Saturday, September 3, 2011

Berkeley, California

While planning our wedding, I fell hopelessly in love with all the gorgeous outdoor Californian weddings featured on Style Me Pretty. I even spent a month researching the possibility of a destination wedding. However, that was not in the cards for us….but perhaps a vow renewal? Imagine how thrilled I was when we were invited to my friend’s wedding at Crooked Vine in Livermore. Obviously I could not decline the invitation. I hadn’t seen my friend in at least three years, and I was looking forward to meeting the wonderful woman that captured his heart. She is even sweeter than I could’ve imagined. I am so happy for them.

Trips to the San Francisco area are never long enough! My previous few trips included a drive down Highway 1 (LOVE the Big Sur!) and a day trip to Napa. With the wedding inland from San Francisco, we decided to explore the East Bay on this visit. We stayed in downtown Oakland for our first two nights, which allowed us to visit Berkeley. With the 40th anniversary celebration of Chez Panisse and our recent CSA subscription, I knew that securing dinner reservations was mandatory.

The exterior of the restaurant is quite unassuming with all the dark woodwork, and the restaurant name carved into the sign. The interior of the restaurant is softly lit with gorgeous wood and copper. The walls are covered with archives of previous menus and beautifully vintage looking illustrations of colorful fruits and vegetables. I loved the open kitchen space that displayed large bowls of produce and allowed patrons to see all the dishes being plated for service.

In celebration of their 40th anniversary, each menu highlighted items that had an influence on Alice Waters. On that particular evening, the inspiration was taken from a specific French chef, whose name escapes me at this moment. I really liked how our server was so knowledgeable about the history of this relationship and felt very comfortable with the menu items. 

I ordered a delicious elderflower soda for my drink. I'd been curious about using elderflower for drinks, and this did not disappoint. I was a little apprehensive since the server said it would be like a sweet camomile, and I'm not a big of fan of an overly sweet drink or camomile tea. In the end, I had nothing to worry about - it was light, crisp, refreshing and just the right amount of sweetness for me. I loved it. 

For starters, I opted for the avocado and beet salad with ginger vinaigrette while A ordered the pizzetta gypsy peppers and sausage. I’ve recently come to love garden fresh beets, although they can be messy! They are so lovely when served in a salad with soft cheese. A’s pizza was a beautifully thin, artisan crust with flavorful peppers. 

For our mains, A had the Riverdog Farm chicken leg and sweet peppers roasted in the wood oven with shell beans and savory. I had the Gigot aux olives noires: grilled Watson Ranch lamb leg with little turnips,green beans, and black olives, which was one of the French chef's inspired menu items that evening. The skin on the roasted chicken was incredibly crisp for being roasted. My lamb was tender and the olive were a nice accompaniment considering that I don’t like olives except for olive oil. We rounded out the meal with a Flavor King pluot tart with framboise cream. The pastry shell was buttery and flakey, but the pluots really stole the show. This is one of my most memorable desserts to have touched my lips. I even contemplated ordering a second one.
Chez Panisse is located on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, which is also known as the Gourmet Ghetto for the high concentration of fine dining, independent establishments focusing on high quality, seasonal ingredients. Across the median is the Cheese Board Collective, which is a worker owned collective. Several years ago, they started making pizzas at the end of the day for themselves and eventually a few regulars. This became so successful that they expanded their store front to serve pizza. What’s really unique about their set up in which they only make one type of pizza a day - no substitutions, additions or subtractions on the toppings. The pizzas are always vegetarian and made using their own cheese and some locally sourced produce. The line is always out the door, and the median on Shattuck is littered with groups of people picnicking with their pizza boxes from Cheese Board. Don’t be intimidated by the line though, it’s very efficient and fast moving since the choices are limited. You can order pizza by the slice, half or whole. They have a daily salad in two sizes and a dessert. We ordered half a pizza for lunch, and on this day the toppings were heirloom tomatoes, asiago, garlic and herbs. The cheese was chewy, and the crust was thin, chewy and crispy all at once. I loved it!

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