Chez Panisse - climb the stairs to food heaven

Now that our US tour has come to an end, I can say without a doubt, that nothing surpassed our dining experience at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, San Francisco.

Owner and organic/slow food guru, Alice Waters, first saw a MAU performance in Venice in 2003 and has been a supporter ever since. Eight years later, we perform in her town and she graciously invited us to lunch at her famous cafe and restaurant, founded in 1971. When the nine of us arrived, we saw a beautiful table set for us downstairs. It was laid with bowls of freshly cut raw radishes, baby carrots and smoked almonds, and specially printed menus welcoming MAU. I was humbled at the presentation and detail and felt so incredibly lucky.

Table setting with custom-printed menus

The cafe upstairs was full to the brim but we had a quiet environment in which to listen to and converse with Alice as she sat with us. It was a joy to hear her talk about her current projects and her passion and commitment to nutritional causes. She also showed us round the kitchen and explained how she has developed her network of produce suppliers in the area and how she, in turn, supplies them with organic waste. Her daughter, Fanny, also joined us for a while and told us how Alice had transformed the output of the college kitchen when Fanny was attending Yale.

But on to the food! We started with artichoke and fried herb pizzettas, the thin crusts baked to perfection in the wood-fired oven. Then a smoked black cod and shaved fennel salad with crème fraiche and chives – oh so refreshing.

Artichoke pizza; smoked cod and fennel salad

My main meal was a comté and green garlic pudding soufflé with spring vegetables and black trumpet mushrooms. The soufflé was light and I savoured the asparagus and peas in the pod. Everyone else had the grilled pork loin with Anson Mills polenta, asparagus and black olive sauce, which I have it on good authority was a melt-in-the-mouth experience. The meal was accompanied by Navarro Vineyards Chardonnay.

Comté cheese soufflé; pork loin and polenta

For dessert, the table was laid with chalices of oranges and dates and we were served sweet treats and fresh mint tisane brewed in glass teapots. There were candied orange peel, dark chocolate and nut clusters, chocolate and almond biscuits, biscotti and lemon buttons. I felt totally sated after the meal, so much goodness was going through my digestive system!

Sweet treats and fresh mint tea

We went upstairs to see the cafe and I spied some delectable dishes being prepared behind the open kitchen bar – oysters on beds of ice, pasta and clams smelling salty and garlicky, apple tart tartin. Alice’s cookbooks were also for sale, and I thought I would buy one and ask her to sign it for me.

Scenes from the cafe upstairs

Scenes from the restaurant kitchen downstairs

Before we said our goodbyes Charles from our group gave thanks and sang a waiata in Maori on behalf of us. And when I asked Alice if she could sign a book that I wanted to buy she ran back upstairs to the counter and specially chose a book, signed it and gave it to me as a gift! I was quite overwhelmed and kept thanking her profusely!

Charles sings a waiata of thanks to Alice; our director Lemi Ponifasio, Alice and me

Thank you again, Alice Waters, for your charming hospitality and a wonderful gastronomic experience. I am certainly looking forward to spending many hours poring over your recipes and making them in my kitchen.