Zuni Café and Chez Panisse

Zuni hamburger with blue cheese

I tried. I gave it my best shot to try and make it through the list of the new places that were on my radar for my visit to San Francisco, the one that I’d been scribbling down for the last few month. But getting felled by a bout of whatever it was that I picked up on my flight sapped me of a bit of my energy. Fortunately, midway through my trip, I was able to rally back and proved myself to be the trooper that I knew I could be. But apologies to the folks who came by to meet me at my event, for the laryngitis that prevented me from expressing my enthusiasm for meeting you! And thanks for braving the cold temperatures to come out and say hi.

Even since my last visit just a few years ago, a bunch of bakeries, chocolate purveyors, bread places, and restaurants have opened in San Francisco that pretty much knocked my socks off. I was also thrilled to see that the city has implemented a city-wide composting program, to deal with all the kitchen and food scraps that normally get tossed. Seeing that has prompted me to take another look at options in my own kitchen in Paris, since it pains me to throw things that can be reused away. (The worm-based composters, which seem to be the best option for apartment-dwellers, make me a little uneasy. I have nothing against worms, but am not sure I could sleep soundly at night with a big container of them wriggling around nearby.)

Zuni burger

In addition to the new places I discovered, I revisited two favorites, for sentimental reasons and – of course – for the food. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go to Zuni Café so soon after the passing of the chef/owner, but since my time in the city was limited, and I felt the need to reconnect with the place, I woke up on my second day in the city and scored a reservation for lunch. Oddly, it’s been nearly twelve years, but I still remembered the phone number by heart.

Zuni shoestring fries

Starting off with a bottle of cold Sancerre, that I wasn’t sure would help or hinder my recovery (consensus: It ending up doing a little bit of both, but was delicious with the briny oysters), I decided to click off the classics, starting with a Caesar Salad, following it up with a plate of house-cured anchovies with celery and Parmesan, which ended up being superfluous with the salad. But I would have felt remiss if I hadn’t ordered it. (The feathery light ricotta gnocchi weren’t on the menu. Otherwise those would have taken the place of the anchovies.)

hamburger

I began my cooking career at Zuni Café way (way) back – when it was half as large as it is now and there were some unsettling things going on in the nearby alleyways. (One of the cooks had seen something and had to be called in to be a witness at a trial.) During my shifts, I tossed tons of those salads, and never got tired of making them. And now, the neighborhood is a little less “edgy” – but I still go back for more, which says something about the power of a good Caesar. Romain didn’t quite understand the urgency of going to Zuni and ordering the roast chicken as soon as you sit down, since it takes an hour. It’s a dish that any other restaurant would just throw them in the oven at regular intervals, then hold them until the orders come up. But Judy, the chef who invented the dish, would never had stood for that, so customers still wait patiently for their chicken. And no one minded waiting, either. Because we knew what was coming.

So we ended up with hamburgers, which at Zuni, is a plat that shows their precision to the details on something that’s seemingly very simple. Not with silly garnishes or culinary tricks, but with offerings like red onion pickles, turmeric-colored zucchini pickles (which I warned Romain would stain), and a choice between blue cheese or Beecher’s Flagship cheese, a milky, nutty cow’s milk cheese that’s just right for melting over a beef patty. No matter what options you choose, the burger always rests on a bun of grilled house-made focaccia, smeared with aïoli. And of course, you have to order the shoestring fries as well, which come out hot, crisp, and well-salted, another trademark of the chef.

espresso granita

Many of desserts at Zuni are longstanding favorites, and to revive ourselves after nearly making it to the bottom of the Sancerre bottle, we split a glass of icy, robust espresso granita with sweetened whipped cream, which I presume will be on the menu next time come back here. Even if it’s not for another couple of years.

Later in the week, we ventured across the bridge to Chez Panisse during rush hour, for dinner. And let me tell you, one the things I don’t miss about the Bay Area is sitting on the Bay Bridge on my way to work. Although as a tourist, I have to say, it’s a spectacular vista that spans the city, the hills, the islands, and the bay.

Chez Panisse Cafe

We were seated on the all-new porch, which had been rebuilt since the fire. It was pretty spiffy, with gleaming copper lamps, a new floor (and no step to trip over!), and – yes, even heat. Nice job, folks!

But unlike the updated porch, the food didn’t need any revisions. It was as good as I remember. I may be a little biased, but the first forkful of the chicory salad, made with sturdy greens from Cannard Farm, which supplies Chez Panisse with most of its produce, brought back tome, what I can only call “that flavor.” I don’t know how to describe it, but the food at Chez Panisse has a specific flavor. Perhaps it’s the terroir, the concept that food takes on characteristics of where and how it is grown.

Chicory salad at Chez Panisse

But whether raw or cooked, the fruits, vegetables, and other ingredients at the restaurant have a special flavor that I can’t pin down. The salad tasted like it was just-picked from the garden (which it was), and even the chunks of citrus in the salad had a certain flavor that tasted dialed-up, much different from the industrial citrus one normally gets. Sometimes people criticize the food at Chez Panisse for being “too simple”, which is really the point of the restaurant and café. Usually the less you do to food, the better – especially when you have good ingredients. Good food is often the result of flavorful ingredients, and not doing too much to them. No need to add smears of sauce or piles of crumbs or heap things into jam jars. Just put it on a plate or in a bowl, and serve it. And leave it at that.

Rapini pizza

The pizza came out with a blistery crust, topped with bitter rapini, a bit of heat from red pepper flakes, and a farm egg nestled in the center. The slightly puffy crust was different from the hyper-thin crusts that we’ve become accustomed to. But instead of being hard and a tough as cardboard (as some of those thin-crusts can be), there was a lightness to it that made me keep grabbing piece after piece. In addition to the tangle of greens on top, the flavor of the ingredients of the dough came through just as well – the flour, the olive oil, and the charred bits from the wood-fired oven, all contributed to an excellent crust.

Chicken cooked under a brick

My dining partner had chicken cooked under a brick, and I couldn’t decide between – well…everything on the menu, which included a sirloin (the beef at Chez Panisse is always excellent, and it’s hard to pass up a good steak.) But I went with clams, because they’re not something you see often on menus in Paris. I don’t know why that is, since you see them at fishmongers. But I’m a clam-lover from my New England days, and these were oven-baked with leeks and tomatoes, and served with a pool of aïoli melding into the warm sauce. And a big, crusty grilled crouton for scooping up the garlicky sauce.

Clams, tomatoes and leeks

Our first dessert was another one of those “only at Chez Panisse” things; a footed dish of fresh dates, clementines, and the best almonds I’ve ever had in my life. Even better than Marcona almonds, whatever kind of almond they were, these nuts were toasted just enough to take away any chewiness, but enough to highlight (and not overwhelm) the fresh almond flavor. They were the kind of almonds you would ring someone’s neck if they burnt a sheet pan of them in the oven. (Which any baker will understand.)

mulberry ice cream meringue

Then, for my birthday, which it wasn’t, out came two wispy meringues sandwiched with vanilla and mulberry ice cream. If you haven’t had fresh mulberries, you’re not alone. I’d never had them either, until someone had alerted us when I worked at the restaurant that they had a mulberry tree and someone brought them in for us to try. I popped one of the inky dark berries in my mouth, and I’d never had a berry so full of flavor. There’s no hint of sourness, and sweet, but not too sweet. Each one I tasted (and tasted and tasted) was like a mini flavor bomb. It’s no wonder that when I worked there, we’d spread them out on parchment paper-lined sheet pans so they wouldn’t be crushed. And when I went back later to get them to use in a dessert, where half of the berries once were, I’d find a smattering of dark purple, oval stains on the parchment paper. (A major hazard of the pastry trade is line cooks swiping stuff.) So even though it wasn’t my birthday, I ate all my dessert and didn’t say a word. Because it still felt like a special day.

49 comments

  • Happy Birthday!

    I knew San Francisco was supposed to be a foodie centre but this all sounds fantastic. Chicken cooked under a brick?! How quirky!

    I’m drooling over the pizza and that burger too.

  • Hah! I was so eager to comment on all the delicious food that I skim read the last para. Turns out it’s not you’re birthday – but felicitations all the same ;)

  • It’s long been a dream of mine to eat at Chez Panisse, now I’m adding Zuni Cafe to that list!

    When I studied abroad in England, there was a mulberry bush right outside my dorm. When it was in peak fruit we literally went ’round and ’round it, eating the berries right off the bush (the best way to eat any fruit, IMO!).

  • I know what you mean about that special flavor to everything at Chez Panisse. I’ve been luck enough to dine there every year or so (I’m an east coaster) for the last 20 years or so. And each and every time, I turn to my partner to say this is the “realest” food I’ve ever eaten. I love that restaurant and although the Zuni chicken is superb, Chez Panisse is always my first stop when I arrive in SF.

  • Did you say hi to Alice while you were at Chez Panisse?

  • My friend and I went to Zuni for lunch on Sunday. Had the caesar and the burger. One of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time. Perfectly seasoned and cooked just right for me. They didn’t get cute with the toppings (loved the pickled zuke and onions), the aioli didn’t overpower the burger. A rich and decadent burger that didn’t sit like a brick in my stomach. Didn’t get the fries because I ordered the caesar (which was also very tastey) and plus I didn’t want to push too much on my stomach. One day I’ll go back and have that roast chicken.

  • hi david,

    what beautiful writing. As a new resident of north berkeley, just steps away from the gourmet ghetto (why is it called a ghetto? Perhaps it was different than now), I really appreciated your writing and reflections, which to me was filled with terroir of northern california, simplicity, and high quality goodness.

    All the best to you and Romain this December!

  • It was great seeing you in your book-signing during your visit. I’ve been bookmarking all your suggestions on San Francisco eateries and can’t wait to try them!

  • I visited a friend’s house and was delighted to find mulberry trees surrounding the property. I picked and ate and when I asked my friends about the trees, I was shocked to hear they never ate the berries and they didn’t like the trees because they made such a mess.

  • I stumbled on the Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken & Bread Salad on smitten kitchen & haven’t roasted a chicken another way since. Simply divine! The flavors of the bread salad with the unexpected tang of the vinegar & sweetness of the pine nuts I will never forget. So delicious!

  • I was visiting SF and actually at Zuni on the exact same day as you…we were there for dinner though, and they did indeed have the gnocci. It was strange and sad being there that week, but like you we were traveling from overseas and couldn’t pass up a chance for ultimate comfort food and one of our favorite places. We went for the classics, including finishing it all off with the dates stuffed with mascarpone and a great hungarian tokaji. I also, weirdly acquired a nasty cold, but even though my taste buds were at 50% capacity it was still so amazing!

  • Hi Dave…….To honor Judy’s memory, I made her wonderful roast chicken Sunday… Like Judy, it was superb. Also, BRAVO for your thesis on “good food”…. Good food is often the result of flavorful ingredients, and not doing too much to them. No need to add smears of sauce or piles of crumbs or heap things into jam jars. Just put it on a plate or in a bowl, and serve it. And leave it at that. Thanks Dave !!!

  • Ron and Deborah: I’ve never made it at home but in her book, she swears the recipe works no matter what kind of oven you have (so you don’t need a wood-burning oven, like at Zuni.) I am going to try it soon because I am craving it!

    Natasha: Just missed each other! It was a little sad, and strange. But on the other hand, it’s nice to go there and eat – that’s what Judy was all about. Sorry you got that cold as well…and didn’t love the the icy weather in SF that week, either : )

    Jeremy: I saw her at Quince earlier that week, when I was dining at Cotogna (their other restaurant) – she was presiding over a dinner for their tenth anniversary and we said hi and swapped hugs, and got a little misty-eyed.

    shila: The word “ghetto” often refers to a marginalized area. In the case of the gourmet ghetto, I think it was a way to “down-market” the area (which at the time, wasn’t very upscale..for those who remember that far back.)

  • David, thank you for your wonderful post about my favorite city, San Francisco. Each year I look forward to my 10 day vacation there. I’m dreaming of the french fries at Roam. They are some of the best I’ve had. Have you ever been to Frascati or Sociale? Lunch at Sociale is a treat, especially when the weather is nice and you can sit out on the patio.

  • What a lovely post! I sure would like to know what variety of mulberries those were as my experience with them in the NW has been that they need more acid to bring out the flavor in a pie. Maybe it’s our climate?

  • Hi David,
    I use the Zuni chicken method at home in a cast iron skillet- works beautifully. Still, I look forward to having the chicken at the restaurant. Their bread salad is amazing! I know it will be sad to go, knowing Judy is no longer there-will toast to her and all that she contributed to the culinary world.

  • Was thrilled to hear about the mulberry ice cream, both as a pastry chef, and for (formerly) having a mulberry tree in my yard. Great minds think alike!

    Growing up my best friend across the street had a huge mulberry tree in her back yard, and some of my fondest memories are of hanging out on hot summer days (literally, hanging off the cool shaded branches in the tree), just picking and eating to our heart’s content. We used to pick bowls of them too, for her mother, who made and canned jam from the bounty.

    Fast forward a few decades, this house in Annapolis I am now, sadly, moving out of also used to have a ginormous mulberry tree (the trunk base is easily 5 feet wide). When the berries were in season, I took heaps of them into work — where I made sorbet, ice cream, and cobblers out of them for our menu. Tragically, last year a freak wind shear during a bad storm (the local experts say it was a mini-twister) left the tree split down the middle, so I had to have it taken down and carved up. (The event was made worse by having to pay hundreds of dollars for something I hated to do!) The base was so wide, and the tree grew at a tilt, the tree guy couldn’t take it all the way down. So now there’s still a rather large ugly stump remaining, a bittersweet reminder of days passed.

  • Those descriptions are mouthwatering and make me wantmto hop on an airplane for San Francisco today!

    About composting – I am a veteranof all methods,outside bins, turned and unturned and vermicomposting. My current favorite, especially for compact indoor composting uses a microbial mix called Bokashi, which rapidly biodigests food waste in sealed, airtight containers. Airtight=no yucky smells! It is very simple, put a batch of wate in the bind, sprinkle a handful of the sawdust-like bokashi on top, and seal it up again. Every so often drain leachate from the spigot in the bottom of the bin and feed it to your houseplants.

    This is the system I use, I recommend having at least 2 bins for a small household, rotating them as they get full, as the contents will not be fully decomposed by the time the bin is full.

    • Thanks. I’ve heard mixed reports about those. Some say it does smell, and others say not to put meat in it (which was surprising, because I didn’t realize people composted meat and bones!) But I may give the bokashi a try since there are no worms to deal with.

  • I still get choked up about Judy Rodgers. :( I didn’t know her except through the pages of her beautiful Zuni Cafe Cookbook, but her voice comes through so loud and clear, you feel like she is standing next to you at the stove.

    These pictures of just wonderful. Will you please let us know if you’re lugging around your big serious camera to restaurants to get such spectacular shots?

    • For years I used a rather cheap (or, non-serious) Rebel camera – but I just upgraded to a Canon 70D mostly because it allows me to take pictures in lower light situations. I have to figure out how to use it (you can see the difference in the pictures at the two restaurants, where the lighting was dramatically different) but often when I’m eating out, I don’t want to spend a lot of time futzing with a camera or snapping pictures – I want to eat : )

  • Thanks so much for the virtual visit to SF. Do you have a photo of the Zuni anchovies? That’s one of my favorites too.

  • David,

    You might try dabbing Neosporin inside your nose before flight. Seems to work for me. Enchanted with your blog! Thanks

  • Lovely recounting- sorry it was marred by the airplane plague.

    The pizza looked fabulous- just a chicken egg?

    The burning question is whether someone has made you that excellent coconut cake yet for your birthday?

  • As soon as I get through the holiday cooking duties I am off to Zuni for – well, pretty much what you had for lunch – though I do like those gnocchi if they appear on the menu.
    I will pay hommage to Judy on Christmas eve with her Roast Chicken and bread salad. If mine is half as good I will be happy.

    Cheers !

  • I’ve always wanted to try Zuni but couldn’t understand why the allure of a regular ole roasted chicken? But friends rave about it and I’d love to check it out even more after reading this review.

  • David, i wrote to you a few years back to tell you about one of the flavors i associate with the Cafe at Chez Panisse: your ginger cake. I desperately wanted the recipe and, by some strange twist of fate, had just received a copy of Richard Sax’s book for my birthday. There was a bookmark from the store in it, and when i opened it, it opened to the page that had your recipe for East-West Ginger Cake, which i made with the Meyer lemon curd. Rich Sax was an old friend of mine, and the fact that THAT cake was in HIS book made me think that somehow i was just meant to have you and that cake in my life. It is a favorite of my best friend, who lives in San Francisco (i now live in LA) and on his birthday i bake and ship him one.

    I also have to say that my exact meal of choice at Zuni is the oysters (with Sancerre, bien sur), caesar salad, and burger or chicken. At Chez Panisse, it’s that chicken under a brick. In short, all things you deem good are things i feel confident i will like–you are the rightest of right-thinking people.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your creations. Life would be less wonderful without you.

    Happy holidays!

  • Zuni is one of my fav places to go so was happy to read that it’s tops on your list as well. Judy’s chicken and bread salad just blew me away 10 years ago. I bought her cookbook as soon as I saw it (while sitting at the Zuni bar) and have been making it at home for years, also in a cast iron skillet. It still amazes me that the chicken is so good and all you do is salt it in advance. Although I love the bread salad, don’t always do it . . . the chicken is wonderful on its own. I’m really sad that we’ve lost Judy. She truly was a great cook!

  • I should probably give Chez Panisse another chance. I ate lunch there years ago with a group of female friends and the service was terrible. We were shoved into a corner table in the basement, as I remember, and the young male waiter was surly and impatient, and practically threw our dishes at us. We suspected he was bored serving a “bunch of women.” I’m sorry we weren’t young and trendy. We did pay real money… As for the food, it was OK. Nothing special. I was excited to order the intriguingly named “Waffle Potatoes” and found they were merely potato chips! For so long I have been hearing about the wonderfulness of Chez Panisse and I just feel like the emperor’s got no clothes.

  • Sorry to hear about your plane virus, David. For several years now I’ve used Fess Frequent Flyer nasal spray, which contains tea tree oil – you use it before you get on the plane and every two hours while flying. I haven’t picked up any plane crud since starting to use it, and I certainly did before.

  • Sorry you got sick on your way here! I love that you were able to get up out of the sick bed and make it to Zuni and Chez Panisse. I’ve been a big fan of Zuni forever, and always suggest it when people want to meet in the City. (Lunch at Zuni? That would be perfect!)

    I hope you also got to try some of the newer places here. Perhaps you’re saving them for your next entry. We have such a wealth of fabulous restaurants these days.

    As always, thanks for your perfect eye and your amazing observations. I love reading your blog. It truly brightens up the day.

  • Christine, I wonder if you might be mistaken about having dined at Chez Panisse. There is no basement. And the demographic of both the cafe and the restaurant could hardly be called young and trendy. Middle-aged and professorial has been closer to my experience over the years, with a bit of casual elegance thrown in. Only have had one bad experience with service, and it was minor.

  • Love reading about your tasty adventures in SF. I made the red onion pickles last week and love them–the jar is halfway gone already.

  • Just FYI in case there was a turmeric zucchini pickle related incident, if you get turmeric on your clothes, wash ‘em and put them in the sun while damp – the stain will disappear. Promise.

  • I truly enjoy your blog and I try many, MANY of your recipes, or derive welcome inspiration from them. You’re a wonderful storyteller, David. As it happens, I also cooked at Zuni (’87, ’88, ’89?), and enjoy my memories of working the pantry, oven, grill and sauté stations, and the good cooks who were there in those times … and Judy, of course.

    Take care. I hope you enjoyed your trip back to the Bay Area.

  • So excited to eat at both restaurants this winter! I’ll be interning in the cafe at Chez Panisse and can only imagine all the wonderful ingredients I’m about to have the opportunity to work with. What good timing to have your list of Bay Area favorites. If you have any intern tips, they’d be much appreciated!

  • Sarah: Yes, my friend Barbra – who lived in Paris – finally made one for me!

    Christina: I also echo the sentiments of Nbrandt and Bob; there’s no basement at Chez Panisse. You must be thinking of another restaurant.

    Sheila: As an intern the best advice is work, work, work. Not necessarily just at Chez Panisse, but anywhere, I recommend: Do whatever anyone asks you to do, and don’t be chatty. If you want to talk to someone, continue to do whatever task you’re working on. Don’t set your knife down. If you have a spare moment don’t check your messages on your phone, and be prepared to do menial tasks (I had an intern complain that peeling apples was “boring” – I was, like “Uh, that’s what pastry chefs and bakers do.”)

    Carry a small notebook, a pen, and a Sharpie, wear comfortable shoes; one woman showed up for her trial shift wearing heels, which kept getting stuck in the perforated rubber floor mats.

    There are some good tips over at Eggbeater and Herbivoracious that are worth reading, including in the comments. Good luck!

  • Mulberry ice cream is one of the best uses ever for the fruit of the messiest tree on the planet. Messier than figs or olives, and worth every dark purple stained shirt, finger, and footprint.
    Though I’ve never eaten at Zuni (San Francisco is a bit of a pull from Portland OR), and never knew Judy, I felt compelled to make her roast chicken last week. I’d never done it before, and used my Traeger–a wood-pellet fired grill. I think it was the simplest, most flavorful and succulent roast chicken I’ve ever eaten. Cooking my way through her book will be my favorite pastime this year.

  • During my time at Cal in the early 80′s, I didn’t get to eat at Chez Panisse (or Penis as we gleefully loved to call it) nearly as often as I would have liked, but very nearby was my ultimate guilty pleasure, Cocolat. I was a fixture there several times a week, and I vividly remember my housemate Sean rolling his eyes and saying that most people would consider Three Musketeers to be their go-to sweet treat, but for me it had to be Cocolat. I took that as a tremendous compliment, though I’m not sure he meant for it to be!

  • I had a vermiculture when I lived in an apartment. It was the coolest thing! A completely great way to compost if you don’t have any space for it.

  • David, I would also recommend bokashi fermentation for use is an apartment. We have two (and also a compost bin and a wormery outside) and have never had problems with bad smells. I think that probably only happens when not enough of the starter is used, or when to much already spoiled food is thrown in.

    It was also great to read more about your San Francisco eating adventures!

  • I miss SF and especially Zuni Café since moving to Chicago (did not get to try Chez Panisse yet – that be remedied). Reading about them here makes me smile. Thank you for the wonderful posts!

  • I use the bokashi technique for the lunch scraps of a school. ( being Dutch, that means slices of bread, loads of apple coars and citrus skins.) At home I add everything, fish guts, chicken, lamb, and fishbones, raw meat, crab and shrimp scales and all leftovers and veggie waste. It’s fascinating to follow the proces of pickling your waste, it’s interesting to see you’re creating a kind of Chez Panisse for the worms that live in our garden. ( no offence…) Because it’s an anaerobic system, it’s not supposed to smell. I use used kitchenbuckets (for grease) which are free to obtain here.

    You could probably make a nice petit farmer very happy with your pickled waste, and perhaps make a nice swap deal out of it because veggies and herbs grow really amazingly well on the pickled stuff.

  • Hi, David! I have to tell you that I was so inspired by your first posted about Zuni Café (and now by this one) that I ordered myself a copy of the cookbook. I can’t wait to try some of the recipes!

  • PS: Deb has the Zuni chicken and bread salad recipe on smittenkitchen. I made bread the other day and bought chicken today…so, of course, Sunday dinner will be the chicken and (leftover) bread salad. Yay! The bread came from Jim Lahey’s excellent no-knead recipe so, you know, it’s all so easy and so good. And so attainable, with not a ton of work or money!

  • Curious about what Romain thought about Zuni and Chez Panisse, two of my favorites at home!

  • No, I am not remembering a different restaurant—it was definitely Chez Panisse. We made the pilgrimage to Mecca. OK, so there’s no basement. I guess I remembered it as a basement because of how the bad service made us feel. I’m glad you all had great meals there. That doesn’t mean I am mistaken. I ate at Chez Panisse, the service was poor, and the food was not memorable. That was my experience there.

  • I’ve loved Mulberries since childhood when we would climb to the top of the chicken coop roof to reach the one ones high in the tree. Mmmmmm!