I Left My Heart in San Fran-Cheesy; Part 2, Friday

This day started a bit late. But we did get up and running, packed our stuff to move on from Carina’s, loaded the car and decided to amble around the city and find some lunch before we could check into our hotel in the mid-afternoon.

This landed us at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. I think I may have heard Donovan and Minty talking about this place the night before, but I wasn’t certain. Regardless, what I thought was a stumble-onto kind of deal was that sneaky Minty’s plan all along.

I’m not historically a big pizza person, athough I do appreciate a good pie from time to time. Perhaps you may recall my Pizzeria Bianco adventure not too long ago. Tony's was actually not altogether unlike Bianco’s style. In fact, Tony Gemignani is no slouch – he is a nine time World Pizza Champion. All ingredients are authentic, and imported from the Pizza Capital of the World, Napoli.

We ordered the 2007 World Pizza Cup Winner, 900 degree wood fired margherita (limit 73 per day). It was beautiful. It was up there in the tops for me, but I still don’t think I’ve tasted better than Chris Bianco’s margherita.

Tony was on site and smack in front of that 900 degree wood fired oven, right in front of us. He is a great guy who deeply cares for his craft and his restaurant, and as a result, a man I have deep respect for.

We spent the next couple of hours driving and wandering around the city, killing a little time prior to check-in at the hotel. Minty even led us down Lombard Street for some touristy fun.

And then we checked into the hotel. And then Minty got her nap on while I wandered out into the city on foot for a few hours. And in my solo meandering, I accidentally dropped way too much money on face wash. Well, no massage for me. Lesson learned. And then I stopped into our hotel bar for a glass of prosecco before going back up to the room to rouse Minty so we could get all gussied up.

And then it was time. It was time to drive to Berkeley for our dinner at Chez Panisse.

On the drive there I commented on the fact that I was more than a little scared. I mean, I had been waiting years for this dinner. I had rented a car and driven up the coast for this dinner. How could any dinner live up to what my expectations had grown into?

The building is quaint and rustic with soft, yellowy lighting and is absolutely beautiful. Walking inside one immediately feels warm and welcome with its lodge-like ambiance, bustling energy and magnificent arrangements of seasonal fruits, vegetables and flowers. We checked our coats and went upstairs to the café for a glass of wine before dinner.

The café was crackling with activity and had a much more casual vibe to it. As I sipped my glass of lillet and perused the café menu, I sort of wished we could dine up there. But I was quickly reminded that after all this time, and it being my first experience, I really needed to experience that which was the genesis of Chez Panisse. Or I would always wonder. And we were committed. The $95 tasting menu it was.

And so, after our drink, we descended the stairs and were seated in the front room in a corner with windows all around. It was the exact table I was hoping for. The downstairs, while maintaining a consistence aesthetically, had a much calmer, more mature, refined vibe than the upstairs. More formal. Our server promptly served us our aperitif along with an amuse bouche, some gougéres and fresh bread and butter. Holy, little, baby Jesus – that bread was outstanding, as was the butter. Both so fresh and delicate and perfect in every way.

For our first course we were served the warm chicory salad with goose proscuitto, mustard flowers and orange vinaigrette. We paired this with a light, crisp white upon the suggestion of our tremendously gracious and helpful sommelier. This was a simply beautiful salad. It was exactly what Alice Waters and Chez Panisse are. It was vibrant, fresh, savory, sweet, vivid and replete with varying textures to play on one’s tongue. I pretty much licked my plate clean.

Next came the Pacific cod with potato puree and black truffle butter. A simple dish, a clean dish. My cod was a hair overcooked and the taste of truffle a bit faint, though I could see a gracious plenty with my eyes. I also wanted a little salt.

The Grilled Paine Farm squab with dates, butternut squash blinis, braised endives and watercress was on point. I adored this dish. So many robust flavors married perfectly. The squab was meaty and plentiful, and I can’t wait to start playing with braised endive in my own kitchen. We had a beautiful, light, smart red with this dish that went brilliantly. I called this a “Jill” wine. And again, here, I was a member of the clean plate club.

My prize for such a lauded membership was the chocolate fondant with bourbon ice cream and espresso caramel. Now, I’m not a dessert person, nor am I a chocoholic, but the dessert was heavenly. The cake was moist, the little pecan on top was the ideal accoutrement, and the ice cream and caramel were mouth watering. 

Howie, our sommelier, continued to offer us various sips and tastes for each course, which was great fun. Actually, all elements of service were impeccable. We were even welcomed into the kitchen to poke around and explore the driving force behind Chez Panisse.

We had a beautiful night. We were full of good food and good wine. Was it everything I had ever hoped and dreamed for? That I cannot say. I am eager to return, however. I am mostly excited to experience the café, upstairs where I can pick and choose this and that, sip wines, and graze in a more casual environment.

I have absolutely nothing but mad respect for Alice Waters and everything she has done for food and for us over the decades.

The drive back to the hotel was mostly quiet and thoughtful. Time to ruminate, I suppose. Which was nice as our next adventure involved tremendously loud, abrasive music in an overcrowded hotel bar filled with convention-goers and busted hookers.

And then there was sleep.

Stay tuned for part three, the final chapter in my culinary adventures and various other mis-adventures in the City by the Bay, coming soon…

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