February 12, 2003




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As time goes by

By Paul Reidinger

IT WOULD BE elegant to say I visit Chez Panisse every 10 years – just to check up on it, don't you know, make sure all is well – but it would also be slightly inaccurate. The lives of restaurant-goers do not always neatly align with the precisions of calendars, quartz-movement watches, atomic clocks. I did pay my first visit almost exactly 20 years ago, on July 20, 1983, and I know this because I still have the (handwritten) menu, which, with its promises of sorrel soup and grilled yellowfin tuna, terrified me. The only tuna I had known until that evening had come from cans, and sorrel sounded gravely weird. The price, $35 for five courses, also seemed formidable, and I was grateful someone else – some authentic adult who actually earned a creditable income, in this case the faraway father of my companion – was paying.

But I returned a year too soon, almost exactly to the day. The asymmetrical visit occurred July 23, 1992, a Thursday, in the company of parents, and another menu was added to the scrapbook. The evening was a flawless experience in every respect. Did I sense then that I would not return for nearly 11 years (not counting a birthday visit to the café upstairs one rainy January afternoon in the late '90s)? No. I knew only that I had eaten two meals at Chez Panisse and had come away from each believing that it was the best meal I had ever eaten. I liked the set menu, I liked the simplicity of the food (so much of which was grilled on the open brick hearth in plain view of many of the tables), I liked the simple, stylish Arts and Crafts design of the building, I liked the confident modesty of the place.

The question for Chez Panisse – having spawned a generation of chefs and restaurants that in turn spawned their own acolytes and devotees, and having completed the journey in the meantime from radical experiment to national and perhaps international institution – is a straightforward one: how to stay fresh in a dramatically more competitive restaurant world? And the answer seems to be equally straightforward: by adhering to first principles. True, Chez Panisse's prices have drifted up some over the years, and chefs have come and gone, but the muscle and bone of the place are what they always have been. When I stepped inside on a damp evening late in January, my eyes immediately wandered to the spot where, two decades earlier, I'd watched my friend Liza finish her dinner with a glass of port (our table had been, in a slight heresy, shifted a bit), then to the spot where I'd sat with my parents in 1992. The hearth was still there, and the meal began, as always, with a little dish of complimentary nibblables – this time some addictive fried nuts.

It is true that a certain alternative flavor has been lost. One of my companions (who'd last eaten in the downstairs dining room in the 1970s) noted that the barefoot, beflowered girl who had once upon a time moved through the dining room ladling soup from a huge tureen was nowhere to be seen. No indeed; probably she owns her own restaurant now. Today's Berkeley is at least as much about Volvos as flowers, and Chez Panisse draws its patronage from around the world anyway. But despite the rising tide of affluence, the restaurant has resolutely not gone yuppie. It is not about showing off.

The food, in particular, retains its distinctive Franco-Italian tone, with an emphasis on simple presentation of in-season, sustainably grown vegetables and fruits on the one hand, and liberal use of the wood-fired grill on the other. A mache salad (the first of four courses for $65), dotted with pecans and rubylike bits of marinated beet, offered a display of brightness and hope against the winter gloom and took some savory depth from shavings of aged Midnight Moon goat cheese, which resembled Parmesan in its granularity and nuttiness.

There was nothing fancy about a Tuscan shellfish soup, with Dungeness crab, squid, clams, and mussels – good peasant cooking with first-rate ingredients – and the main course, grilled quail with an oval of braised endive, a round of crostini with duck liver paté, and a heap of Umbrian lentils (each item carefully nested on the plate) was, for me, the essence of the Chez Panisse style. Instead of fussing about sauces, chef Kelsey Kerr let the natural juices go about their subtle business of binding everything together.

Dessert was virtuous: an apple fondant (essentially a crustless tart of caramelized apple slices) set like a fortress amid a moat of crème anglaise with a lowering puff of whipped cream. But we were, if anything, more taken with a plate of tiny, seedless mandarin oranges and of fat, ripe dates so candylike that I (descended from several generations of candyholics) could not stop eating them until they vanished.

It is a basic precept – almost unknown in our instant-gratification culture – that love, like self, is built not found. Love begins in excitement but rises from the reliable repetition of good and happy experiences. That of course takes time; it cannot be rushed. It means returning, remembering, enjoying anew. If this is the secret to Chez Panisse's long success, it's a secret hidden, like so many of the great secrets, in plain view.

Chez Panisse. 1517 Shattuck (at Vine), Berk. (510) 548-5525. Dinner: Mon.-Sat. in two seatings, 6-6:30 p.m., 8:30-9:30 p.m. Reservations required. Beer and wine. American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Comfortable noise level. Wheelchair accessible.