Last weekend we went up to the Bay area for a wedding and got a chance to check out Alice Waters’ famous flagship restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, with a couple of our friends, Anthony and Michelle. We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Chez Panisse Cafe upstairs, not the restaurant downstairs, which was not only rather pricey but only served a set menu. The Cafe allowed us to order a la carte, and surprisingly didn’t put as big a dent in our wallets as we expected. For the level of service and quality of food that we received, I’d go back anytime.
The ambiance of Chez Panisse Cafe was much, much cozier than I expected, with rustic wood and copper accents throughout the room and small cozy tables, well-suited for a dinner of conversation. We arrived about 5 minutes before our reservation and were seated immediately.
Chris and I don’t usually go out for dinner much, mostly because I enjoy cooking, and partly because more times than not, I’m disappointed at the quality of restaurant food. So often, we’ve wondered out loud, “Why are we paying $20 a course for this when I could make it at home, better?” or “Why am I paying $15 for salad from a bag when I can buy the whole bag for $3?” So we were glad that the food at Chez Panisse wasn’t over-hyped (like we thought it would be) but was worth every penny.
We started out with some fresh oysters with a mignonette sauce, which, I just found out, is basically vinegar and shallots, usually used on oysters. Personally I found the sauce a little heavy on the shallots but the oysters were fantastic – refreshing and briny, a taste of the sea. We also had little goat cheese rounds with fresh lettuces, which were nice, but as we live within walking distance of a really good farm, the freshness of the produce wasn’t all that impressive to me.
Then the main course. Chris had the fresh orechiette and I had the lamb course, which we shared of course. The pasta was nicely chewy and al dente, with fresh vegetables, and the leg of lamb was very good, rare in the middle, seared on the outside, and very tender. The lamb came with a square of potato gratin that positively melted in my mouth, rich but not cloyingly so. All of the food, I felt, was well-executed but prepared with a minimum of fuss, tasted fresh and healthy, basically as good food should be.
For dessert we shared a square of chocolate pavé (sort of like a flourless chocolate cake with a meringue-like crust on the top) with hazelnut cream, and a fruit tart with huckleberry ice cream. The ice cream was very good, although the tart was a little heavy on the almond extract, and the chocolate pavé was excellent. The best part was definitely the hazelnut cream.
Really, at $18 to $25 an entrée, $9-$15 an appetizer, and under $10 for desserts, Chez Panisse Café is priced like a mid-range restaurant but serves really good, upscale fare. Our bottle of the house red wine was nice, robust in flavor, and reasonably priced. The food was fresh and locally sourced, very quintessentially Californian, I thought. Our waiter was very attentive, but unobtrusive, a nice break from the attitude that seems to pass for restaurant service these days. My glass was always full, and I didn’t feel at all that the service was snobby or stuck-up.
Our friend Michelle gave me a copy of Alice Waters’ latest cookbook, “In the Green Kitchen”, and I’m looking forward to trying some recipes from the book!
Anyway, I was inspired by the oysters we had at Chez Panisse to make a simple oyster soup in honor of the season. Oyster soup is traditionally served at the holidays, particularly on Christmas Eve. I’ve never really experienced this custom, but it’s the peak of the oyster season and I was able to pick up a couple jars of freshly shucked oysters in their liquor at the local market for cheap cheap! I’m too lazy to shuck them myself, plus they were going to be cooked anyway and doused in cream, so the pre-shucked ones were just fine.
Creamy Oyster Soup
Adapted from Alton Brown’s version
Instead of using all heavy cream I used half-and-half and thickened the soup slightly to give it a creamy texture without all the extra fat.
2 10-oz jars of fresh shucked oysters in their liquor
4 cups of half-and-half, or 2 cups heavy cream and 2 cups milk
3 tbsp butter, divided
3 ribs celery, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 tsp sriracha, or other hot sauce
salt and pepper
2 heaping tbsp all-purpose flour
parsley or chives for garnish
1. Drain the liquor from the oysters and mix it with the half-and-half in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat.
2. Melt 1 tbsp of butter over medium-low heat in a large skillet. When melted, add the onion and celery, and sweat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are translucent. Add the drained oysters and sriracha, season with salt and pepper, and cook for about three minutes until cooked through (the edges of the oysters will become frilled when cooked).
3. Remove oysters and vegetables from heat and place in a blender with just enough half-and-half mixture to cover. Blend until smooth, being careful of hot liquid splashing.
4. Place skillet back on medium-low heat and melt remaining 2 tbsp of butter. Add 2 heaping tablespoons of all-purpose flour, and stir together to make a roux. Cook flour about 2 minutes. Add 2 cups of the hot half-and-half mixture. Cook, the mixture, stirring, until mixture thickens.
5. Stir together the thickened mixture back into the pot with the un-thickened half-and-half. Add the puréed oyster mixture from the blender. Stir together and simmer briefly until it all comes together. Taste for seasoning.
6. Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with lemon wedges and stir a squeeze of lemon into soup before eating.