In my limited experience, Berkeley students are fond of the term “ghetto”. Near campus there are two “food ghettos” where you can grab a quick and cheap bite to eat. Further off campus on Shattuck is the “gourmet ghetto”…dubbed so because it is the area surrounding Chez Panisse.
There are two dining areas at Chez Panisse: the Café (or “upstairs”) and the Restaurant (known as “downstairs”). They both use the same kitchen, the two differences are the menu and the atmosphere. The retaurant is solely 3-5 course prix fixe dinners, and has a softer, more romantic atmosphere. The café is a la carte, louder and livelier, and has a lot more seating available. Chez Panisse is owned by the famous chef Alice Waters, and is routinely listed among the best restaurants in America. As such, reservations are a must. Since I called less than a week in advance, the restaurant was completely booked and I gladly accepted a table at the café.
The menu had a number of ingredients that I didn’t recognize. Our helpful waiter deciphered “bottarga di muggine” for us, and asserted that the shaved fish eggs added zing and not fishiness to the pizzetta with sorrel and onions. He was spot on. The pizette was a thin-crust, crispy, wood fired/brick oven masterpiece. It was rich, but not heavy, and a great start to our meal.
In the café the tables are very close together, which means that it’s very easy to eavesdrop on your neighbors’ conversations and to spy on their food (not that LL or I would ever do such a thing ;)). The table to my left received what at first glance looked like a piece of duck, but was really a butternut squash panade with black trumpet mushrooms, gremolata, and friseé salad. I was intrigued, and ordered what turned out to be the best squash dish I have ever tasted. The panade was a stand-out entree, one of those dished that you write home (or on your blog) about. The trumpet mushrooms had clearly been harvested fresh earlier in the day, the interplay between the squash preparation and the vegetables was simply awesome. Chez Panisse’s menu changes daily, but if you are fortunate enough to have this option on your menu, I highly recommend it.
Lauren ordered the hand-cut pasta with North Carolina white shrimp and mustard blossoms. The pasta was soft and the shrimp tender. There was a breadcrumb-like crust atop the pasta which reminded me of comfort food, though it was much lighter than your traditional casserole. Along with the main course we tried the “Chez Panisse Zinfindel”.
Then it was time for dessert. It was a tossup between the “Sierra Beauty” apple crisp (apparently a local favorite) and the dark chocolate homemade ice cream. We opted for the chocolate this time around. The ice cream was reminiscent of the chocolate gelato at Vios, and it was served with chocolate-walnut cookies that were brownie-like in consistency and still warm from the oven. Yum.
Everytime I go to Berkeley my Mom asks if I went to her “favorite restaurant” (a title not given lightly). This time I was very pleased to respond with a happy “yes”!
Chez Panisse Café
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, California 94709
Mon-Sat 11:30AM-3:00PM (Lunch)
Mon-Thurs 5:00PM-10:30PM, Fri-Sat 5:00PM-11:30PM (Dinner)