Chez Panisse Again
The first time I had dinner at Chez Panisse, frankly, I was disappointed. It wasn't that the food wasn't good - it certainly was - but the experience didn't live up to its stellar reputation. We were seated in a small room with a loud party at the next table and while all the food was well cooked and presented, only the desserts were spectacular. That was ten years ago.
So, when Naomi's parents were in town and wanted to treat us to dinner at Chez Panisse as a way of thanking us (completely unnecessarily) for our kindness to their daughter, I nearly suggested we go somewhere else.
I'm so glad I took General Eisenhower's advice and kept my big mouth shut!
We started with a salad of Asian pear slices, quartered figs and rocket in a light dressing of sublime perfection. Everything complemented everything else - a little sweet from the fruits, a little bitter from the rocket, all smoothed with a dressing that brought it brightly together.
My main course (sorry for the photo) was a sort of gnocchi, but nothing like I imagined gnocchi to be - for one thing, it wasn't boiled. Our waiter warned me that it wouldn't be like any gnocchi I had ever had before and when I confessed that I was trying gnocchi for the first time, he declared that I would measure all future gnocchi against this one. He was right. This was lightly sautéed, slightly crisp on the outside but savory with cheese and the airiest possible cloud potato on the inside. Topped with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and Parmesan shavings, it may well have been the best thing I have ever tasted.
Accompanying the gnocchi was a light green salad and a pair of beautiful little roasted pimientos, richly cinnabar red and black with bright green stems. I'm not usually a lover of all things pepper, but these little gems were a whole different story. Tender and rushing with internal juice, they were mild and sweet.
For dessert, smooth, unctuous raspberry ice cream topped with intense little fresh raspberries, the tiniest and the most flavorful ever.
Perhaps the best part is that we weren't stuffed by the end of the meal. Everyone certainly had plenty but the portions were just the right size to satisfy but not to overfill. The waiter was attentive and extremely knowledgeable but also willing to ask someone else when he didn't know the answer to our questions.
If I have a complaint this time, it would be with our table. We were seated directly across from the ovens in a three-across-three booth which made conversation awkward, service difficult and we were all uncomfortably warm by the end of the meal. Had I not thought to bring a fan with me, I'd have melted.
But, I'm just nitpicking here; it was small price to pay for an ambrosial meal and a remarkably generous gesture by our charming hosts. They are British and we rather expected the stereotypical reserved English people; nothing could have been further from the truth. They were open and friendly, giving California-style hugs and double cheek kisses upon arrival and openly sharing stories of their life in England and South Africa. The entire evening was delightful, so much so that I felt vaguely guilty at being thanked for something that had been nothing but a pleasure.