Our Californian juggernaut wouldn’t have been complete without a trip to San Fransisco (duh), and our trip to San Fransisco wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Chez Panisse (duh).
Chez Panisse is an institution in San Fransisco, opening in 1971 by food activist and Chef Alice Waters. It was seen as the start of the focus on locally produced, sustainable food sources which is now stereotypical in San Fransisco. Frequently featured in the top 50 restaurants in the world, there was no way I was passing up this opportunity. For me however, the draw card was David Lebovitz – my favourite food blogger – whose humble beginnings started at Chez Panisse. More recently there have been mixed thoughts about Chez Panisse, however I was determined to go.
We went on a Monday night, and unfortunately missed the Downstairs Monday Night Dinner – no matter, we went to the cafe upstairs. The cafe features booths and an open kitchen – and we were lucky as we were seated directly across from the kitchen itself and had the opportunity to see the chefs at work.
I was excited. So was my stomach.
Once we were seated and had our drinks, we were given a healthy serve of sourdough bread. Now sourdough has to be my all time favourite bread, and thankfully, I have a great boutique bakery on my side of town in Brisbane so I frequent it often. So how did this sourdough compare? It. Was. Awesome. Crunchy skin that you chewed through, a bouncy gut that went perfectly with salted butter…… I practically ruined my dinner by eating too much sourdough. But not quite. I was in happy land. Just with bread. Clearly not that hard to please…
We ordered a number of starters, mains, and desserts to share, so we could experience and taste as much as we could. Our first starter was a baked Andante goat cheese with garden salad ($10). Now I’m not a massive fan of goat’s cheese, but this one was very nice indeed. Light tasting yet very creamy, the cheese was lightly coated in crumbs and herbs. The cheese went well with the salad and tangy dressing. A nice and simple start to our meal.
The next starter was Cannard Farm heirloom tomato salad with savory ($10). The dish was incredibly simple. And thankfully so, as the tomatoes packed a punch that didn’t need much – tart yet sweet, it was one of the best tomatoes I have ever tried. They would have been freshly picked when super ripe – the way tomatoes should be enjoyed. The savory leaves where slightly bitter, which complimented the incredible flavour of the tomato. We had a combination of big yellow and red tomatoes, as well as small cherry tomatoes. The larger slices were my preferred choice. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this dish.
Our final starter was a pizzetta with tomato sauce, eggplant and mint ($15). A perfectly woodfired pizzetta, with generous slices of eggplant well prepared (not bitter at all). The mint was an interesting combination, and if I’m honest, distracted me a little bit. However I can’t go past a well cooked pizza base and I got it with this pizzetta.
Our first main consisted of hand cut green noodles with chanterelle (a fungus) and porcini mushroom ragu ($20). The noodles were cooked al dante, giving it a nice chewy consistency. I loved that they were thick noodles too. The ragu was rich in mushroom flavour – the smell was wonderful. If I could have slurped up the left over ragu I would have, so instead I got a bit of sourdough and mopped it up 🙂 A smattering of parmesan cheese gave the dish some extra flavour.
Next we had a Liberty duck leg cooked in a wood fired oven, with roasted figs, beans and a wedge of crispy polenta ($24). The duck leg was wonderfully crisp, yet pink on the inside – they clearly know their oven very well. The accompanying figs were seriously the best I have ever tried – sweet and soft – admittedly figs are the best when they are fresh, and we can’t easily get that here in Australia. I literally saved a sliver of fig for each bite of my dish. The salad lightened up the dish, however the polenta wasn’t necessary and didn’t add anything for me.
Our last main was grilled Elliot Range lamb leg with kale (cabbage), potato and parsnip gratin, and black olive sauce ($25). I really do NOT like lamb but gave this a try. The meat was tender and enjoyable to begin with, however the unpleasant taste of lamb set in soon after. However everyone at the table enjoyed this dish very much, so it just wasn’t to my taste. No matter. The gratin was tasty though!
Now on to desserts. We started with creme fraiche panna cotta with huckleberry coulis and a ginger snap ($9). I am not used to eating creme fraiche, which is a more tart tasting cream. The panna cotta was very smooth, however the tartness of the huckleberry sauce made me glad that I was sharing the dessert. It was a bit lost on me.
Our next dessert was a bittersweet chocolate pave (flourless chocolate cake) with toasted almond ice cream ($9). I’m a BIG fan of flourless chocolate cake as it’s always packed with flavour and leaves me with a very satisfied stomach. This one was excellent and was swimming in dark chocolate sauce. YUM YUM YUM. The almond ice cream wasn’t too almond-y (does that make sense?) and cut through the slight bitterness of the chocolate. I really enjoyed this dish.
However my favourite dessert was Black Mission fig ice cream with wood oven roasted figs and a little puff twist ($9). As I mentioned before, it is difficult to get fresh figs in Australia. Sure, you can go to a gourmet green grocer, however as it’s not in big supply, it’s not something that we play around with much. The oven roasted figs were so incredibly sweet, you only needed a little bit to get a punch of natural sweetness. The ice cream was delicious with a slight fig flavour, but also included some spices which gave it a bit of depth. I love puff pastry, so the twist went down a treat also. But those figs, my gosh I miss that taste.
Since we could still fit in a little more, we decided to end dessert with a red and white wine poached pear tart with vanilla cream ($10). We weren’t planning on it, however with the freshly cooked tarts and cakes on display right in front of us, we threw our waistlines out the window. The pastry was buttery and sugary and the pears softened perfectly. The wines had softened the pears and added extra sweetness. However after the sweetness of the figs, I couldn’t properly appreciate the poached pears. Probably should have eaten it at the beginning of our dessert courses.
I left Chez Panisse with a very content stomach. All the dishes I sampled were tasty. The dishes stuck with the theme that put Chez Panisse on the foodie map – relatively simple dishes that allowed the fresh flavours shine through. It was like home cooked food with a sophisticated touch. The service was excellent and the atmosphere was lively and casual. While it was not a cheap meal, considering the standard of most, if not all dishes, I was happy with the price. And if I am honest, there is no way that I could get a meal of this standard in Brisbane for this price. No. Way. So I’m so glad that we had the opportunity to visit Chez Panisse. It will be my first stop when I return to San Fransisco one day.