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Chez Panisse


marcus
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What I should have thought to say the first time *blush* was:

It's not necessarily an issue of a fixed-menu being a forced march through new terrain. I don't have anything against them. I'd like to try a meal at Chez Panisse myself--I've coveted dinner there for about four years now.

The issue I meant was the idea of making you feel welcome as a valued customer, rather than the recipient of a philosophy of food, or even a guinea pig to get the kinks out of a new kitchen (which is done too often). It's the idea in general that "everything takes a backseat to our artistic purity of vision even the customers themselves."

This can take many forms. If it leads to inflexibilty, that's the most egregious problem. I also deplore The French Laundry (and others) for their mysterious and arcane reservations procedures-- ("You must call exactly one month to the day upon which you want a reservation, we seat at 5:30 and 10:15 only, your credit card will be billed if you don't show, also we want two references and a copy of your credit report, and your first-born as collateral, etc. etc. etc.")

I hear stories like this and they make me think that if I go there I'll have to eat the entire meal while standing rigidly at attention, except for one trip to the bathroom which will require a signed slip from the owner.

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I am sorry to hear that Marcus had a bad experience at Chez. The concepts are so straight-forward, and the food so simply prepared, that it is not surprising that there will be misses. It is hard to overlook a flaw in a simple dish.

Chez Panisse is one of my favorite restaurants--not that I have been lucky enough to sample so many high-end places. But I have always had warm and attentive service, both in the cafe and the restaurant. The room is really pleasant, and I always feel very relaxed and at home there. I have also had great luck with the food--and I happen to like the fixed menu experience, because I sample things I might otherwise avoid, and often find it rewarding. The attitude has never seemed holier-than-thou to me. (But then, I was raised in Berkeley, so maybe I just don't notice it! :raz: )

If nothing else, Chez Panisse is interesting as a point of reference for the emergence of California cooking. The fixed menu evolved, as I am sure everyone here knows, from the restaurant's roots: Alice Waters cooking dinner for a bunch of friends. So to me it does not imply that they don't care about your experience, or are pedantically sticking to some sort of vision--after all, you can always go to the cafe and order very similar dishes a la carte. (Plus, it keeps the cost relatively reasonable, something I approve of!)

I really don't think that the poor service Marcus and his wife received stemmed from a philosophy of not caring about the customer. It sounds more like amatuer hour at Chez--a waitress that didn't have a clue how to handle the situation, or enough to give decent guidance/service on the wine, a cook who was not capable of getting a good crisp skin on the bird...a poor showing. :angry::sad:

I can't say a thing about the wine list--but I know they have a friendly attitude towards customers who bring their own wine. Something to plan for on the next visit!

Nick has it right--the food is not an earth-shattering display of culinary inventiveness or over-the top luxury. At its best (and how it should be, consitently, IMO) it is delicious, enjoyable stuff, the way a ripe peach is wonderful. It's just simple cooking, and when it is done well, it makes you want to eat like that every day! (Special occasions excluded, of course!):smile:

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I think that ngatti is on the right track. I personally wouldn't consider booking at either CP or FL any longer. They are both, for me, useful icons and have taught me a lot about how to think about food, shopping, cooking and eating. They are not places where I would go now for a fabulous or "Wow" factor dinner. They are, instead, kitchens I would think about as I planned to cook a stunning dinner at home. Unfortunately, their singularity is not apparent to most first time diners who, because of their fame, expect a much more experimental, daring and even commercial or customer service oriented experience.

eGullet member #80.

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Nick--yes, under Ruth's watch, and yes, you read me correctly, that there is a seeming disconnect in ranking such a restaurant as #1. For me it has nothing to do with inventiveness or lack of a wow factor--you'd have to make such a strong case, given such obvious shortcomings in areas like menu options, customer service and wine, that CP had far superior cooking and/or ingredients than similarly perceived elite restaurants also lacking in wow factor--no offense intended, but let's use Gramercy Tavern, much lower ranked on that list as an example. (You'd have a hard time making the case that CP is a superior restaurant experience to Craft as well.) With GT--not even getting into food or cooking--you get a world class, very dynamic beverage director, an incredible wine by the glass program, arguably the best overall and most influential service program nationwide, and at the time, a real talented pastry chef producing an extended dessert service rivalling any in NYC, no mean feat. (The fact that Claudia actually embraced the Chez Panisse philosophy, easily surpassing it with much more sophistication, refinement and elegance--in effect, doing CP better than CP ever did--seals the deal for me.)

It gets really comical when you start adding these up--and begins to look a tad too disingenuous, no?

Here's eGullet's first discussion of it, Rosie generously posted the ranking from 1 to 50, with Robert Brown and Shaw, especially, picking up the ball and running with it:

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?act=ST...met,and,panisse

Also note this list, and the #1 ranking for CP, was published just before a December 2001 Gourmet magazine event in Napa was announced, called the Gourmet Experience Weekend, with a top ticket price of $500 and which included the participation of Alice Waters. (Nick--did you miss the Gourmet magazine chef trading cards as well?)

Margaret--very well said, and that does make the impending FL move to NYC all the more interesting--in terms of perception vs. reality--doesn't it? I still see it as a ballsy, risky move, and the media has already indicated we can expect it to be as covered as the Ducasse move. Does Keller believe he operates above real criticism, that there is no such thing as real criticism anymore or possibly that everyone who counts in food media is already in the bag? I also wonder whether FL-NY will prove as interesting a story as AD-NY--as uniformly embraced as AD-NY was uniformly rejected--erroneously as it turned out--so that a media voice a la Steve Shaw in Commentary magazine would be able to rise up to debunk the status quo and tell it like it really was.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Assuming Chez Panisse delivered flawlessly on every single one of its promises, I still don't see how as a conceptual matter it could be placed in the same category as big-league, full-service, fine-dining restaurants like Ducasse, Jean Georges and Charlie Trotter's. Elevating a place like Chez Panisse over the elite group of United States restaurants can only be viewed as a statement about something other than food.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I specifically intend to denigrate those as factors, because they're illegitimate! When you're Gourmet and you say a place is the best restaurant in America, you're telling hundreds of thousands of readers that if they go to this restaurant they will be eating at the best restaurant in America. Period. You're not telling them that you like Alice Waters for political reasons or other reasons external to food. You're not telling them that you're giving the restaurant an inflated grade because it has been around a long time, started a movement, influenced a lot of other chefs, etc. You're not telling them that you don't really mean it's the best and that it's more of a historical statement. So if you don't mean it's the best, you shouldn't say it's the best.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Just so.

Nick, you gotta get the trading cards! The bubble gum is awful though.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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(I should have included in my previous post that Galatoire's was probably included for the same reasons: historic influence and longevity, in addition to local notoriety.)

Well, they said "Best in America" and left it to each reader to define "Best" for himself, I suppose. A list with nothing but French restaurants on it would tend to bore quickly, no matter the technical expertise. Do I also detect a taint of Gothamocentrism at work, perhaps? I thought of it as a list of restaurants (some more obscure than others) that, if you had a teleporter and could go to a different one twice a day for the next month, were the ones that typified American restaurants across the board. Price and difficulty of travel not factors. As in "here are some places that (for whatever reason) you should eat at if you can." And very few can. Is there anyone who's eaten at all fifty? Raise your hand! I thought not.

I think the list was geographically and culinarily diverse in the same way that a list of restaurants to try on an upcoming trip would be diverse: to avoid boredom. Nothing but French restaurants, as I said, would get cloying, no matter how "objectively" good they were. You'd get tired of them after awhile. And it's nice to be within driving distance of at least one, no matter where you live, just so you can sample that one. What most surprised me was Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama (!) at #5. No wonder Shaw was non-plussed: look how many NYC restaurants were passed over. [sarcasm] My God, what's the world coming to when a restaurant in Alabama beats every restaurant in NYC except Jean-Georges! [/sarcasm] No wonder Gourmet Magazine puts a weed up Shaw's ass. But Shaw should really try Highlands Bar & Grill before dismissing it--I thought the food there was quite good. All someone can say who hasn't been there is an incredulous "It CAN'T be that good!"

Unless I've miscounted, NYC gets 30% of the top 10, 25% of the top 20, and 16% of the top 50. If Shaw had to make his own list of fifty, would he really put the twenty best restaurants in NYC as #1-#20 on it? (Plus Charlie Trotter's, French Laundry, and The Inn at Little Washington mixed somewhere in there?) Is that really objectively fair and accurate for #1-#23?

Edited by Deacon (log)
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Deacon...so glad you brought up Highlands Bar and Grill...as you may have noticed by my posts...I go frequently when I head back to 'Bama :raz: ...it is an excellent restaurant...as good in its type of cuisine as Ducasse and Jean George are in theirs.

If I had been making the call at Gourmet-- :blink: --I would have chosen the best restaurants in regions...with a few cities like NYC gone into in a bit more depth...because there are so many possibilities for outstanding dining experiences....(guess that's why I'm not the "boss" at Gourmet :wink: ).

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Before Shaw gets too riled, I humbly admit that there are more good restaurants in NYC than in any other city in the country, including SF. And if reputation and influence and lineage are factors then ADNY must surely get something--for one chef to get ten (?) Michelin stars total for all his restaurants is unprecedented.

But Highlands is good--and even more of a revelation being in Birmingham.

I went to Cafe Johnell once, which is a French restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Stop laughing. But the food was good. Just don't judge the place from the outside: it looks like a barbeque joint from the parking lot. A French restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana is like a tap-dancing dog: it's not whether he can do it well or badly--you're just surprised to find that he can do it at all. So I was forgiving and indulgent when they got the sherry wrong. Big deal.

Perhaps some sort of handicapping scheme is in order, so that Denver and Dallas and Santa Fe and Tuscon can be judged fairly against NYC. . . .

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I don't have a problem with non-food factors playing a role in choosing which restaurants make the list. I can see how a place like The Ivy can be on a list of top restaurants in London even though the food isn't top notch. But it's fun to eat there and it has the best ambiance of any restaurant. CP is similar in that it a one of a kind. It also stands for something that is special. I'm not sure that political is the best way to describe it as a choice. Symbolic is more like it.

On a personal basis, I wouldn't choose it as the best because they don't apply enough technique in their cooking for me to come to that conclusion. But for those who don't demand that as a requirement, and indeed, there are those who prefer the simple cooking over fancy technique, I can understand it as a choice. These are not my priorities but I do not see them as invalid considering the stature of the restaurant.

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I agree with Steve P's assessment. In my subjective view, CP falls short of even the ten strongest restaurants in the US. Perhaps CP was stronger fifteen years ago relative to the then existing restaurants -- I don't know. :blink:

Edited by cabrales (log)
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I don't have a problem with non-food factors playing a role in choosing which restaurants make the list.

The non-food factors that I'd consider relevant in ranking restaurants with otherwise excellent food are along the lines of decor, service, ambience, and wine list. Those are the criteria in the inner circle of relevance. The reputation of the chef, the chef's disciples, what the restaurant stands for, and other externalities are in my opinion political issues that have no place in credible rankings because they are not related to the actual dining experience.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Well it's more then political. It's the seminal restaurant in that style. And there are dozens of restaurants it influenced based on its philosophy. So if it is performing well, I can see the choice. Like I said it wouldn't be my choice, but I am of the opinion that at least one restaurant of that school should be in the top 10 restaurants. And once you make that leap, why not number one? As an aside, I think the Cafe at CP is the best casual restaurant in the country.

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