Thursday, March 19, 2009

Parsi New Year

Berkeley, March 19, 2009

EVERY YEAR CHEZ PANISSE celebrates the coming of Spring with a dinner honoring Parsi New Year, with a menu conceived and executed by Niloufer Ichaporia King, who was born in Bombay to a Parsi family. There have been seventeen thirteen years of these dinners, or perhaps it is seventeen thirteen times these dinners have been presented, I'm not sure which. I think Lindsey and I have been at nearly every one, and they just keep getting better, better in every respect: the conception, the authenticity (which I judge wholly intuitively, knowing nothing of Indian cuisine, let alone Parsi), the richness, the nutritive quality, the colors, aromas, flavors, and textures.

And, you might say, even the fifth sense, hearing: most obviously in the snap of the chipati pappadum, flavored with subtle chili and pungent cuminseed, but more subtly yet more substantially in the musical quality of the dinner, its sequence of courses, rhythms, and repeated notes.

We began with little dishes of cashews, lightly seasoned to match the pappadum, and pickled tiny carrots and radish slices, with a nice twist on Kir royale: a glass of cava flavored with pomegranate juice.
Then came Bombay potato balls — deep fried mashed potatoes, I'd say — with fried curry leaves and steamed semolina bread, with an avocado chutney on the side, a delicious Parsi version of guacamole, perhaps, all prettily laid out on a banana leaf. Those curry leaves! crisp, pungent, deep…

Then a bowl of Niloufer's traditional "Auspicious dal," to confirm the promise of the New Year, with its Zen-like circle of spices further delineating the significance. With these two courses we had a fine Pinot blanc from Domaine Weinbach (Alsace), 2006.


Three oysters on the half shell came next, an Arcimboldo version of a fleur-de-lis, on a bed of rock salt, with a mignonette sauce lifted judiciously with lime and chili: perfect with a little glass of Crémant pink with the skins of its pinot noir.


Plat principal: and the photo does not do it justice. Grilled and braised rabbit in pistachio cream; springtime pulao (pilaf) with peas; a deep green note of nettles and chard, reminding us that Spring issues from the dark depths of Winter; and chicory salad with tamarind and slices of kumquats. The rabbit was succulent, meaty yet delicate, the cream sauce complex but light with its pistachio and turmeric. With this, a cuirous an very good "Vassal de Puech" Languedoc 2006, earthy and fertile.

Rhubarb Ice, faluda, and sweets:

the faluda recalling the feel (though not the flavor!) of the pistacho cream, the little date pastry visually recalling the Bombay potato… what an intelligent, artful, good-humored dinner this was. And, as always, a delightfully printed menu decorated by David King (who also pounce-stencils the ritual blessings on the steps to the restaurant), and fabulous floral displays… too bad it comes but once a year. At other times we make do with Niloufer's fine book, My Bombay Kitchen, and look forward to next March.