Thursday, June 18, 2009

Home to Panisse

Berkeley, June 16, 2009

AFTER A NUMBER of dinners out in the last four weeks — we ate "at home" only rarely in the Netherlands — it was a complete and perfect pleasure to have one more restaurant dinner on our way home tomorrow, even though — or perhaps particularly because — the menu was in many respects one we'd had a number of times in the Netherlands. There's a good reason for that, of course: we'd been eating seasonally, and chefs everywhere are happy to celebrate June. We had:
  • Halibut tartare with chervil, capers, and nasturtiums
  • Puréed fava beans with garlic soufflé
  • Rack, loin, and leg of lamb with olives and potato gratin
  • Profiteroles with strawberry and lemon ice cream
  • and I can only say that the dinner was a knockout. The fish was perfectly fresh and its accompanying salad perfectly balanced — the basil leaves, for example, cut into a thin chiffonnade with a sharp knife: no bruised, oxidized taste here!
    The fava "soup" was an amazing dish, pure fava flavor, delicately garnished with a trail of thin crème fraîche, and sporting the lightest possible soufflée tasting of fresh egg and green garlic. And the lamb, accompanied by well-cooked haricots verts and a light, interesting version of the potato gratin I'd enjoyed so often a year ago in Savoy, was a reminder that tonight's chef, David Tanis, is a Parisian half the year: this was a classic French plate.
    I've written often about meals whose courses either do or don't complement one another. To me a meal, like a concert program or a group show of paintings, is best when each item presents itself simultaneously as complete in itself but responding dynamically to the other items in its context. Tonight's meal began unquestionably on site, in California, with perfectly local fish and vegetables (though it could equally have been perfectly local on the North Sea coast). The ingredients of the meat course were just as local, but the narrative was French. And these two courses were mediated by the favas and soufflée in an interesting, subtle, and full conversation: flavors, textures; colors; weights; and the associations of culinary history, locales, cultures.
    Syrah: Ridge, 1997
  • Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; tel. 5510.548.5525

    Curtis Faville said...

    I wonder if the glorification of the palate does not...

    The glorification of the palate as a hedonistic obsession...

    leads to decadence?

    Is the desire to participate in a dialectic of gastronomic indulgence...

    What is food, and what does an obsession about its variation, its expression, signify?

    Can there be a "philosophy" of food? Is it possible to construct a systematic hierarchy of value out of ingredients, and the method of their preparation?

    Is the pleasure an African tribesman experiences, biting down on the soft white body of a giant live white grub, comparable to an Englishman's spooning up a portion of just-opened soft-boiled chicken's egg?

    To what degree are such sensations cultural? Can there be, could there be, a trans-cultural standard of sensations and apprehensions of gastronomic effect which we could codify into an objective science?

    Is over-indulgence simply another form of consumption? If the life-span of humans under a specific regime were to be, say, 35 years, then the moral relativism of eating a fat-rich, or carb rich diet would be apparent.

    When humankind stopped being nomadic, and settled down to sew crop and domesticate and tend animals, he brought about a transformation of the regimen of his life which outstripped his genetic inheritance, which had devolved along a time-line (descent) of active scavanging, constant pursuit.

    There is no absolute value one might place upon the so-called "healthy diet"--pleasure and longevity aren't ethical purities. Pleasure pursued for its own sake is ethically neutral, because pleasure is an aesthetic, not a science. Healthful living entails a regimen. Would we say a tribe that scavanges, moving about frequently under conditions of convenient portability, is "healthier" and therefore likely to live longer or better?

    Science is the child of settled culture. As is medicine. These are the tools that have enabled the prolongation of human life. Not diet.

    If our bodies are "designed" to serve different functions than those we now habitually perform, it might be possible to construct a provisional ideal, culturally-specific. Access to varied food source is a privilege of rich, settled culture.

    We wouldn't choose atavistically to go "backwards" to a prior mode of existence whose necessity, though technically "healthy" would make us "fit" but would preclude all the other possibilities of a highly elaborated and sophisticated mature culture.

    What does the quest for perfect meals tell us about our priorities? Are we living in a "last time" of the consumption of resource, in which the concentration of capital and "ingredients", the leisure and casual option to indulge it, is merely the elegant quivers of a decayed, dying residue of existence?

    Our senses tell us otherwise, but are they to be trusted? Or, to put it more aptly, can the senses be a basis for a rational approach to life?


    The word verification below just now is "carjack"!

    Charles Shere said...

    Curtis provides, of course, a provocative and intelligent comment; I've thought about a number of these things for a long time. I'll respond to his comment point by point on The Eastside View, but it'll take a few days to get to it.