Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Chez Panise and '76 Domaine de Varoilles Charmes-Chambertin


1976 Domaine des Varoilles Charmes-Chambertin is an amazing mature burgundy. Chez Panise is still one of the finest restaurants around. Go there!


Last night I was lucky enough to share an amazing celebratory birthday evening with the lovely Brynna McGee and a few others at Chez Panise. It was something of a first on two accounts: the first time I have been to a restaurant as influential and important as Chez Panise and the first time I have had a perfectly mature, unbelievable red Burgundy. The food, company and wine were all top-notch, and though at the time I was just enjoying the conversation and a great meal, I did not realize the impact and lasting impression the evening will probably have on me.

From the outside, Chez Panise is very much a product of its 1970's Berkeley beginnings. The dark wood building looks like a ski lodge in the Alps. Frank Lloyd Wright architecture also come to mind. Once you enter the restaurant, the more informal cafe is upstairs, and to the right lies the small dining area. I have never been in a restaurant with as relaxed, easy-going and comforting a feel as Chez Panise. Dark wood and a golden amber glow emanating from the distinctive lighting fixtures (there are several different shaped variations, each one framed by a 3 foot square). A beautiful, sprawling floral arrangement and several assorted loaves of bread laid out on a small buffet table greet you as you walk into the dining room area. I wish I could better describe the serenity and beauty of this room, but my limited architectural and design vocabulary are, um...limiting. On to the meal.

We started with a wedge of porcini and roasted onion tart served with rocket salad, paired with a bottle of Francois Chidaine 'Almendra' Montlouis Sur-Loire Brut 1996. The dish was a terrific blend of rich, savory, meaty porcinis and the caramelized flavors of the onion, all on a perfectly crisp pastry (which as Bryna, a baker, pointed out, remained crisp up until the very tip of the slice). The fresh green flavors of the rocket, lightly dressed in olive oil and lemon, was a great foil to the rich savor of the tart. Unfortunately, the Almendra was not the perfect match for this dish. The sparkler, which has been on its lees for 10 years and recently disgorged, proved to be good and dry, a bit too dry to pair well with the tart, which turned out to be sweeter than I had thought it would be. Almendra was still very intriguing and distinctive, in a category all its own. Not my favorite sparkler, but I certainly respect it. Loads of quince and a subtle tropicality on the nose lead to, as I mentioned, a surprisingly dry palate, with some notes of orange zest and a ton of Chenin tuffeau minerality. It tastes like Chenin Blanc, and it tastes like Montlouis Chenin from Chidaine, with bubbles. The perfect pairing for this dish, I think, would have been Chidaine's Montlouis 'Clos Habert' or the Vouvray 'Le Bouchet.' Probably the latter. I really craved a demi-sec to moelleux with this dish.

Next up was tiny, sweet bay scallops in a vegetable broth enhanced by what tasted like fines herbes. A very subtle dish, with the perfectly prepared scallops playing nicely with the very light, herb flavored broth. This dish went slightly better with the Chidaine sparkler, which we were still drinking. The wine seemed to enhance the herbal character of the broth, intensify it slightly. Natalie substituted ricotta gnocchi for the scallops, and they were light, airy and delicious - a bit of an odd combo as they were served in the same broth, but tasty nonetheless. It also proved to be the most compatible dish with our Loire sparkler.

Here is where the meal really got interesting. Our bottle of 1976 Domaine des Varoilles Charmes-Chambertin was opened and poured. What a wine! Its color was a beatiful, well, burgundy. The nose at first was a bit animal, with jamon serrano notes struggling for primacy with tangy mixed berries. Some cocoa powder, roasted coffee, and baking spices emerged as well. Like any great wine, this grand cru burg showed a lot of different flavors on the palate, at times very opposite from each other and unusual to be found together in the same wine. Probably the most vivid thing I remember tasting were notes of cocoa liqueur and dark chocolate. Though the fruit was primarily dark, at one point the wine seemed more high-toned and red fruited. Now that I think about, what was equally memorable about this wine was how mineral it was at times. There is clearly still a fairly long future ahead in this wine - I would say 5 years easy - and it would not surprise me if it were showing well a decade from now.

The Domaine des Varoilles went terrifically with our main course: a grilled rack and loin of Cattail Creek Ranch lamb with braised fennel and potato-tomato gratin. As an aside, my other old burgundy experience of the year, a '71 Jean Grivot village Vosne Romanee, was also served with lamb; mature Cotes de Nuit seems to be tailor-made for lamb. But this lamb was on a whole other level from the simple lamb chops I had grilled. The loin was sliced ultra thin, so it was all the more succulent and delicious, while the chop was a bit gamier and contrasted beautifully with the more refined loin. As for the wine, the Charmes-Chambertin was an entirely different, more complex and profound animal than the village Vosne Romanee from Grivot. No surprises there. What a perfect match - Chez Panise lamb and Charmes Chambertin. I may be eating even more quinoa than usual this month to subsidize, but I would say it's worth it.

After dinner we were served perfectly ripe mission figs, fuyu persimmons and dates grown in Thermal,(sp?) just southeast of LA. Everything was delicious but the standout were the figs - rich, chewy, sweet and truly nature's own caramel. For dessert it was a warm, spiced comice pear served alongside burnt honey ice cream. The pear was perfect: soft and juicy, while retaining its smooth texture and a bit of firmness. The ice cream was also delicious - creamy, dense and just a touch of bitterness from the burnt honey - and went very well with the pear.

I love Chez Panise. Maybe one day I'll move to Berkeley and become a regular. Maybe I could barter wine for a meal. If you have not yet been to the venerable CP, I think you better check it out. I don't gush like this often when it comes to restaurants - you can ask around, I'm a tough critic when it comes to fine dining.

Go to Chez Panise.


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Jon said...

Do they sell any prints of the David Lance Goines posters? His work is beautiful.

I went to Lisner Aud last night to see Anthony Bourdain speak and comment on clips from No Reservations followed by a long Q and A session. Very entertaining!

Went to Charleston a couple weeks back too for our anniversary. Incredible! Best meal I've ever had. I couldn't possibly descrive as geekily as you though.

Joe M. said...


They do sell them on their website -

Bourdain is always entertaining, I'm sure.

As annoying as it is, and as annoying as he is, Tony Foreman is still the only game in town when it comes to top-notch restaurants in Bmore.

Mateo said...

the one time i went to the chez i totally struck out and had a forgettable (yet expensive) meal. glad to hear alice got it back up again.

Marsha Manekin said...

I'm sure Alice Waters would be thrilled with your review, but not by the fact that you misspelled "Chez Panisse." As your "momma," I love you anyway!