or was it horse mild?) mixed with alcohol. Do you travel where you have friends, or where you just want to see the locale?

Saturday, December 01, 2007 9:05:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simon statins are for your cholesrterol not salt,tut tut.You know you only have to ask your tame doc Carl for medical proof reading

Saturday, December 08, 2007 8:59:00 pm  

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