Chez Panisse with Michael Pollan

posted in: Science | 10
Chez Panisse by ian_ransley via Flickr.
Chez Panisse by ian_ransley via Flickr.

We just got back to Karl’s parent’s house from Berkley, we’re trying to unwind, but I think it’s going to take a while! Dinner with Michael Pollan and Karl (and Frank, of course) was a really wonderful experience. The conversation was fast paced and fabulous, covering the map from science journalism to specific details on certain genetically engineered traits to the deliciousness of local produce. All my nervousness was for naught, as Michael is extremely nice. He listened to Karl and I blab about science very politely, even with interest. Hopefully we weren’t too enthusiastic. I really hope that we opened long lasting lines of communication. Time will tell. It is obvious that there are a lot of people hoping for Micheal’s attention, including the fan boy that came up to him as we were leaving, so I can only hope that we left at least a small positive impression. Ok, now for the important part… the food!

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Chez Panisse because I found reviews that went to both extremes. I was trying to not have expectations that wouldn’t be met – but it was fabulous. I know, it seems weird that a genetic engineer would be a pro-local foodie, but there it is. I’d of course heard of Alice Waters before and all the hype around her restaurant, and I was very excited to experience it for myself, particularly with such a knowledgeable dinner partner.

I so very much wanted to run around snapping pictures to share on Biofortified, but kept myself under control, which unfortunately means I have no photos to share. The ones you see here are courtesy of nice people on Flickr who did not control their urges to take photos and who post their photos with a share and attribute license.

Chez Panisse Café kitchen, by emptyhighway via Flickr.
Chez Panisse Café kitchen, by Wayne Surber via Flickr.

We ate in the Café, which is supposed to be a bit more casual than the restaurant. I felt comfortable in a nice sweater and jeans with heeled boots. The decor was a little cramped, but felt homey, with wood and bricks and warm colors all around. My favorite part was the open kitchen. It had huge bowls of fresh, local kumquats (which I gushed over, so Michael had the waiter bring me some) and other beautiful fruits on the counter which looked stunningly fresh among all the warm colors.

The food was fabulous – you may stop here if you don’t want to hear about the deliciousness! I hope I can do it justice.

I was actually happy when I found out we’d be in the Café, because I wasn’t quite sure if they’d accommodate a vegetarian in the restaurant – it has an ever changing set menu that’s heavy on local meats and seafood.

Michael ordered the olives to start, which were so delicately flavored with rosemary, unlike every over-salted olive I’ve had before. The crusty sourdough bread was just perfect. We shared a delicious bottle of organic mixed white with from Oregon with our appetizers, recommended by our gracious and knowledgeable server.

Garden salad by sleung via Flickr.
Garden salad by sleung via Flickr.

For an appetizer, I chose the Garden lettuce salad, which was just lettuce. It’s funny, normally I’d be very disappointed with a lettuce only salad, but the baby greens really shined with a light vinaigrette that was barely detectable. For my main, I had one of the starters: Pizzetta with wild mushrooms and gremolata. I’ve had better crust on pizza, but the mushrooms were very good and gremolata is apparently the perfect pizza topping! It’s a sort of pesto made of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest – a perfect balance to the earthy mushrooms. I don’t know what kind of cheese was on the pizzetta, it was very mild. Don’t let the diminutive name pizzetta fool you, it was large enough that I only ate half.

Michael had the Cannard Farm rocket with pecorino and pine nuts followed by the Fried petrale sole saor with sweet onions, pine nuts, currants, polenta, and spinach. Karl was adventurous with the Blood orange, red onion, and black olive salad with olio nuovo followed by the Cattail Creek Ranch lamb leg with artichokes, turnips, and anchovy salsa verde. Who would have guessed that oranges and olives would be a great combination? Karl said the lamb was very mild, the mildest he’d ever had. The turnips were surprisingly delicious, while the artichokes weren’t stellar, he said, but he still ate them all.

The best part of the meal, unsurprisingly, was dessert. After the meal, we were brought A bowl of Churchill-Brenneis Orchard Kishu tangerines and Flying Disc Ranch Barhi dates with a pot of fresh mint tea. Karl and I didn’t order these, and I didn’t see Michael order these, perhaps it’s his typical end to a meal and they just bring it? The tiny tangerines were so cute, and the fresh dates were like chocolate. Karl and I still decided to have dessert, because when would we get another chance to have dessert at Chez Panisse with Michael Pollan? I ordered the Passion fruit-tangerine sherbet with citrus compote and a coconut tuile while Karl had the Meyer lemon cream puffs with huckleberry coulis. He liked the cream puffs, but I think my tangerine sorbet far surpassed it (it tasted like a fancy version of Moose Juice from Universal Studios Orlando).

All together, the meal lasted almost three hours. I feel honored to have shared the time with someone who has such an important voice for agriculture and food, as well as my good friend Karl.

Stay tuned for a post from Frank, with a group photo of the four of us!

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:

Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Mention of a company or product does not indicate endorsement.

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  • Chris Clayton

    That was a wonderful review and I’m sure you had an enjoyable time. Now, “sustainable ag” person, how much did that meal cost each person and how many times do you expect you could possibly visit Chez Panisse without filing for personal bankruptcy?

  • I grew up raising a few sheep and eating them, so I guess I was expecting a more lamb-y lamb. But it might have been due to differences in breeds. Suffolk and Shropshire is what I’m familiar with. The blood orange salad was surprisingly delicious!

    I still maintain that my chosen dessert was superior! 🙂

    “how many times do you expect you could possibly visit Chez Panisse without filing for personal bankruptcy?”

    Well, six and two-thirds of such dinners and Biofortified would be completely broke. One must be a best-selling author to eat there regularly. (And he does!)

  • Chris Clayton

    FYI, I cover agriculture and food policy for DTN/The Progressive Farmer, traveled to Berkeley and profiled Michael Pollan last year and passed on eating at Chez Panisse after seeing it was $96 a plate. I went to the pizza joint across the street instead.

  • The Café isn’t as bad as the restaurant, especially if you choose vegetarian dishes. One person could do a 3 course with a glass of wine for about $40, which I think is pretty good for big cities on the coasts. While I wouldn’t go to a place like this all the time, it’s nice to go somewhere fancy now and then.

    Thankfully, delicious local food isn’t just for $96 dinners!

    I’m glad you liked the review.

    It looks like The Progressive Farmer is something I should be watching. Thanks.

  • When I was talking to the Ashoka Changemakers about meeting up with Michael, I expressed my opinion that I’d be happy to have a big bowl of Mac & Cheese if it meant sitting down and chatting with him. They insisted on us going to the fancy establishment, and it didn’t end up coming out of our blog grant. They are reimbursing us for 100 bucks, and Michael was very generous and offered to cover the rest!

    I heard about the pizza place, and Michael pointed out the cheese store next door, too.

    I was pleased that we were going to the cafe, too, although the black truffle sauce component of the single-dish restaurant sounded interesting. But being able to have some choice in what we ate was good! It also gave us a little of a start – Anastasia called the restaurant to make sure she would have a vegetarian option, and they said that there was no reservation under ours or Michael’s name. That’s when we realized the Cafe-Restaurant split.

    I’d go back… but I’ll wait until my first book gets on the NY Times list so that I can afford it! 🙂

  • Well that was mouthwatering!
    I hope we get to hear more about your discussion!
    But yum…

    Also as one of the top 10 Chefs in THE WORLD, I am not sure crabbing about the price is really valid…Would people do that if it were any of the top male chefs…I doubt it. And not just a chef – she is a game changer who also give on the ground in her community.

    Anyway – so glad you got to have the chance to eat there and chat with Mr. Pollan. He’s pretty down to earth contrary to what some would have you believe.

  • Ewan R

    From the sounds of it, the price tag is likely warranted – My wife and I dropped a similar amount (cf the resturaunt) on a dinner in St Louis in a resturaunt run by an up and coming star of the local food scene – I can happily say that I’ve been heartily disappointed dropping $60 between the two of us for food in some places but even close to $200 was well worth it for good food prepared well.

    Roll on the post about the actual discussion!

  • Ah, we talked about so much that it’s hard to think of key things to write about. Afterward I said to Karl that we should have surreptitiously audio recorded the conversation – not for posting, of course – but just so we’d be able to play it back so we’d know what to write about! I’ll try to think about it today, while I’m doing my first immunoprecipitation ever – here’s hoping it works!

    Is Alice Waters considered one of the top chefs? By whom, and by what standards? Not that I think she’s not deserving, but I always wonder how this is decided. When I watch Food Network competitions, there comes a point when all of the chefs are so good that it’s close to impossible to say which is better. I don’t even know how people compare cuisines. I mean, can you even compare Thai to Mexican?

    I would probably complain more about the price if it was a different chef. I know that with Chez Panisse at least some of the cost is due to paying niche farmers to grow rare produce like those Kishu tangerines and to ensure that the produce is as fresh as possible, which I’d imagine takes a lot of effort.

    Ok, off to work!

  • Pingback: Talked with Pollan, not too much, mostly about plants.()

  • As I mentioned in this post, I had some olives at Chez Panisse that were absolutely amazing. So delicately flavored with rosemary, they were the best olives I’ve ever had. I haven’t been able to find anything like them, and believe me I’ve tried… until today. Target brand “Greek Olive Medley”, actually from Greece, apparently, are every bit as good as my memory of Chez Panisse olives (and a lot cheaper too!).