Dining at Chez Panisse is supposed to be a spiritual moment akin to sitting beside Christ at the last supper.
The Berkeley, California restaurant is an institution with a history as old as your favorite variety of Heirloom tomato - it's the Mecca of the locavore, organic movement, and Alice Waters is its Muhammad.
If you've ever dined at a place championing locally grown foods and pure, fresh produce - then you've been to a place run by one of Alice's disciples.
Chez Panisse is one of the top five restaurants in or near San Francisco, and I consider it a sheer culinary gift from God that I was able to savor its goodness.
That said, it's got nothin' on Cincinnati's dining scene.
We went to Chez Panisse just five days after we had the most spectacular meal at Boca. We headed to the restaurant, which is hidden behind an arbor of overgrown trees and understated signage, after enjoying a cocktail at Mint Leaf (side note: I tried the most delicious cucumber gimlet cocktail there - it was tart, refreshing, and I imagine a perfect accompaniment to the restaurant's Indian cuisine).
We made our way to the restaurant of the evening and were greeted by a pleasant maitre d who whisked away our coats and showed us to our table near the open kitchen upstairs. We sat there with pent up excitement, expecting a meal we hoped to describe as orgasmic, spectacular and stunning.
Instead, we found ourselves remarking the courses were bland and unremarkable.
"This just isn't as good as Boca," we said - after every. single. course.
Our starter was a fritto misto of artichokes, squash, onions and parsley with watercress. These seasonal vegetables were served fried tempura style with a sauce akin to a caper flavored tartar sauce. I liked the starter but wasn't really bowled over - the deep fried vegetables weren't all that flavorful and something I'd expect from the likes of P.F. Chang's.
Our server Gianni brought us a nice 2006 Bourgone-Aligote Chablis, explaining it was a white wine made of hand harvested grapes from Burgundy.
The wine paired well with the next course - local rockfish and Dungeness crab brodo with olio nuovo. The fish was prepared well but was not very distinctive in flavor, save for only a hint of parsley.
Gianni and his crew brought us the third course, Grilled Becker Lane pork loin with shell beans and breadcrumbs, and Chino Ranch carrots and turnips. Nobody does pork better than Iowa, and that's where the star of our entrée was bred. The pork loin was tender and well flavored (I distinctly tasted something from the cinnamon/nutmeg/allspice genre), but we both remarked that we were not nearly as impressed with the course (or any, for that matter) as we were when dining at Boca just days earlier.
Dessert sometimes has a way of making everything better - and we held out all hopes that the final course would somehow redeem our evening at the legendary Chez Panisse.
We were served a date-rum and candied orange ice cream coupe with espresso granita. I enjoyed the date-rum and orange pairing - a perfect flavor combination for the winter months - but I thought the granita was overly icy/watery and lacking a strong coffee flavor.
I had photos of all of the courses, but cannot share them with you as they are on the cell phone that was stolen in San Francisco. As I was taking all of these photos, Gianni kindly offered me an opportunity to tour the kitchen and talk with the chefs. As much as I would have enjoyed the opportunity, I was on vacation and wanted to just enjoy the moment, not look at it as an opportunity to review a restaurant.
So then, why the review, you ask?
A dear friend of mine suggested I post this review, not as a chance to knock one of the West Coast's greatest restaurants, but as an opportunity to champion Cincinnati's own culinary scene.
Kids, we can eat just as well in Cincinnati as they can on the Coasts.
Sure, San Francisco, New York, etc. all have a glut of phenomenal restaurants, whereas we have but a handful of truly remarkable dining experiences. That said, it's wonderful knowing we don't have to jump on a plane or drive a car if we want to taste something truly sublime.
And I also firmly believe sublime does not have to equal fancy/expensive/exclusive.
Heck, I think Terry's Turf Club is out of this world.
Kate's Random Musings by Kate the Great is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.