For quite sometime I've been saying "I can't believe I'm living in San Francisco and I'm this into food and regional, organic cooking and the whole delicious revolution thing and I have never been to Chez Panisse!" I also thought things like "wouldn't it be sad if I died (or they closed) and I never went? Me, the person who organized a dinner party around a screening of Marcel Pagnol's Fanny. Me, the person who owns every one of Alice Water's cookbooks."
So it was getting to be kind of strange to have that much respect for and resonance with a place I have never been to. And because of all that build up, I was also starting to wonder if it couldn't help but be a disappointment. Then I ran into a friend who had just had her first dinner at there and she was exploding with sparkle and enthusiasm. "We have to go!" she declared, and offered to pick up the wine. There was no choice, then, but to just make the reservation (an opportunity for patience) and let the experience be whatever it was going to be.
And that's how it came to happen that, just a few weeks ago, I had dinner at Chez Panisse (downstairs, in the dining room) for the first time. It was just the barest beginnings of spring then and the meal spoke directly to this magical time of year when it's all hints and whispers of what's to come.
What we ate: Meyer lemon vinaigrette on potatoes and Atlantic cod, scattered with little punctuation marks of baby frisee. Fresh pea soup, the color of moss after the winter rains, tasting sweet and extra green. My first squab, my first deep-fried baby artichokes, both delicious and a delightful discovery. And finally, a heavenly realm of puff pastry, crème anglaise and kumquats for dessert.
It's only been a few weeks but already I'm noticing the effects of that meal on my own cooking. It's hard to capture, but it's something about restraint and allowing flavors to come forward and just fully be what they are. It's interesting to note the difference between knowing about this from the endless books and interviews and magazine articles I've read and understanding it from inside my mouth, from having bathed in the exquisite combination of simplicity and celebration that is a dinner at Chez Panisse.
So now, when I find a bunch of sorrel in my Mariquita Farm mystery box, I start thinking about what will support and highlight its flavor, what will bring forth that unique and delicious sour sorrel-ness. (Maybe a simple soup made with stock and leeks, garnished with fresh, slightly cooked peas, chive blossoms and crème fraiche?)
This morning I bought a bunch of lilacs, which are more of a spring shout-out than a hint-and-whisper. As I dipped my face in the middle and took a deep sniff, I found myself thinking: "I wonder what they're serving at Chez Panisse tonight?"
PS If you still want to hear the words perfect, delicate, seasonal or visionary, you may want to spend a little time here.