When we were making plans for our recent trip to the San Francisco Bay Area one restaurant I knew we had to visit was Chez Panisse. I know there are newer restaurants doing much more exiting and innovative things with food, but owner Alice Waters still deserves all the praise heaped on her and her restaurant for instilling an appreciation for fresh, local organic foods in American palates. Those words may sound trendy today, but they were revolutionary concepts in 1971. And Water's cookbooks like the Art of Simple Food are still invaluable assets in any amateur cook's home kitchen.
During our visit we ate lunch in the upstairs cafe area. It's hard not to be underwhelmed when you first look at the menu. You show up knowing that the entire point is to have ultra simple dishes prepared with the best possible ingredients, but it is still easy to read the descriptions on the menu posted outside and find yourself saying, "That's it?"
Once you get inside you get a better understanding of just how pleasant the entire experience is going to be. My wife is an interior designer and she kept looking around and complimenting the restaurants ultra-simple but thoroughly uniform and well-thought design. "This is a place that knows exactly what it is," she said.
The same thing can be said about the food. We started by ordering one of the entrees; a pizza with heirloom tomatoes, smoky bacon and rosemary; to share as an appetizer since we were still hanging out with our friends from Saint Helena. From there I had a garden salad with baked Adante Dairy goat cheese with garden salad while my wife had carrot soup with yogurt and cilantro. The quality of the ingredients used and the attention to detail make the boringly-pedestrian sounding dishes perfect in their simplicity and balance of flavors.
The restaurant forbids the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in the dining area, which helps force diners to focus on the experience at hand. It's always disconcerting to visit restaurants these days and see tables full of friends pecking at their cell phones instead of enjoying each other's company. We use our communication devices to recount things that have happened to us and plan for what we will be doing next in a way that makes it far too easy to forget to enjoy the moment when we are together.
For our main courses my wife had a skirt steak from BN Ranch with buttermilk-fried onion rings, padron peppers and tomatillo salsa while I had
California king salmon with sweet corn, green beans, chanterelle mushrooms and basil butter. Once again everything was a simple as it sounds yet utterly perfect in taste and presentation. Chez Panisse has the kind of carefully selected drink menu you'd expect from a restaurant of its caliber and we enjoyed several rounds of good beverages as we worked our way to the excellent chocolate mousse with vanilla cream and candied walnuts that my wife and I shared to top off what was one of the most satisfying dining experiences I can remember. In fact, our lunch caused us to cancel dinner reservations my wife had made as dinner time approached and we realized we were still enjoying the contentment that comes from a great meal hours later.