East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Chez Panisse Cafe: The sincerest form of flattery

So the most common complaint about Chez Panisse (besides the price of course) is that it's stuff you can make at home. To test this, I decided to try to reproduce in my kitchen a fixed lunch I recently ate in the Cafe (henceforth CPC). Trust that I'm a competent cook, who makes something out of the Chez Panisse Vegetables book five times a week.

GARDEN LETTUCE SALAD: The one at had at the Cafe was easily the best lettuce + vinaigrette I'd ever had, with arugula and curly endive providing exciting variations in flavour. Nevertheless, you might think this is one dish I could match: it's as simple as it gets to make, plus I could prepare the vinaigrette to my taste. I bought a wad of leaves from the Happy Boy stand at the Berkeley Farmers' Market, made my dressing and compared. And you know, even greens straight from the market didn't taste as fresh as what I had at the CPC. And my Berkeley Bowl brand olive oil and champagne vinegar aren't perfect substitutes for what they have. Other difference: their salad retails at $7.50; mine cost a dollar for the greens, plus maybe 25-50 cents for the other ingredients.
Ratio of quality of CPC's food to mine: 4.

WILD NETTLE PUDDING SOUFFLE: No, I wasn't going to put myself through the pain of foraging nettles just for this project. Their recipe for a green garlic pudding souffle is in the Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook; I substituted their suggested alternative of leek. Major problem: I don't have a food processor. Consequently my product was earthbound, which a texture more like a quiche than a souffle. It was still quite awesome, since I splurged for real parmigiano reggiano.
Ratio of quality of CPC's food to mine: 2.

ASPARAGUS AND MOREL MUSHROOMS: These were served with the souffle. I've made asparagus and morels to CP specifications a number of times, so I didn't try cooking them again. I actually prefer my asparagus, since I like it better unpeeled (that's the waste-not Cantonese upbringing talking). But the morels, wow. A few days before I went to the CPC, I bought morels at the Monterey Market, sauteed them, and thought, "Yes, I've finally worked out how to get my $19/pound worth out of these mushrooms". And then I had the ones at the CPC, which sent me into mouthwatering despair: they were just so much better again. Turns out I'd been overcooking mine -- see, dining at Chez Panisse is educational.
Ratio of quality of CPC's food to mine: 3.

VANILLA ICE CREAM WITH TOASTED ALMONDS AND BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE SAUCE: Don't have an ice cream maker, but I've eaten a lot of ice cream lately, and while what I had at the CPC was very close to the top, it wasn't the very top. For the price, I could go to Sketch and have almost enough left over for a bar of Valrhona.
Ratio of quality of CPC's food to a double at Sketch plus most of a bar of Valrhona: 0.5.

Conclusions: (1) I still have some way to go before I get my Michelin star; (2) even if I were a great cook, I'd never be able to match many of Chez Panisse's dishes, because they have access to better ingredients; (3) at my price point ($40 hard limit on splurges) I can get a better meal at Pizzaiolo than here. Still, I'll go back when I've saved up enough to order more interesting stuff.


40 favourite songs of the Nineties, #30: Billy Bragg & Wilco, "Walt Whitman's Niece" (download)

Does anyone else think Natasha Bedingfield hasn't just read Byron, Shelley and Keats? That "Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!" is defatalised into "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you"? Getting back to the song in question, which is nearly as great, gotta love how the sly, gentlemanly way Bragg/Wilco/Guthrie withhold details, thus expanding a personal encounter into singalong universals. Endlessly rocking indeed.

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