Restaurant review: Chez Panisse by Alice Waters in Berkeley, California
My first meal at Alice Waters’s legendary “California cuisine” restaurant
Because turning 30 felt like such a massive occasion (hehe), I used it as an excuse to gather with good friends far and wide and celebrate all month. Given this OTT-ness, I imagine there was great pressure on my dining companion to find the perfect restaurant for the actual day. So where did we go? Nowadays, the sustainable, organic, eat local food movements are widely known. But honestly I’d never really looked into its origins. Turns out it originated in California and one of the earliest proponents of this “California cuisine” way of eating was Alice Waters (now a legendary chef, author, activist and winner of various awards including the 2015 National Humanities Award by President Obama) and her restaurant, the location of my birthday dinner, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
The restaurant is named after a character in a French film trilogy, Honoré Panisse in the films Marius, Fanny and César. Honoré is the most life-loving character in the films and it was his spirit of comedy and informality that Alice and her friends wanted to show off in their restaurant. On the night of our dinner, we ate in the upstairs cafe and it very much resembled a cozy, lively, casual-chic French restaurant with its sturdy wooden furniture, white tablecloths, and dim lighting.
Back to the concept of California cuisine. The idea is that the best tasting food is right under your nose … if you’re lucky enough to live in a place like California, that is. Think vegetables straight from the garden or fruit right off the branch. Having lived in Asia for nearly eight years, it’s a pretty special treat to be able to even see a vegetable garden or fruit tree let alone eat from them!
Fresh bread and butter
Roasted carrots and beets with spicy chickpea puree and cumin flatbread (US$15)
Pizza with sprouting broccoli, pancetta, and Pecorino (US$25)
Rigatoni with rocket pesto, sundried tomatoes and ricotta salata (US$$22)
Wild California king salmon with asparagus, spinach, Meyer lemon, and ginger beurre blanc (US$38)
Flo’s Meyer lemon buttermilk cake with roasted blueberries, blueberry-huckleberry coulis and creme Chantilly (US$12)
I enjoyed eating these simple, rustic dishes with the care that I would at a fine dining restaurant. Writing this nearly a month later, the fresh, grassy taste (in a good way) of the rocket pesto still lingers in my memory. As does the intense fragrance and natural sweetness of the ingredients in the California-style pizza, and the delicious contrasts of sharp, fresh, and fatty in the not-at-all-Instagrammable but fabulous king salmon dish. The food was wonderfully simple and the best kinds of things to eat when in a place like California.
Given that I live in Hong Kong, it will likely be a long while before I’m back in Berkeley. But even if I never go back, the sweet memories of the meal will linger. For those that are lucky enough to live closer to the restaurant, I can imagine it being a firm favourite where friends can get together and relax over comforting dishes with just the right amount of heart.
1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94709, USA, +1 510-548-5525