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Lunch at iconic Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley

January 29, 2014

Look up any things-to-do article or story about spending a day in Berkeley and chances are you will find mention of Chez Panisse as a foodie mecca and one of the top experiences for visitors to Berkeley. Chez Panisse is considered one of the best restaurants in all of the country, in fact, all of the world, so this is not an experience you will want to miss! Alice Waters is the owner of Chez Panisse and considered the pioneer of California cuisine. Throughout her career as a restauranteur, chef and author, Alice Waters has actively supported the use of locally-sourced, fresh, organic ingredients and encouraged the art of cooking simple, delicious, healthy food.

Berkeley is just a 20min drive from San Francisco and a 1 hour drive from South Bay. This university town makes a great day trip destination. We have been to Berkeley several times, but never made it to Chez Panisse until recently. First things first though – make a reservation! Both their popular landmark restaurant and upstairs cafe take reservations and fill up way in advance. Make reservations for the cafe here and the restaurant here.

chez-panisse-exteriorChez Panisse Exterior

Driving up on Shattuck Avenue, it’s easy to miss Chez Panisse with it’s muted charcoal-colored front and light-brown wooden facade, if you’re not watching carefully. It might be tough to find street parking nearby, but there is a parking lot a couple blocks away where we got lucky. We walked into Chez Panisse Cafe (it is upstairs) and were greeted by a lovely lady who directed us to the waiting area since we were still a bit early. The famed Chez Panisse dining restaurant is downstairs and I peeked in as we passed by, it was almost empty except for a couple diners who were taking their time finishing their meal. The upstairs cafe is very popular with the evening crowd, most of whom stop in for a late lunch, coffee, sandwiches and more.

interiors-chez-panisse-cafeWarm interiors and thoughtful seating inside the cafe – cozy and intimate but still private

We read through the menu while waiting for our table. Everything looked outright gourmet and sounded delicious. Right on time, we were told our table was ready and were led into the inner dining area, and seated at our table. Our table was at a corner of the room, which gave us a great view of everything around us. First impressions of the interiors at Chez Panisse Cafe – warm, cozy, inviting, unpretentious, classy.

bread-and-butterBread and butter

Our server graciously introduced himself, and brought us bread, butter and glasses of water. I was expecting the bread to be warm, but it was disappointingly cold, even lower than room temperature. However, even the cold bread tasted good as it was crusty with the right amount of chewy, and butter on anything is a surefire way to make every mouthful delicious.

chez-panisse-daily-menuChez Panisse daily menu – they change the menu and print a new one for lunch and dinner – every day!

Did you know Chez Panisse prints a new menu for each day? Yes, our menu had the day’s date and year on it. Wow! Imagine printing a new menu every day – now, that is true dedication to the art of fresh, locally sourced, organic California cuisine. We took our time reading everything on the menu, savoring with our eyes before we would savor with our mouths.

chez-panisse-menuChez Panisse daily menu as displayed outside the restaurant

For drinks, we got the Navarro Vineywards Gewurztraminer Grape juice and organic Apple juice, both of which were absolutely luscious tasting. They were not too sweet and tasted very fresh, like the grapes and apples had been juiced right then. The Gewurztraminer was so good we got another glass of it midway through our meal.

grape-juice-and-apple-juiceWhetting our appetite with grape juice and organic apple juice

The Cafe menu had something for everybodyfrom oysters to pizza. We decided to go with the Chicken Al Mattone (Riverdog Farm Chicken Al Mattone with Shoestring Potatoes, Spicy Greens and Black Olive Sauce) and Crispy Rockfish (Crispy Monterey Bay Rockfish with Savoy Cabbage, Sunchokes and Gingery Fennel Relish). Al Mattone is Italian for “under a brick” and refers to the technique of cooking the chicken under a heavy weight like a brick, which gives the chicken a crispy finish on the outside while it stays moist and tender on the inside. The dish came with shoestring fries which were lightweight in size but flavorful in taste. The spicy greens had a good amount of heat to them, which took us quite by surprise. I wonder how they got the greens to soak up that heat, we didn’t find chillies or red pepper, so they might have been sauteed in chili oil, perhaps.

chicken-al-mattoneChicken Al Mattone

I got the fish and it was incredibly delicious. When I read “Crispy” on the menu, I’d thought it would be breaded, but instead was pleasantly surprised to be presented with a pan-seared fillet of rockfish. The ginger-fennel relish was a clear winner in this dish – it added a refreshing perspective and took the flavor notes to a whole new level. Who would’ve thought pairing fennel with delicate fish would result in an excellent combination? Now, that’s a great idea to adopt at home! The vegetables were also very well done – tender and tasty, just baked in enough olive oil to impart that rich taste without being doused in grease.

monterey-bay-rockfishCrispy Monterey Bay Rockfish

We couldn’t wait to get started on our entrees! The portion sizes are great – not so small that you’ll leave hungry (there are many Michelin star restaurants which offer tiny portions and people have reviewed those on Yelp saying they need to stop at In-N-Out afterward!) and not so big that you’ll not be able to finish what’s on your plate. Pure olive oil was used aplenty in our dishes, which added a richness to the food and we felt quite stuffed afterward.

lunch-chez-panisseLooking forward to our lunch at Chez Panisse Cafe!

We skipped the salads and soups because we wanted to leave room for dessert! With two main entrees, drinks and the bread + butter, we were happily full at the end of our meal. But who can say no to a steaming cup of cappuccino and a slice of chocolate cake? So we got the Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache Tart with Creme Chantilly and Pine Nut Praline, along with a cup of delicious cappuccino.

espressoEnding our meal with some cappuccino

The cappuccino was great, as Italian coffee always is. Perhaps they have an Italian coffee-maker back there somewhere? Pairing that with the decadent bittersweet chocolate ganache was pure heaven. The tart was not too sweet (I am very partial to bittersweet desserts) and the pine-nut praline was a big hit with my husband. Again, the portion sizes were perfect, we were able to finish our dessert and coffee and end our meal on a high note of satisfaction.

chocolate-ganache-tartAnd of course, always leave room for dessert! Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache Tart with Creme Chantilly and Pine Nut Praline

We hadn’t noticed the time when we were dining at Chez Panisse, so when we did get around to looking at our watch after coffee and dessert, we were surprised to see 2 hours had gone by! One sure doesn’t realize how time flies when having fun. The cafe was still busy and would no doubt get busier as the evening went on. We got our check and thanked our gracious server and waitress before making our way out. Of course, we had to get the customary photo under the Chez Panisse sign at the doorway. As we were getting our photo taken, a family walked by on the sidewalk. A little girl and her younger sister were following their Dad. Dad looked at the sign above our heads and turning back to his daughters, said “Do you know what that is, dear? It is one of the most famous restaurants in the world“.  The little girls’ eyes opened wide and they stopped in their tracks to get a better look at this famous restaurant. We share the same sentiment. Ever since I’d heard about Chez Panisse, I’ve wanted to visit. And I finally did! It was a great experience and a memorable lunch. Many thanks to Alice Waters for seeding a new revolution on the food scene in California – here’s to the rise of fresh, locally sourced, organic, healthy food.

outside-chez-panisseOutside Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley

Have you been to Chez Panisse – the cafe or the restaurant? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments!

Happy Dining!

~ Trupti

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