Friday, February 12, 2010

All You Foodies Out There

Let's get something straight: When it comes to food, I'm no country bumpkin. I've dined at three-star Michelin restaurants in France, supped at some of Chicago's finest eating establishments, enjoyed many of New York's upscale eateries, and, might I add, frequented some of the country's most reviewed vegetarian diners.

Still, I couldn't wait to have dinner at Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse. Alice Waters, chef, author, and the proprietor of Chez Panisse, is, as her Web site states, "an American pioneer of a culinary philosophy that maintains that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally. She is a passionate advocate for a food economy that is 'good, clean, and fair.'"

Right on! A restaurateur after my own stomach.

Alan and I dressed for the occasion - sport jacket for him and velveteen jacket for me. (Only later did we realize that jeans take you anywhere in Berkeley.)

We chose to dine in the upstairs cafe that, unlike the downstairs restaurant with its fixed menu, offers appetizer, entree, and dessert choices at a sum total lower bill. The genial staff greeted us as if we were long, lost friends and seated us in a corner booth with a view of several other tables and the open preparation area in which salads are made, bread cut, and selected foods cooked in an open wood oven.

At first blush, we were disappointed. Pizza with tomato sauce, baccala mantecato and egg for $18.50? Grilled Monterey Bay sardines with artichokes, roasted potatoes, and salsa verde for $19? Sorry all you connoisseurs of Italian delicacies. You couldn't pay me to order sardines! (Later, our waitress told us that the Italian dishes had been included on the evening's menu in honor of an Italian chef and wine expert who were dining at Chez Panisse.) The only fish entreé was fried in beer batter and accompanied by celery root salad and tartar sauce. What's up with that, Ms. Waters? Fancy, smancy fish and chips.

And on it went . . . orange zest and ale, pork cooked with red chile, butternut squash baked in the wood oven with tomato and mozzarella. We thought of making up some boldface lie ("My wife's water just broke.") and bolting. But somehow that felt like dissing a member of the family, so we settled in.

I ordered the avocado and grapefruit salad with citrus vinaigrette ($10) and was not disappointed. Maybe this would be a marker culinary event after all. Alan had the Soul Food Farm chicken liver crostini with Florentine fennel salad ($10) that, to my palette, tasted as good as any French paté. Onward and upward. Or so I hoped.

I studied the entreé choices like a woman deciding whether to accept a marriage proposal from a longtime beau. Nothing piqued my fancy. I ultimately settled on a half order of tagliatelle verde with ragu bianco ($11), a fancy description of spinach pasta with small pieces of white chicken and pork. I was not impressed; in fact, I was downright crestfallen. Heck, Alan makes better pasta at home. I slogged through but was not a happy camper. My dear husband, on the other hand, ordered the beer batter-fried sole ($25) and loved it. The fried batter was light and airy enough not to interfere with the delicate sole perfectly prepared. No need for the tartar sauce, Ms. Alice.

Not stuffing myself meant I had plenty of room for dessert. In fact, I insisted on ordering two desserts to make up for my unremarkable pasta. Bittersweet chocolate truffle tartlet with caramel-brown ale cream ($9.25) and a Pink Lady apple and huckleberry tart with vanilla ice cream ($9.75). The latter, while tasty, only teased us with a few huckleberries scattered on top. And how can you go wrong with anything made from dark chocolate?

Chez Panisse is consistently ranked one of the top restaurants in the U.S. and often one of the top eateries in the world. Not according to this albeit untrained food critic. Next week, we're eating at Camino, an Oakland restaurant whose chef worked at Chez Panisse for years. Let's see what he has up his apron.

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