Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Kindred Spirits: Four Decades of Chez Panisse and Steely Dan

Last month, we visited Berkeley to see Steely Dan stamp out any lingering idealism at the Greek Theater. Nevertheless, Chez Panisse (and the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective) demonstrated that Berkeley’s Sixties legacy is not dead; it’s just confined to Shattuck Avenue’s Gourmet Ghetto. In contrast, downtown Berkeley is still plagued with faux radicals who disregard their surreal inauthenticity and congregate along fetid Telegraph Avenue and in People’s Park, when not sitting in trees. These shenanigans helped elevate Kid Charlemagne that evening to an especial darkness.

As Chez Panisse celebrates its 37th anniversary, its cuisine feels as timely as ever, much like Steely Dan’s four-decade old brand of melodic sarcasm. Panisse’s once revolutionary philosophy has endured by continuing to utilize impeccably fresh, local ingredients for its deceptively simple preparations. Chez Panisse has sustained its reputation as the most influential restaurant in the U.S. in part through its ability to attract young talent drawn to the training, résumé enhancement, and dreams of grandeur associated with the matchless list of alumni. The larger names include Mark Peel and Suzanne Goin here in the ‘wood (our peeps), Jeremiah Tower (albeit controversially), Zuni’s Judy Rodgers, Mark Miller, Paul Bertolli, Joyce Goldstein, Cowgirl Creamery founder Peggy Smith—maker of the Red Hawk cheese, a veritable first cousin to our favorite, Époisses—and Fress-maligned but elsewhere acclaimed Michael Tusk. Prominent recent alumni include Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain of Camino who have already garnered praise in the Times and the Chronicle. It is no surprise that under Ms. Waters’s auspices, Chez Panisse's coterie of young chefs displays peerless technical competence, or at least fluency in the Panisse lexicon. Of major restaurants with kitchens visible to the diner, only the chefs at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris appear younger.

While the list is Northern California-centric, Los Angeles—at least between La Cienega and La Brea—is catching up, though at a glacial pace. Waters’s ideas have obviously found a home in feisty Portland where its chefs and obsessive foodies, having ditched the pretension, are trying to out-San Francisco San Francisco. (On the coffee front, the Portlanders have arguably out-Seattled Seattle.)

What about the provincial East Coast? With the ascendancy of Dan Barber and Blue Hill and the cute “Greenmarket” phenomenon (not to mention that French Laundry spinoff in the Columbus Circle mall), formerly rough-and-tumble New York has succumbed to the idealism of Berkeley’s Alice Waters, just four decades after the fact. The Gray Lady even lauded the Finger Lakes agricultural region of "central New York," which is supposedly somewhere between Rochester and Syracuse, whatever that means. What ever happened to the New York of Steinberg's "A View of the World from Ninth Avenue?" Apparently, that's pre-Waters New York. The new New York reads the United States of Arugula and might as well be called New Munich.

The Chez Panisse Café sits on the building’s second floor, and has an extensive à la carte menu that changes everyday. At a leisurely afternoon lunch at the Café before the concert, a few items stood out. The California Kid and the Ever Sagacious Gravida both ordered the heirloom tomato salad with “hand-pulled” mozzarella, basil, and a lively olive oil. While the dish was visually beautiful and abounded with flavor, it distinguished itself as a model of control and refinement. In a certain sense, the dish was a lesson, at once remedial or advanced, about how tomatoes, mozzarella, and olive oil are supposed to taste and why their flavors are harmonious.

If the salad was a showcase for the state’s summer produce, the pan-fried California sea bass was a revelation. Chez Panisse sautés a grayish hued fish so that it takes on the coarser texture of swordfish while still retaining its moisture. The lean fish has a natural richness, yet the preparation is the embodiment of restraint. There are no superfluous sauces; the only accompaniments were halved cherry tomatoes, small spherical potatoes, and a handful of ridiculously good green beans. The California Kid pronounced the bass the finest he ever tried. Strictly speaking, the "California sea bass" is not a bass at all, but a member of the croaker family of fishes. If Panisse were more faithful to its sustainability principles, its menu would use the fish's true and much less marketable name, not the euphemism.

While The Kid was enthralled with Panisse, he was still reeling from the peculiar genius of the Cheeseboard pizza where we noshed before lunch. The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective makes only one type of pizza a day and is operated by the 12 most rugged kibbutznick-pizzaiolos in the East Bay, who make fine companions to the laboratory workers of Forno Campo de' Fiori. (To be fair to the employees of the famed Roman bakery, it may take a dose of alchemy to create pizza that divinely good.) How this Collective coaxed so much great and interesting flavor out of July 26's improbable combination—zucchini slices, cilantro pesto, olive oil, feta and mozzarella on a vibrant pizza dough— is beyond me. All these old school and New Wave pizzerias in more traditional pizza locales can just step aside, with the exceptions of Una Pizza Napoletana and Geraci's.

We finished with an exquisite Ruby Grand nectarine tart and vanilla bean ice cream. Nectarine and peach tarts were ubiquitous in the Bay Area all weekend long. It’s a shame that Los Angeles chefs aren’t featuring them, a disappointment exacerbated by the superiority of the stone fruit available at the Hollywood farmer's market. Waters sends her people even further south to the cultish Chino Farms market in Rancho Santa Fe. The Hatfields also make the schlep, which makes for great Wednesday dinners at their eponymous restaurant.

Later that evening, Steely Dan's sly and pristine musicianship was on full display. Waters and Fagen/Becker showed that they are in many ways kindred spirits. Both Steely Dan and Chez Panisse demonstrate a great commitment to technical acumen, the effective and prolific use of young musicians and chefs, and, through food and music, social critiques as relevant as ever. (Steely Dan may have sets its sights too high with its rendition of Godwhacker, which is clever, but not as funny as Hitchens' God Is Not Great. Also Becker cannot sing.) Ultimately, Steely Dan and Chez Panisse, from their respective perches of East Coast irony and West Coast idealism, offer up refined and thoughtful sensibilities for the ears, mouth, and brain.

Chez Panisse Café
1517 Shattuck Ave.
(510) 548-5049

The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective
1512 Shattuck Ave.
(510) 549-3055


Anonymous said...

No offense, but as a superficial tourist, you clearly don't know berkeley as you assume you do. You summed it all up by comparing the gourmet ghetto and telegraph ave? That's why we bay area folks can't stand people from LA!

Steve said...

What is with uninformed comments and anonymity?

So Anonymous, if you can't discern that many of today's Berkeley "leftists" who congregate on Telegraph and wherever else are a complete fraud and nothing but fodder for the Colbert Report, then you do not deserve to live in your precious Bay Area.

Marisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marisa said...


Superficial tourist? Let it be known that, in fact, half of the Infinite Fress team lived in the Bay Area for several years. The other half is there several times a year. Superficial tourist? Don't you know not to mess with the Fress? Also, I'm nine months pregnant and have a LOT of rage. You can totally go suck it.