And so the Squirrel Squad journeyed to far-off climes in search of the ultimate dining experience. One pinnacle of cuisine beckoned them to a small college town as a beacon draws ships to shore. And that beacon was Chez Panisse.
Alright, so maybe we had worked ourselves up just a little bit about getting to have dinner at Chez Panisse. We had read all the books. We knew the beauty of locally grown organic ingredients served only in season. We were prepared for glory. Months before our trip, we knew about the reservation process. There were reminders in Outlook so that we would be ready to dial at exactly the maximum advance reservation limit. Every week, we waited to see “our” menu appear on the website and drooled over the weeks we couldn’t eat there. Ah, but soon…
The purity of our vision began to tarnish with the reservation process. We had read all of the comments. “Call the moment they open.” “Be prepared to change your preferred dining time.” “Expect to use the redial button more than a few times.” With a two-hour ahead time difference and tremblingly eager fingers, we were ready. As the critical moment approached, Papa Squirrel and I decided to work the system together. We would both dial until one of us got through. As expected, we both got busy signals on the first attempt. And the second. And the third. And so on. But then something happened. I heard ringing on my line! Oh, the excitement! And then there was silence. No message. No “hold please”. No Muzak. Had I been disconnected? My phone seemed to think my line was still active. As Papa continued to dial, I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Fifteen minutes of uninterrupted silence. I was confused and concerned. But then, finally, there was a voice. I made our reservation for the time we had wanted (the last seating). Unlike most restaurants, I had to give a credit card number so that they could charge us $25 per person if we failed to show up for our reservation without an advance cancellation. Slightly off-putting, but this was Chez Panisse. It would be worth it.
One month later, we had made it to Berkeley. The afternoon before our reservation, we made certain that we knew where the restaurant was and where we could park. Situated further down a minor cross-street than we had expected and between other less-memorable restaurants, Chez Panisse is almost hidden by trees and vines. Since we were dining late, we were able to park in front of an already-closed bookstore less than a block away. The closer metered spots were filled, and there was no valet.
When we entered, the hostess informed us that our table wasn’t ready and invited us to go upstairs to the cafe to look around or to have a seat in the small, private courtyard. Of course we wanted to look around! But after going up the narrow stairs, we found the cafe too crowded for us to be able to see much of anything without being totally in the way. The smells, however, were divine. We retreated to the courtyard to enjoy the cool Northern California night while we waited for our turn.
We were seated in a small and full dining room at a table for three right beside the kitchen. Since restaurant diners have no choice of menu, the only questions asked by our waiter were about bread and wine. Dinner began with a white wine and Pernod aperitif. Squirrelly, Jr., was made to feel right at home with an aperitif of white grape juice just for him.
Our first course was a local halibut tartare with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and avocado. The halibut was melt-in-the-mouth creamy and paired beautifully with the other ingredients. The soup course gave us corn and pepper soup with squash blossom souffle. Though delicious, the souffle failed to excite Teh Boy.
Our main course was Sonoma County Liberty duck breast with fresh plum sauce, fried eggplant with scallions and sesame, and dry-cooked green beans. Whether intentional or not, teh boy noticed immediately that he had less duck than either Papa or me. With that matter remedied by us surrendering slices of duck to Teh Boy, the entree was lovely. The plums added a tart counterpoint to the sweetness of the duck, and, though he eschewed the eggplant, Teh Boy ate every green bean on his plate. The artisanal cheese selection was a nice interlude before dessert, a summer berry meringata with rose geranium. The meal ended with handmade chocolate truffles.
Was it a lovely meal? Yes. Was the food delicious? Yes. Were we blown away the way we had expected to be? No. While delicious, the food was nothing I couldn’t make at home with the same ingredients. The combinations, while lovely, were nothing unexpected. The service, while nice, was distant, and the wait between courses was far too long. The highlight of the meal was when our waiter took Teh Boy on a tour of the kitchen. That was a lovely gesture that more than earned him his tip. Did we leave the table hungry? No. But we did leave with unmet expectations. Were our expectations too high? Apparently.
We ate at Chez Panisse. There. Now for that next beacon on the horizon.
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, California 94709
Restaurant Reservations: (510) 548-5525
Cafe Reservations: (510) 548-5049