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First Bite: Chez Panisse Still Wants to Have Fun

A special holiday menu celebrates Mexico.


Nicholas Boer

Chez Panisse doesn’t exactly leap to mind when you think of Cinco de Mayo, but the quintessential California-cuisine restaurant and the Mexican-American holiday converged 10 days ago for dinner in the prix fixeonly downstairs dining room.

Each of the evening’s five courses brought a hint of Latin spice. After a plate of pickled vegetables (a refined riff on the traditional salsa bar) came the night’s most memorable dish: tiny translucent cubes of California halibut ceviche seasoned with a myriad of spring flourishes, including shaved radish and delightfully diminutive yet assertively perfumed cilantro flowers. A third course of hand-cut pasta in a sweet shrimp broth with chorizo and Gulf of Mexico shrimp preceded our entrées of beef loin with cumin-and-chili butter and the most remarkable asparagus—roasted a la plancha, of course. We wrapped up the meal with cinnamon-flecked flan and candied kumquats.

It was a playful evening, and while I didn’t catch any of the cooks sneaking sips of a margarita, it was clear from the food that the kitchen staff was enjoying itself. I hadn’t been to Chez Panisse in at least a decade, but after this visit, I’m thinking perhaps I can afford a visit each May 5. I really want to see what they do with a taco.

1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 548-5525, chezpanisse.com. Lunch and dinner Tues.–Sat. (dinner only in the downstairs dining room).

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