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Chez Panisse Downstairs

By   /   February 1, 2013  /   1 Comment

A revolution of sorts swept though the bastion of California cooking when long time chefs Jean-Pierre Moulle and David Tanis left their alternating bi-annual posts of downstairs dining room chef at Chez Panisse.  Many of the restaurant’s loyal patrons–the Chez Panisse family–were concerned. Jean-Pierre Moulle, a 37 year veteran, represented the institutional memory of the restaurant.  Classically trained at hotel school in France, he taught generations of cooks at Chez while running the downstairs kitchen.  David Tanis, who headed the cafe upstairs and then moved downstairs over the course of a mere 25 years, was a little less traditional and a little more whimsical in his taste, embracing a slightly wider range of ingredients. But his cooking, too, always tasted like Chez Panisse food.

Alice Waters filled their spots with two very experienced Chez Panisse chefs, Jerome Waag, who started last summer, and Cal Peternell, who just now came on for the winter and spring term.

I will admit that I was scared before my first dinner cooked by Jerome Waag, not because I thought he would be incompetent, but because I thought his food might be different.  I love the food at Chez, upstairs and down. Their kind of seemingly simple, local ingredient-based cooking is exactly what I want to eat.  Alice Waters and I exactly agree on what tastes good, better and best. She is someone who frets if one of those beautiful ingredients the restaurant gathers is not cooked to its fullest and highest potential. Alice doesn’t like obfuscation, fussiness, or screwing around with the natural flavors of superb raw materials, and Chez Panisse makes the seemingly mundane–green beans or nettles or a tangerine–a taste sensation, a revelation.  Her sensibility is personal, emotional and as far as I’m concerned, infallible, and everything prepared at her restaurant reflects that.

However, the rumor was that Alice was stepping back from the restaurant to do other things, and who knew if Waag, wanting to make his own statement, would change something that many of us thought had been perfect for 40 years?  In fact the meal I had on an August Tuesday ($85) could have been cooked by JP himself: airy eggplant fritters with wild arugula; a toothsome mussel risotto with crispy pancetta; grilled duck breast, sliced, on a plate full of summer vegetables; a summer berry ile flottant–a soft pouffy meringue floating on custard cream with berries– all just as vivid and balanced and delicious as food can be.

It was Cal Peternell’s January Friday night dinner ($100) that surprised me with its creativity. Ginger scented a salad of escarole, beets and steelhead roe.  A shrimp risotto was fragrant with toasted sesame seeds.  The crisp skin of a grilled duck breast was rubbed with coriander and fennel, and came with young parsnips, brussels sprouts the size of a child’s fingernail, and a gently pickled persimmon relish.  Meyer lemon ice cream profiteroles had a layer of creamy pistachio-anise nougatine inside.  Peternell’s food possessed that transcendent Chez succulence and brightness but tasted new and rather poetic with its overlay of exotic if totally integrated scent. Charming!

These two dinners reinforced my love of Chez Panisse.  It is the most representative restaurant in the Bay Area, and the continues to be the best.

1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley 510 548-5525  downstairs dinner served Monday through Saturday

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