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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Confessions of a Restaurant Critic: Range, Zuni, and Chez Panisse are Still Just as Fabulous as Ever

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2009 at 2:32 PM

click to enlarge Range's light hasn't dimmed a bit in four years - IN PRAISE OF SARDINES VIA FLICKR
  • In Praise of Sardines via Flickr
  • Range's light hasn't dimmed a bit in four years
It's rare that a restaurant critic gets to revisit favorite places, whether old or new. We're always looking for the next place to write about. (It's surprising how many friends will mention, after they read my review of some good new place, that they'd love to eat there with me. Not gonna happen! I'm eating somewhere else!)

But when friends from out of town visit, all bets are off. Especially when, as in the case of recent house guests from NY, they've never been to the Bay Area before (well, one had visited SF briefly, 20 years ago, as an impecunious student).

As bartender Edgar Kennedy replied to Harold Lloyd when he said he'd never taken a drink in his life in Preston Sturges' The Sin of Harold Diddlebock: "Sir, you rouse the artist in me!"

They were here for only a few days. Still, we managed to squeeze in croissants and pastries at Tartine, a Ferry Building stroll, dim sum at Yank Sing, drinks at the Alembic, and a dreamy walk through the produce aisles at Berkeley Bowl.

Big foodies, they'd already made a reservation for dinner downstairs at Chez Panisse on their last night. How could they not? They'd been hearing about it for nearly 40 years.

For dinner on their first night, I chose somewhere cozy yet chic -- Range, in the Mission, where I've sent lots of people in the four years since it opened to great success. I like the front barroom and the golden dining room; Phil West's seasonal, hearty, yet sensitive new American cooking; the inventive cocktails and interesting wine list. That night we had a terrific meal. Memorable dishes included a trembling little Parmesan custard starter with mint and arugula, a luscious tender braised lamb shoulder with artichokes, and a juicy roasted chicken breast with bread salad. Starters here range between $8 and $13; mains are $19 to $26.

I wouldn't have ordered that chicken had I known we'd be dining at Zuni Café the next night. Zuni's history goes back almost as far as Chez Panisse's (its original incarnation, in different form, was in 1979). Judy Rodgers' signature dish, of course, is the chicken for two roasted in the brick oven, served with warm bread salad. But as often happens, there were too many other intriguing plates on Zuni's compact menu for two of us to agree on the chicken. As at Range, the hyper-seasonal menu changes frequently, though here the bent is Cal-Mediterranean. We loved the house-made salami toscano, sliced tissue-thin, with fava beans, Manchego, and hard-boiled eggs; roasted squab with a creamy chard and potato gratin; and whole-wheat spaghetti with cardoons, lemon zest, garlic, capers, and pecorino, a sophisticated version of something you can whip up at home. Although how often do you see cardoons, or know what to do with them when you do? And no visit to Zuni is complete without a bowl of the exquisitely corn-y, soft polenta, with a drizzle of mascarpone. Zuni's first courses are between $6 (for that luscious polenta) and $14.50, Main courses are $27 to $29 (the whole chicken is $48 for two, and there'll be leftovers!)

Chez Panisse's upstairs café is in a similar price range, but the downstairs dining room offers one prix-fixe menu only: three courses Mondays for $60, four courses Tuesday through Thursday for $75, and $95 Fridays and Saturdays, with an aperitif thrown in. I wasn't initially excited by our menu, which seemed a little unadventurous: white fish in broth, a spring vegetable stew, roasted beef, and a strawberry dessert. But as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The meal was rapturous, showcasing Alice Waters' philosophy and chef Jean-Pierre Moulle's cooking at their best. We could see the great chunks of steak roasting on the open wood fire as we feasted on the delicate fish. The fragile vegetable stew was astonishing, a thing of beauty, and a joy for as long as I managed to make the small portion last. I kicked myself, a day or two later, when I realized that I'd forgotten you can ask for seconds -- on the house! It was a perfect example of the Chez Panisse ethos: get the best ingredients, cook them simply, let them shine. I've never had a vegetable dish quite like that one, and it's basically unduplicatable, a one-time-only combination that worked perfectly that spring night.

Stop the presses! Three of the Bay Area's best restaurants are still as good as they ever were, and all worth the price, which seemed remarkably moderate -- even the $95 prix-fixe at Chez Panisse. What price an unforgettable dish, a memorable meal, the perfect evening?

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Meredith Brody


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