It was Professor N’s birthday on the auspicious 8/8/08 but we were able to score a late reservation at Chez Panisse a the day before joined by his buddy P. We ventured out to Berkeley to Alice Waters shrine to gourmet locavoriousness. We were greeted by the trademark Victorian arts & crafts vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright decor of the place and briefly stored upstairs before being seated at our table for three. There was no room no way for a fourth.
Chez Panisse keeps it simple by offering a single four-course menu for $75 (plus 8.75% tax and 17% service for a total of about $95). Besides a wide selection of beverages, the only option was to add a cheese plate to the menu. We opted in. Even though there were no choices, the waiter glided over to review the menu with us, starting oddly with the main and working backward to the starters.
But the food is far from simple. We started off with an insalata caprese with heirloom tomatoes and hand-stretched mozzarella and basil with a bit of olive crostini. The pasta was summer squash tortelloni with garlic broth and squash blossoms on top. The salad was a great start with zesty tomatoes and supple fresh mozzarella. The tortelloni were pleasant enough but a little on the bland side.
The main was a perfect Wolfe Ranch quail with pepperonata, sweet corn, polenta and rocket. I dubbed it “quail with corn two ways” and enjoyed it thoroughly. It shouldn’t distract from the quail to say that the corn was absolutely fantastic, rivaling the corn I had earlier that day at The Slanted Door. It all went down very nicely with a glass of Grüner Veltliner, and apparently with N’s elderflower spritzer, made with the apparently de rigeur Nikolaihof biodynamic elderflower syrup.
We sprang for the cheese supplement and received a firm wedge of sheep cheese, a creamy disc of goat and a semisoft cow cheese with serious rind. The specifics were not recorded and there was barely time to photograph the cheeses before they disappeared. The dessert proper was a pluot crostata with wild fennel ice cream. I’m usually not a big fan of cooked fruit desserts, but this one might have been the best dish of the night: crisp crust with just enough flakiness, and tart fruit sour enough to keep me interested.
It was a celebratory banquet that lasted long enough for the clock to tick over to N’s official birthday. We had a grand time and enjoyed exemplary service, but we had to wonder if the food could have been a bit more adventurous or surprising to help justify the bill.