Chez Panisse last Friday

I had a great dinner last Friday at Chez Panisse, with Bryan, his wife, and mother-in-law. It had been quite awhile since I’d been to CP, given everything that’s been going on over the last 18 months or so. It was definitely terrific to be back, and to find that the restaurant was as wonderful as one remembers. Critics who claim that it’s become boring are missing the point: Chez Panisse isn’t about novelty for novelty’s sake, or flash, but about amazingly subtle renderings of absolutely first-rate ingredients.

Case in point – the starting dish: an antipasto of eggplant caponata, slices of Parma proscuitto, and wild rocket (baby arugula) salad. Simple, utterly lacking in the novelty we often expect from “great” chefs, the dish was a triumph of simplicity and flavor. The caponata was the best rendering of the dish any of us had had (and my friend Bryan is quite exacting as a foodie-chef). It’s hard to explain — it lacked anything I can point to except that it was just amazing caponata.

The second dish was even better. A simple “ravioli al brodo” preparation typical of northern Italy, the “raviolini” were stuffed with a sheep’s milk ricotta with very subtle flavor and the pasta were floated in a sage-spring garlic brodo which was incredibly rich in flavor, yet utterly clear and pale. Bryan and I spent much of the dish trying to figure out how the broth was done — double stock, consommeed, etc. Again — it’s hard to explain, because there really were only a couple of ingredients here, and no flavor explosions, weird juxtapositions of preparations, or “deconstructions” that are so popular today. There was just amazing broth, and perfectly cooked subtle pasta with subtle ricotta cheese.

The main dish pleased everyone – Paine Farm squab with squab liver toast and a salad of endive, romano beans, and porcini mushrooms. Bryan’s wife Liza really likes liver, as does Bryan, so this dish was right up their alley, and I love grilled small birds.

I’d brought wines for the preceding courses: Raveneau 1988 Butteaux, and a 1991 Henri Bonneau Chateauneuf “Marie Beurrier.” The former was amazing — approaching maturity with lots of lemon cream, but still plenty of acidity and structure. Fortunately I have one more 1988 left — a Vaillons — which I’ll probably try in the next year or two. The Bonneau was incredible, especially for a tragically bad year like 1991. But then, Bonneau tends to do really well in many “bad years” due to ruthless selection and singular winemaking skill. The 1991 MB was beefy and dark, with barely hints of maturity in the secondary “spices” showing in the nose. Not even a hint of bricking or orange color even given the vintage. The wine had tremendous length and I could have sat much longer and just smelled its combination of beef, blood, and herbs. If this is the 1991, I can’t even imagine what the 1989 and 1990 MB and Celestins are like. Or when I’d open any of the latter. Fortunately, medical science is on the side of Bonneau fans.

The dessert was peach leaf, boysenberry, and nectarine ice cream “bombe”, presented in three stripes on a plate. Given the strict two-bottle wine policy (which we tried but were unsuccessful at circumventing), we were unable to try Bryan’s 1989 Chave Vin de Paille with this, but there will be other nights and other dinners.