While she's eschewing the old Bauer star system — under which Alice Waters' iconic Berkeley temple of California Cuisine held four immovable stars for many years — Soleil Ho's first big review for the Chronicle's restaurant pages most definitely sounds like it would have landed in two-star territory.
She is, no doubt, a smart, funny, and immensely readable writer — a refreshing change! — and she puts those skills to work discussing Chez Panisse's longstanding hold on Bay Area food culture.
The cultural impact of Waters’ work is indisputable and impossible to quantify, so in many ways the question of whether Chez Panisse is a good restaurant seems moot...
Yet many other restaurants around the country have taken the core values of Chez Panisse — seasonality and intentional sourcing among them — and, perhaps due to a lack of true commitment or ideological purity, diluted them nearly to nothing. The ideas that Chez Panisse introduced into the culture have turned out to be profitable for food businesses, drawing patrons who want their dining budgets to go toward the good of society, if even vaguely. Now we’ve got menu buzzwords like “sustainable,” “responsibly grown” and “farm-to-table” everywhere, with even McDonald’s hopping on the “real food” bandwagon. The copy on the back of a Frito-Lay chip bag celebrates the “farm-grown potatoes” that make up its industrially processed chips. Like a joke that has been worn into the ground, the language of culinary sustainability feels like it’s become white noise.
She starts with a few positive notes about individual items she and a friend with a gluten allergy enjoyed at the downstairs restaurant, including " dessert garnished with whole huckleberries so ripe they almost seemed macerated, a surprisingly delicate minestrone packed with perfect vegetable brunoise... chickpea-battered onions fried to a fine crackle" and "sheep’s milk ricotta salata doused with olio nuovo." But, she says, "I found the presentation of everything sort of thoughtless."
Still, she enjoyed the downstairs experience more than the upstairs Cafe — contrary to local conventional wisdom in recent decades. Upstairs she complains of unhelpful servers, flavorless pasta, and a dish of fried sole with fingerling potatoes that "was just salt, acid, acid, acid" — riffing on the title of Chez Panisse alum Samin Nosrat's cookbook and companion Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
In lieu of stars at the end of the review, there's a brief summation paragraph in which Ho writes, "When there are so many interesting points of view that have emerged from the food world since 1971, Chez Panisse’s approach comes off as stale. I get that the whole premise of Chez Panisse is that simple presentation and purity of ingredients constitute a more meaningful way to eat, but that lack of ambition on the menu feels more like a bug than a feature, especially considering the unevenness of the dishes I had there on these visits."
Ho's other four reviews, all published simultaneously today as a package, are a lot more positive. She mostly has nothing but praise in an informal review of La Folie Lounge — the review was of the 10-year-old next-door lounge, and not as previously reported of the beloved 30-year-old French restaurant. (She calls a wild mushroom and leek salad "one of the best salads of my life.") She also files a group review of three new Chinese-American spots, Dragon Beaux, its Millbrae "cousin" Stick & Steam, and Z&Y Bistro. She heads to Oakland to check out Cambodian spot Nyum Bai, where she loves the Cambodian psychedelic rock playlist and chef-owner Nite Yun's culinary array of "intellectual and sensory pleasures." And of Thomas Keller's new Yountville Mexican outpost, she writes, "I found the experience of eating at La Calenda to be a very pleasant one — fun, even."
Soleil Ho's Restaurant Reviews [Chronicle]