With all the praise and reverence that is bestowed upon Chez Panisse, it’s easy to become jaded about it before even stepping foot in the restaurant. I admit that I had my share of skepticism, but I also knew that the restaurant known for being the birthplace of California cuisine and an alumni list that reads like a culinary all-star team wouldn’t be around for nearly 40 years if it was merely mediocre.
Normally, Chez Panisse takes reservations a month ahead, but I called two days before our Friday night dinner and secured a late dinner reservation upstairs in the cafe at 9:45pm. Both the upstairs cafe and the downstairs restaurant offer different menus every night, but the cafe offers an a la carte menu with several options, while the restaurant has a set menu. We looked up the menu for the day online, so we pretty much knew what we wanted when we walked in the door.
We ordered a pizzetta of squash and squash blossoms, and it was the perfect starter. The toppings were really good, nice and balanced, although I’m more into eating squash blossoms than actual squash. The crust was perfect—crispy but chewy and salty—exactly how I like my pizza crust. I’d even say that the crust rivals that of some of my favorite pizzas, including Pizzeria Mozza and Pizzeria Picco.
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My wife really liked her wood-oven baked lasagna with tomato, eggplant, basil and Parmesan, a simple, beautiful rustic dish. I ordered lamb with frisee, sausage, fennel, crispy potatoes and chanterelle mushrooms. The lamb and potatoes were perfectly cooked and delicious. The sausage was a little bland, but when eaten with its natural partner i.e. fennel, it was really nice. I even ate the chanterelles, and I don’t really like mushrooms.
For dessert, my wife ordered a strawberry and raspberry shortcake, which she loved. It’s a simple formula really… take the freshest fruit and combine it with a sweet, biscuit-like shortcake and a little creme chantilly, and you have a perfect dessert.
I ordered the mint chocolate chip ice cream with chocolate sauce, and I was in heaven. Mint chip is one of my favorite flavors and this iteration was one of the best I’ve had. The mint flavor was great, and I loved the dark chocolate chips embedded in each bite. It was served with what our waiter said were called “Killer Cookies,” which were like chocolate, chocolate-chip cookie slivers and lived up to their name.
Overall, we had an excellent meal and were already talking about a return visit as we walked out the door. If I had any regrets, it’s that I wish I had visited this culinary mecca years ago.