SK and I headed to Berkeley well in advance of lunch, not wanting something cosmic and stupid to stand in our way (e.g., truck full of Skittles overturned on the Interstate). We soon found ourselves with an hour to kill in the sleepy commercial area surrounding Chez Panisse. We spent it in a hardware store, shopping for Gorilla Glue and potting soil. And somehow, dazzled by the array of smoke detectors, we managed to be 10 minutes late for our reservation. I’d blame SK except that would be totally inaccurate.
By the time we got inside I was sweaty and flustered, at the bottom of my game. I told the bespoke host that we had reservations, and after a nearly imperceptible “you’re late” look, he put us in the corner of the waiting area. No one puts Baby in the corner!
I was totally edgy while we waited, suspecting (like I often do) that the host was seating people before us out of spite. Then, with the reassuring grace that’s indigenous to the well-heeled gay man, he cooed, “I couldn’t be more sorry about the wait, right this way.” We were inside the temple.
We were tucked into a cozy corner table, with adequate space between us and all the other yuppies. Everything was dark wood, adorned with leafy plants and vintage posters for French movies and booze. An open porch at one end of the dining area allowed for a nice flow of air and sunlight throughout. I called the layout feng shui, which is ignorant white dude for “vaguely Asian.” SK sweetly agreed that there were elements of a Japanese tea house, but I suspect she had her own ideas. She often does.
Our long-haired waiter had a dazzler smile and laughed at all my jokes. Clearly a flawed individual, but très professional and efficient. There was also one of those crumb sweeper dudes who gracefully cleans your stray tidbits off the tablecloth. I had mild guilt because cleaning up after my meals is a double-duty affair. They probably swept a whole porkchop off my place, and I didn’t even eat pork.
After a painstaking review of the menu (above), we made our selections.
Garden lettuce salad– Couldn’t be more simple, a mix of fresh greens, lightly dressed in lemon and oil. Oddly enough, this was my choice. Typically my salad selections look more like omelettes or casseroles, with meat cubes and eggs liberally dressed with blue cheese. On this occasion, I was feeling light.
Grilled Canard Farm sirloin roast with green beans and shoestring potatoes–
I played to type with my entree selection. Little pieces of sliced beef in a mild chimichurri sauce, delicious and tender. The portion was just enough to leave me wanting more, unlike a steakhouse monstrosity that leaves me gasping for air. The side of lightly seasoned green beans were al dente, but not so much that I got angry (like usual). The shoestring potatoes were a surprise hit with both of us, as normally those things are cheap throwaways. They were salty, crisp and actually tasted fresh! Free-range potatoes.
Soul Food Farm chicken al mattone with polenta, asparagus and olives–
SK chose this one, and I immediately regretted my own order. As tasty as the sirloin was, the chicken al mattone (literally, under a brick, referring to how the chicken is cooked) was effing incredible. Crispy on the outside, tender and juicy within, the flavor smashed me right in the face and I kept stealing more off SK’s plate. The creamy sweet corn polenta and grilled asparagus stalks were a perfect accompaniment, though the latter was a bit over-salted (wah-wah).
Someone recommended the mind-blowing vegan brownies at a place called Cafe Gratitude across from Chez Panisse but we were both so dazzled by the meal that we decided to stay for the sweets.
Strawberry shortcake with crème fraîche– A classic done to perfection. I had hoped it would be sponge cake instead of a biscuit, but once the biscuit soaked up the berry juice and the crème, it got all moist and chewy (perfect for my 12-year-old palate). Our only complaint was that it was shy on strawberries, but hey.
I finished the meal with a glass of iced green tea, even though I already drank one before lunch. I wanted to prolong the Chez Panisse experience, and they did make a fine glass of tea.
For all this awesomeness, we spent under $100, with tip. Amazing.