When i started this whole cooking "thing," i said, perhaps at first off-handedly, that when i turned twenty five, i would eat at Chez Panisse-- the restaurant that once inspired and continues to give me "my place in it all;" in this "thing" i call my life. And though the first time i suggested this it was just that, a suggestion, i said it again. And again. And a couple of more times until i believed it. And then, when i realized my next birthday would be the very twenty fifth of which this whole (other) "thing" evolved, i neither wanted to be someone who says something (often) and does not follow through, and joyed at the excuse to finally eat at the restaurant that, still, gives me my place in it all.
My relationship with Chez Panisse coincided with my insistance that i eat there one day-- on February 28. 2012, no doubt--more specifically, with a recipe from Chez Panisse Vegetables. Page 276: Delicata Squash, and Celery Root Puree. I did not make this for dinner that night. I did, however,spend the next hour plus skimming through the book in the office of the restaurant i was working at, until finally running, late, to the other restaurant i was working at. It wasnt so much about the recipe, as the combination of flavours throughout the book: beet greens and mint in a pasta, cauliflower and walnuts, all the possibilities of summer squash (which i had never heard zuchinni referred to as before...), and peas and sage. Oh! Peas and sage. When my copy of the book finally arrived from Amazon, i made gnocchi with peas and sage. And then i did so (now i do so?) every spring. Every saturday night that particular spring, actually, after my one late night at the Grapevine (back when there was only one late night...). So began the obsession with a restaurant that could serve vegetables such brilliant justice, that treated them not simply as a side dish to be boiled, buttered, and seconded to meat, but accentuated their flavours on their own. Celebrated them seasonally, and taught me to do so. I was infatuated, and soon discovered their website, where i could admire and continually be inspired by the composition of the daily cafe menu postings--a nightly ritual to this day. I read and re-read (thats read on the latter, as an active verb, not an annuciation of past occurance...) the biography of the restaurant started by not a chef, but a group of people longing to something beautiful and natural in food. I have expanded my cookbook collection to include Chez Panisse Desserts, Cafe, Cooking, and Pizza/Pasta/Calzone, as well as their half-of-the-year chef David Tanis' cookbooks, and their 40 year anniversary--stunning--hardcover. I have given copies of these books to people i love. I wrote a resume (complete with a detailed, q and a fictional interview between founder--to say the least-- Alice Waters and i) for a project in my final trimester of in-class training. I finally used that first inspiring recipe in a competition prep black box at work, rendering the combination of roots in a pomme anna style pancake. I finally ate at the restaurant that, without exaggeration, i can say is a part of my everyday since the original snoop through Vegetables four years ago ( I owe Mark a "thank-you").
The last four years prior to this dinner were, as i said, obsessive. Would it be then, one of those moments so hyped up with trepidation that i write now devastated by disappointment?
No--not even close.
The opposite, in fact.
What is the opposite? I was asked so many times not "how was Sanfrancisco?" but "how was Chez Panisse" (their is a collective understanding of my love for this restaurant). To which i respond with a stutter, before beginning to describe the food (just wait...), not knowing, really, where to begin. Or what it really was. I have now found the word.
That word is "momentous." Ok, even if i could actually hear you, i know i would not be hearing any sort of oohs or ahhs. It is not exactly a word that one would need to consult a thesauraus to understand. It is simple, at best. But simple, at its best, is quite grand. Think about it: something that is not just big, is huge. Larger still: humoungous. So this was not just a moment, it was momentous: a humoungous, ginormous, grandious, moment.
The meal was simple as simple is at its best. Which is grand. My obliging ma, aunt, and cousin (thank yous due here, too) let me order for the table (i thank you again). I could begin now, to describe in detail each dish, the delicate asparagus perfectly slicked with oil and crimson citrus, the puntarelle salad, crisp and rich with soft boiled egg and anchovy vinaegrette, the salami, fennel and arugula pizzetta that was so fresh it ate like a salad, the layers of paper thin spinach pasta encapsulating meaty, buttery, chantrelle mushroom ragu, the seafood stew with a broth meerly accented by tomatos, showcasing plump clams and just cooked white fish, the saffron shining through as a pleasant surprise, or the polenta that tasted like fresh corn on the cob that was grilled, and ground just for us. I could lust over the meyer lemon sorbet and plum blossom icecream pyramid surprisingly ordered for the occasion, or the meltingly perfect hazelnut financiers JoJo and I were treated with after exploring the downstairs kitchen. Sure i could begin to get into all of that. I could share pictures, but mine were regretfully awful. If i could not share the whole meal with you, i would have loved, would still love, to share only the smells. Because what i remember most was that each dish, as it was placed in front of us, was so frangrant, movingly fragrant. Fall back in your seat fragrant. The fennel pungently licorice, like the scent of the glass after a shot of sambuca, the seafood broth a perfect and inoffensive blend with zesty tomato, and that corn--i mean polenta. All so simply prepared, yet so...momentous.
My "place in it all," this "thing" i do, has purpose. It is inspired. Again.
A last thank you, to Chez Panisse, for all of the moments before, and to come after, the momentous.