A Visit To Alice Water's Chez Panisse

Alice Water's Chez Panisse is housed in a brown Craftsman bungalow that looks like it once was surrounded by lush gardens, but modern development encroached and jammed a row of stucco shops right up to its side walls. Its unpretentious exterior is easily overlooked on Shattuck Avenue, the "restaurant row" of Berkeley. The interior is soothing and casually elegant with Stickley style furniture and soft lighting that creates a glowing effect reminiscent of a chiaroscuro painting. Along most of the length of the cafe extends an open kitchen; I would have loved to stand there for hours to watch the team of chefs with their immaculate mise en place and shiny copper pots!
Blogger Julie Powell proffered a pound of butter to the memory of her idol Julia Child when she visited her kitchen at the Smithsonian in honor of the chef's love of real butter. On my first visit to Chez Panisse I should have brought some baby carrots from my garden for Alice Waters! As a champion for sustainable, organic food production and the force behind California Cuisine's emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, Alice Waters promotes the highest quality ingredients sourced locally crafted into dishes that are beautiful to behold and a pleasure on the palate. Hers is not fussy, overworked cuisine. Simple and delicious are the descriptors that Chez Panisse food invokes. The main dining room was booked, so we managed an early reservation at the upstairs cafe. The menu changes daily according to the fresh foodstuffs at hand (you can view today's menu here). 

We shared local halibut tartare, lightly dressed with quality olive oil and bit of Meyer lemon zest and rind, nestled in  Belgian endive. It was delicately flavored and reminiscent of the Carpaccio di Pesce I relished in Italy. (I created my own recipe, below, for the dish based on information on the Chez Panisse preparation gleaned from our waiter.) Plus we shared the Baked Andante Dairy goat cheese with garden lettuces--an herbed patty of melt-in-your-mouth goat cheese that had been gently crisped on the outside, served with the tenderest of tiny baby lettuce and a hint of vinaigrette. The meat eater of our party enjoyed the House-made rigatoni with grass-fed beef ragù while I savored the Winter vegetable stew with Indian spices, spicy potato fritters (I wish I had the Chez Panisse recipe for these) and yogurt-mint sauce. Replete, we could not eat dessert at the restaurant but took a Pink Lady apple tart to go. On tender crust, the apple slices still retained the freshness of a Pink Lady without being overwhelmed with sugar or spice.

The success of this dish lies in having fresh ingredients and a light hand in finding the balance between the taste of olive oil, lemon and salt. The proportions of these may vary according to your taste and the strength of the lemon and salt flavor (yes! different salts have different levels of saltiness and lemons are not equally tart and sweet). Being in California, I have parsley still growing in my garden in January and I like the flavor so much, I minced it to capture the freshness, instead of using it just as a garnish as Chez Panisse Cafe had. (read here to read about Alice Waters and a recipe for an Avocado, Grapefruit and Fennel Salad or here for a recipe for Alice Waters beef stew)

per serving:
2 oz. very fresh halibut
1/2 Meyer lemon--for zest, juice and rind
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 coriander seeds, ground fine
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
4 leaves of Belgian endive
1 watermelon radish
2 sprigs fresh parsley
With a very sharp knife, slice the halibut as thin as possible into bite sized pieces, then place into a glass mixing bowl. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Zest about 1/4 tsp. of the Meyer lemon and add it to the bowl along with 2 Tbsp. of the juice. Add the olive oil and ground coriander to the fish and turn gently with a spoon until well mixed. Let the fish marinate for ten minutes while you mince the parsley and sliver the watermelon radish. Take a tiny piece of rind--about 1/2 inch square--that wasn't grated for zest and mince it. Place the Belgian endive leaves on your plate with the insides facing up so they make "boats". Spoon the halibut onto the endive, sprinkle with freshly grated pepper and salt, if needed to your taste. Garnish with the slivered radish, parsley and minced rind. Pair with a crisp Riesling, like the 2009 Poet's Leap Riesling from Columbia Valley in this week's Touring & Tasting Online Grapevine. I had it with a Chardonnay, but the richness of the olive oil needed a wine with more acidity.

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