For a period of time, I lived in Los Angeles and would often jet north to the bay area and surrounding wine country for the weekend. Somehow I never made it to Berkeley, which seems odd considering it's a common destination for many people, especially Californians. Over the years, Berkeley had become something of a legend in my mind... an Oz-like city where an unusually high percentage of geniuses coexist peacefully with freethinkers, zealous activists and educated foodies. It is, after all, the place where many claim the American food movement began and so it seemed appropriate that my first taste of Berkeley should start with dinner at Chez Panisse.
Food- fresh and locally produced - is intrinsic to Berkeley culture. I'd heard rumblings about it from friends and family who'd been there, inspired by the style in which food is grown and prepared. I finally understood what they were excited about when I got out of the car in the middle of the 'gourmet ghetto' and found myself swathed in sweet garlic and rosemary-scented air harmonized by the tang of smoldering wood brick ovens from surrounding restaurants. A fresh produce market was in full swing on a closed down block, the sidewalks were alive with people and a live jazz band, poised in the corner of an open-air pizza restaurant, provided the soundtrack. I felt like I had walked into the middle of a party.
We were seduced into the Cheeseboard Collective, an egalitarian worker-owned shop (of course!) with a copious amount of cheese that each member of the collective knows more about than you could ever hope to, or probably ever want to. The Collective members are akin to sommeliers, so we "tasted" sharp manchego, a dreamy brie, something Portuguese that was brought to us when we abstractly described what we were looking for - and it was perfect. A preliminary glass of wine was in order before dinner so we stopped into the Taste Wine Bar a spatial, brick-walled bistro with a DIY tasting counter. I tried a Viognier from Preston Vineyards, an organic family farm rooted in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County. Viognier has been described as Chardonnay's 'sexy sister' and the Preston was a crisp, textured, exotic white - really fantastic.
Finally ready to settle into a meal, we sat upstairs at Chez Panisse, unable to commit to the prix fixe menu featured downstairs. From first course to last, the food was original and fresh, the combination of flavors unexpected - a sharp, piquant red pepper soup; pizza with nettles (I didn't know what they were, either) and pecorino - an earthy, smoky taste unlike anything I've ever had. When we arrived the crowd was what I'd imagined - salt-and-peppered Boomers in flowy California Casual and Birkenstocks (with socks - quelle horreur!), but as the evening wore on the crowd got younger and hipper. The restaurant vibe is lively and very neighborhood, so comfortable that our dinner lasted 3 hours. Berkeley seems to be more a state of mind than anything else, an approach to life that echoes that of Southern Europe. After our evening, it's hard to return to life as normal. It was exactly how a first time experience should be - one that raises the bar.
Photo from Flickr