Thursday, February 11, 2010

Happy Chez Panisse

Oh, hello! Here I am. It's been awhile. I've been split into various pieces, like poor Osiris, my energies dispersed by my evil sibling pursuits and obligations, and only now have I been put back together enough to attempt a new post. These beautiful eerie carrots appear on the front of the menu of the Chez Panisse Restaurant from Monday, February 8, 2010. It was my birthday--an Aquarian date of distinction shared by Elizabeth Bishop, James Dean, and Nick Nolte, among others.

It was cold and rainy on the streets of Berkeley, but inside it was warm and smelled faintly of sage (we were the first seating at 5:30pm, and they must have waved a smoldering herb bunch in the air to set the space properly). The downstairs room feels like the dark, paneled inside of a wooden jewelry box lit up in a golden-orange glow from angular light fixtures and reflecting off various mirrored surfaces, a cozy secret.

The menu:

The weird vegetable highlights were the wild fennel slivers in a light lemony vinaigrette swirled with mint that accompanied the "fried Monterey Bay squid" (aka calamari) appetizer, then the grilled, wilty-crunchy, slightly bitter, purple-and-green radicchio and the cream-colored butter beans, chubby to bursting, that floated in the hearty sauce of dry chilies, cumin, and marjoram that the goat was braised in.

My family's table was right in front of the kitchen, and I could spy some kind of gigantic celery-looking vegetation partially visible on the other side of the glass-paned door. Before dinner began, I asked our more-than-gracious French server about them, and he strode back there to grab a bunch of what turned out to be monstrous cardoons and waved their bushy gray-green leaves delightedly at us as he talked about them. I was disappointed that we wouldn't be able to try them--they were to be baked in a gratin with chard for the next night's prix fixe dinner, which was much more exciting in terms of vegetables, I must admit with only the faintest twinge of regret (see the Feb. 9 menu).

With a prime seat facing the kitchen theater, I drifted in and out of dinner conversations while watching white-clad chefs spin the leg of goat hanging from string above an open fire whenever they thought of it or happened to pass by. I stared lovingly at the piles of radicchio that would get tossed atop the grill below and to the right of the goat as they magically shrank and were transferred to terra cotta saucepans.

My father doesn't eat goat or lamb--perhaps an effect of having been born in the Year of the Ram, but then so was I and I have no trouble eating my own--so they offered him the vegetarian menu:

I was most excited by the grilled chanterelle entree, but my father preferred to eat some kind of dead animal, so the head chef was nice enough to substitute petrale sole with the sides from the chevreau à la mexicaine (a funny Frenchification of a Mexican dish) that the rest of us had.

I probably do not need to go on about how delicious the meal was. It was very. Tasty. And succulent. And delicately yet deeply flavored. Satisfying but not gluttonous.

Throughout dinner, I had seen various civilians wander into the open kitchen and not get angrily shooed away, so while waiting for our dessert of tres leches cake topped with creme fraiche and chopped pistachios surrounded by (oh!) candied kumquats and a perfectly tangy-sweet slice of blood orange, my brother Minh and I took our own turn about the long, narrow kitchen. We smiled at various line cooks and chefs (only age seemed to distinguish chefs from cooks as far as appearance went), I asked about a bowl of black trumpet mushrooms (for the cafe upstairs, alas), and we inspected the delights of the pastry station. Earlier, excitement had been savored by all when the scent of burning caramel erupted scandalously from the back of the kitchen, and my dad shouted gleefully at our politely restrained server, "Hey, they're burning our dessert!"

My other brother Stephen presented me with Alice Waters's latest manifesto-cum-cookbook, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, which she introduces as a kind of basic cooking course, as opposed to say my Chez Panisse Vegetables, which is more of a reference. I'm looking forward to reading it through and sharing some recipes and ideas with you.

Minh & me, happy as can be.