Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How I survived my 65th birthday: Dinner at Chez Pannise!

Good grief! Who would ever have thought that I would make it all the way to age 65 without accumulating grey hair, arthritis, a walker or a plot in the cemetery. I'm all proud of myself. But just to make sure that this landmark birthday was tolerable and that I didn't slip into shock anyway, I splurged and treated myself to dinner at one of the best restaurants in the world -- Chez Panisse!

Me, my son Joe, his significant other Laura, their unborn Baby New Year and my youngest daughter Ashley all trooped off to the restaurant. Here's the menu:

Monday, July 2 $50

-- Little gems lettuces, golden beets, and house-cured pancetta
with herb vinaigrette
-- Poulet à la broche: Soul Food Farm chicken stuffed with garlic
and sage; with green beans, savory, and corn custard
-- Royal Blenheim apricot tart with noyau ice cream

My birthday was actually July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, but they were closed on that day so on July 2, we got all dressed up fancy (I was actually NOT wearing jeans), popped into Joe's car and drove across town. And what happened next was both magical and weird.

First off, it turns out that we knew the waitress. She had gone to school with my daughter Ashley and they had been in the same school play during sixth grade at Willard Middle School. Then we all gushed about the good old days for a while and how sad it had been when their drama teacher, the wonderful denise brown, had died suddenly. Then the waitress brought us shot glasses full of something white and creamy. "What is it?" I asked.

"Cucumber, yogurt, cumin, coriander and olive oil."

"But what's that crunchy taste?" Our waitress called over the salad chef to explain it to us. And he actually came to our freaking table!

"It's konjai -- black mustard seeds." Then we got the actual salad. And we gushed about that. Chez Panisse can make a WICKED salad and they are famous for them -- justly so.

"Hey, this stuff on top tastes like bacon bits," said Ashley. We asked the salad chef what it was.


"What's that?"

"Bacon bits." And the baby tomatoes were so actually tomato-ish that it brought back memories of the days when a tomato actually tasted like a tomato. The vinaigrette was excellent. The beets gave it a taste variety. Every salad needs a variety of textures and tastes.

"Hey," said Joe, "There's an aphid on my plate!" Then we all took a look at the aphid and sure enough there it was, happily crawling around on the edge of the plate. Joe got out his video camera and videotaped it. Ashley whipped out her cell phone and took its picture. Then we watched it do laps around the edge of the plate. It seemed to want to determinedly trudge on forever but by its third lap we got bored.

Do you think that we should tell the waitress?" I asked.

"No," replied Joe. "It just proves that the lettuce was organic."

"Maybe that's where the crunchy taste came from," added Ashley. We all rolled our eyes.

Then Joe and I split a glass of excellent red wine. In very fine glassware. "This is is even as good as 2-buck Chuck!" I exclaimed. Laura wanted to taste a sip too but we all yelled "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome!" at her and rolled our eyes. Again. Major eye rolls are a Stillwater family tradition.

"But I only wanted a sip," said Laura who is actually a totally conscientious pregnant person. Oh okay. The wine was good and the salad had a good after-taste and the bread was good and the butter was better.

"Do you want still water or sparkling water with your dinner," asked the waitress.

"Stillwater!" we all replied. Meanwhile Ashley was eye-ing the steak knife. "This is a really good knife." But we persuaded her not to steal the silverware. Then they brought us the main course.

"The green beans are perfect and the corn custard is to die for but the chicken is not all that good," I said.

"Ma, you have been expecting too much from that chicken," replied Joe philosophically. "That's just the nature of chicken. It's hard to mess it up but its also hard to make it really good either. It's the dynamic, Ma. Chicken can only be taken so far." Chicken dynamics? Okay. But the sage leaves under the skin gave it lots of flavor and the sauce was good. Chicken dynamics?

In the meantime, Ashley was DETERMINED to try to eat her drumstick with her new friend the knife. But not me. I wanted easy access to every bite of that chicken. This was a fifty-dollar chicken! To hell with the knife.

"Would you like coffee or sherry with your dessert?" asked our waitress. Do you have to pay extra for it? "Yes." Sigh. I bet they make really good coffee but we were already over the budget on the wine. And Ashley then informed us that 10% of everything we drink gets backwashed. Eeuuww.

Ah! The dessert. With a candle in mine to celebrate my birthday. I made my usual wish, the old Buddhist favorite, "May all beings attain the Pure Land in this lifetime." Apricot tart. Handmade ice cream. Yes yes yes. Then, for a thoughtful final touch, the waitress brought us a small plate of wild strawberries and pistachios rolled in cocoa paste. We almost ate them all up before we remembered to get a photo of them. The bill came to $263 but we had saved up. You only turn 65 once.

"So. Guys. Which was your favorite part of the meal?" I asked. "I truly loved the salad and thought it was the highlight -- with the possible exception of the aphid."

"Why you all the time hatin' on the aphid!" said Ashley. Her favorite part was the salad too. Everyone agreed that the salad was primo.

"And I liked the tart," added Joe. "It had a good aftertaste." And just as we were walking down the steps to the garden in front of Chez Panisse, our waitress came running after us and gave us all a hug. "Happy birthday!" It was the perfect ending to a perfect birthday dinner. And as we left, a fire truck and ambulance came roaring out of the night and parked next to the restaurant. "Do you think they are going to Chez Panisse?" I asked.

"If they are", someone replied, "that would be giving a whole new meaning to the term 'food to die for'!" We all laughed. The food had certainly been heavenly. Except for the chicken. But Shhh! Don't tell Joe.

PS: Ashley accidentally deleted all the pictures she had taken of the dinner so I'll try to get Joe to put his video of our gourmet celebration on YouTube -- especially the part with the aphid race.

PPS: Here are photos of somebody else's dinner at Chez Panisse, just to give you an idea (But they didn't get to have any gourmet aphids like we did):