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!