17
Oct
11

Unhappy endings @ Chez Panisse & Commonwealth

Let’s say you’re out at a fancypants restaurant, the type that offers a tasting menu. You have an enjoyable meal. Then the desserts come out. And–pfffffft–your gastronomic high is deflated due to the lameness of this final course. Sound familiar?

Here are a few things that might end a nice meal on a down note:

1)      A “unique” ice cream flavor. Frankly, it’s a copout. Haven’t we learned this from Iron Chef yet? Please, no more curry/tarragon/whatever ice creams. There are plenty of gelato places where we can get inedibly exotic flavors.

2)      Overly rich chocolate desserts. I’ve seen leftovers of gorgeous chocolate mousses/tortes at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw and CityZen that met a tragic end in the trash. Don’t serve a brick of chocolate at the end of a long meal. Your patrons may explode.

3)      Something reminiscent of a Sara Lee product. See Chez Panisse almond torte below.

4)      Desserts that are heavy on concept, light on substance. See Commonwealth below.

While in San Francisco, we had a special meal planned at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ legendary restaurant in Berkeley. Known for founding “California Cuisine,” Chez Panisse is also famous for its desserts (thanks to the talents of Lindsey Shere, its longtime pastry chef who retired in 1998).

Needless to say, I had high expectations of what was billed on the menu as “almond torte with Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise sabayon.” Maybe I’m just easily impressed by foreign words.

Anyway, out comes this:

If it looks like a fluffier version of Sara Lee pound cake, it pretty much is. Was the sabayon sauce delicious? Yes. Was the fruit fresh? Absolutely. BUT it was clear that the restaurant was phoning this course in. Not the impression you want your guests to leave with.

Our other nice meal was at Commonwealth, a random discovery in the Mission. Initially we hesitated to try this place because I’m not a huge fan of molecular gastronomy. While I appreciate the creativity that goes into it, often the food leaves my taste buds high and dry. Bottom line is, if your foams-dirts-spheres don’t taste good, the interesting presentation doesn’t make up for it.

Let me explain. My first experience with molecular gastronomy was a business dinner at wd~50, celeb chef Wylie Dufresne’s place in NYC. The food at wd~50 was totally imaginative. Maybe too much so: my root-vegetable lasagna had no pasta in it—just thinly cut slices of veggies layered to look like lasagna. An edible work of art. But after a few bites, I was wishing I was at a red-checkered-tablecloth joint, digging into the real deal.

Back to Commonwealth. It was probably our best meal of the trip. Then came the desserts. I got a deconstructed apricot cobbler with a piece of meringue that’d been zapped with liquid nitrogen. But the combination of torched apricot, cookie crumbs, and meringue was hardly as spectacular as the presentation. In fact, it felt like I’d eaten a lot of air and sugar.

Mr. X-sXe had better luck with his peanut butter semifreddo, a peanut-butter candy bar with popcorn that’s actually frozen bits of cream. Commonwealth partially redeemed itself with this creation. It felt like a better balance of execution and creativity than my letdown of an apricot cobbler.

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