Thursday, July 25, 2013

Part III: the pilgrimage

The big food event, the one planned in advance and everything, was a visit to Chez Panisse. Well, the café of the place, both because even that is quite a splurge (aka the usual prices at nothing-special Princeton restaurants, thus explaining the exquisite turn in my cooking - pain au chocolat, agedashi tofu, thin-crust pizza... - since moving here), and because the café seemed to involve a menu with options, while the restaurant did not. It seemed the right, festive way to mark two 30th birthdays.

I'll save the descriptions of Berkeley (including the "gourmet ghetto" - am I alone in cringing at that name?) for the neighborhoods post. But the Waters phenomenon is really at the root of the food movement, and thus of interest to anyone who's been following it. I'd been to Chez Panisse while visiting the area with my family as a kid, that time also, I think, at the café, so while technically I could check that box (and thus fail whichever Charles Murray quiz), I can't say I remembered much about the actual experience. Only that at this one restaurant, every vegetable, even the ones I didn't normally like (which, given my age at the time, was probably most vegetables; I grew up before that Francophile parenting book explained how to make your kids like zucchini), was delicious.

But back to 2013. The place really has a culture, which I suppose makes sense for a restaurant that's such an institution. They offer seltzer as a (filtered! snazzy!) tap-water option, which is fabulous. The servers replace "you're welcome" or "no problem" with "of course," which I - of course - began overanalyzing in my head after hearing it for maybe the second of many times. "Of course" suggests that of course someone is always bringing you food; why would it be remarked upon that someone is doing so on this occasion? Which, particularly to someone who generally eats in and doesn't have, like, a staff, is kind of hilarious. If you overanalyze it. Which you should not.

There's a lot less of the farm-to-table pretentiousness than a) I would have expected or b) than one finds in the imitation. Not every ingredient has its provenance mentioned, and there isn't the whole farmhouse-chic thing, with waitstaff in plaid shirts, etc. No complaints!

And there's an added 17% service charge, which is apparently controversial, but which really shouldn't be. This system is probably good for the servers, or maybe not because an environment like this (rich-hippie) seems like it would inspire a lot of tips in the well-over-20% range. The check leaves space for an additional tip, which, eh. Some customers apparently tip twice without meaning to - which I could well see happening after a bit of wine - and then complain about it online once they sober up. But even if you see it, it's as if one is stingy or unsatisfied with the service if one just leaves the included tip. It somehow increases, rather than removes, the awkwardness around tipping from the customer end, and leads to the quasi-requisite calculation/estimation of at least 3%. I'd say the place should just up that fee to an altogether appropriate 20% - or better yet, incorporate proper pay into the prices - and be done with it, but when's the last time I ran a restaurant?

In any case, the point is the food. Which was very good, but no Tacolicious.

The best analogy for Chez Panisse would be... when you go to a modern-art museum, and there's a painting that's just a solid-colored rectangle, and you, the philistine, are all, why do we care? or you the not-complete-philistine are like, I've seen better rectangle paintings, and then someone less sitcom-addled than yourself (maybe the writer of the wall text, maybe your art-history professor) will explain that the significance is that this hadn't been done before. So this might not be the best-executed rectangle, and it may not hold up against today's rectangles, but it gets credit for bringing us the rectangle concept.

With the Alice Waters phenomenon, if you imagine that farm-to-table, high-quality-ingredients-in-simple-presentation had not yet been invented, then yes, a plate of ricotta ravioli with cherry tomatoes and basil is indeed awe-inspiring, as is a mesclun salad with baked goat cheese (which according to Wikipedia, Alice Waters invented!), and it's not impossible that I ordered not so adventurously but I don't eat at places like this often enough not to get what sounds most appealing to me, but I digress... Both were great, while my husband's meal seemed to be more the sort of thing where simple ingredients don't suffice. A pile of fresh corn kernels is possibly not that exciting. The nectarine "galette" (a kind of pie) was good in the way that fruit tarts made with good fruit are good, and they had the good sense to include a dollop of vanilla ice cream. Was it $10 good? No more or less than a restaurant dessert ever is, which is why I rarely order dessert in restaurants. The bar - is it better than a bowl of Haagen Dazs at home? - is unlikely to be met.

Anyway, once that sort of cooking has been invented, once this is also how everyone with access to/interested in farmers' markets cooks at home, the experience is maybe less a revelation than a reminder that Chez Panisse has access to better ingredients than a New Jersey home cook (armed with an old copy of Waters's pasta cookbook) ever will. As a man Alice Waters has indirectly taught to fish, I may not need her further assistance.

Just like your three-year-old could - as goes the cliché - paint that Pollock, you can leave Chez Panisse (the café part, at least) confident in the knowledge that you've cooked equally delicious meals yourself. So the value of eating at Chez Panisse isn't - judging by this one experience, but if someone wants a proper restaurant review and will fly me out there to eat at the place a few more times just to be sure, I accept - that you'll get the absolute best meal of your life. It's that you're getting the original.

A peace sign made of garlic. Of course.

3 comments:

Flavia said...

Maybe not the point? But hey! Happy Birthday!

Petey said...

"[It's not] that you'll get the absolute best meal of your life. It's that you're getting the original."

Exactamundo.

(Of course, if you lived nearby and were quite wealthy, it'd be a kickass neighborhood hippie bistro...)

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

Thanks! Still got a couple days left of my 20s, but am considering myself 30 already in preparation.

Petey,

Oh my goodness, we are in agreement.